How Swimmers Can Stay Focused When Things Get Tough

How Swimmers Can Stay Focused When Things Get Tough

One of the classic pieces of advice I received from coaches during my swim career was to “expect the unexpected.”

Which, for a lot of swimmers, sounds hokey…

You want me to expect the thing that I don’t know is going to happen? If I could do that, I would play the stock market and become a kabillionaire!

The advice is still solid, but swimmers need to understand that they don’t have to predict the exact thing…

But rather that spike in nerves and panic when things suddenly fall off the rails.

Here’s how swimmers can get better at being resilient when they find themselves in a tough spot, whether it’s in the middle of a brutal main set or when you dive into the water for the biggest race of your life.

The Perfectionist’s Mind Trap

I’ll freely admit it: I (still) lock myself into perfectionist thinking all…the…time.

Before big meets when I was an age grouper, I’d imagine myself swimming the absolutely perfect race, all my competitors fading, and me swimming into the touch pad, smashing my personal best time by like 43 seconds.

Of course, that’s never how reality plays out.

Something unexpected would happen—a goggle lens leaks when I dove into the water, my warm-up wouldn’t go well, the swimmer next to me exploded out to an early lead—creating an “anxiety surge” that shattered my confidence.

Sometimes we can recover from these sudden dips in confidence, but often, we don’t:

  • We have a bad race on the opening night of a big swim meet… and are unable to bounce back and salvage the rest of the meet.
  • We have a bad swim practice on Tuesday night… and we cannot bounce back for several days, losing some serious opportunities for improvement.
  • We miss a turn in the middle of a big race… and we end up easing off our effort for the rest of the race because “what’s the point”

Being able to deal with that sudden onslaught of panic and doubt in a way that allows us to swim our best, no matter what’s happening around us, is the power of one of my favorite mental exercises…

The “what if.”

Use “What ifs” to Help You Mentally Rehearse a Resilient Performance

Swimming fast on race day isn’t just about nailing your turns, perfect pacing, and finishing on a full stroke.

It’s being able to steel yourself against the pressure of the moment and the random, seemingly unpredictable things we cannot control or influence.

And there’s no better way to do this than to “practice” moments of adversity…and visualizing yourself overcoming them.

How Swimmers Can Be More Resilient

Using what-if scenarios… and imaging yourself responding in a productive way… in the days and weeks leading up to race day (or a brutal swim practice) is a wildly effective way to build resilience.

This mental exercise is super simple:

  • What if the swimmer next to me is a body-length ahead of me after the first 25?
  • What if my swim goggles spring a leak when I dive into the water?
  • What if I don’t feel as good as I think I should during warm-up?
  • What if my first race of the swim meet doesn’t go well?

Sit down with these what ifs, and imagine yourself overcoming and pushing through the doubt and panic.

This exercise isn’t meant to invite these scenarios into happening, or to crank up existing nerves and anxieties, but rather give you the opportunity to mentally walk through unexpected moments in a productive manner.

In the same way that you improve your start by doing countless reps of streamlined, explosive dives, put in mental reps of yourself dealing with adverse situations.

Which is why it’s not as important to predict exactly what is going to go wrong (if you knew exactly what was going to go wrong, you could pre-empt it, after all) but to focus on the sensation of the spike of doubt and anxiety.. and still staying cool.

Being able to corral that surge that is the powerful part of this exercise, so don’t get too hung up on trying to predict the exact nature of the unexpected.

So that when something unexpected does happen—and we both know something will happen that you don’t anticipate or want—you can manage the sudden surge of anxiety and emotion.

The Bottom Line

There is nothing more rewarding than a big breakthrough in the water.

Swimmers want it, love it, and hafta have it.

Whether it’s going a personal best time, doing more meters in a week than you’ve ever done before, or cracking 1:20 for the first time doing 100m of kick, swimmers live and breathe for those moments.

By mentally rehearsing the unexpected and being ready for surges of nerves, panic and doubt, you offer up more opportunities for those breakthroughs.

Mental Training for Swimmers (FINALLY) Made Simple

Whether you are tired of choking on race day, want to finally conquer your mindset so that you can give your PB’s the beating they deserve, or want to develop a killer game plan for your mindset, Conquer the Pool is your ticket to faster swimming.

“This is the best book I’ve ever seen concerning mental training.” — Ray Benecki, Head Coach, the FISH Swim Team

Used and trusted by some of the top clubs and swimmers on the planet and written with the feedback of 200+ head coaches, Olympians, former world record holders, and NCAA champions.

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Olivier Poirier-Leroy Olivier Poirier-Leroy is the founder of He is an author, former national level swimmer, two-time Olympic Trials qualifier, and swim coach.

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