It's Rarely Worse Than You Think

That Big Set is Rarely Worse Than You Think

“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” – Seneca

You are about to walk off the pool deck when coach drops a little fun fact on ya…

“Big test set tomorrow morning, have a good night of sleep tonight!”


You instantly know that it’s not just any test set (1×25 fast would be a great test set!), but that test set.

The one that hurts and hurts a lot, in your lungs, your muscles, and your soul.

You can already taste the lactic acid building in the back of your mouth.

The churning in your stomach grows.

There’s a sleepless night of rest.

You pray for the alarm clock to “accidentally” not go off the next morning.

By the time you get to the pool, sky still dark, you’re exhausted. Not only from a poor night of sleep but from working yourself up into an anxiety-fueled mess.

Fast forward to two hours later.

You pull your swim goggles off your face and rest on the lane rope…

You’re alive. You did the set. A sense of “Eh, wasn’t so bad” kicks in.

Wondering why you worked yourself up so hard in the run-up to the workout.

And if you left behind some of that whole-grain improvement because of the way you mentally approached a tough set.

Here are three things you can do next time to make sure that you don’t get overloaded with negative what ifs before a big, hard set.

Note previous moments of “that wasn’t so bad.”

This isn’t the first time you’ve faced something big, challenging, and scary.

Take stock of the moments in the past where you faced down something big and hairy at the pool.

Whether it’s the time you conquered a big week of training over the winter holidays, or a different test set that felt “impossible” in the run-up but turned out to be not-so-bad-after-all.

Use a Confidence Jar. Keep track of your wins in a logbook. Celebrate your big wins regularly.

Don’t let the victories of the past wither away in your memory.

One rep at a time.

Anytime you do anything hard, take it one lap, one rep, or one set at a time.

Often anxiety and overthinking take over because we are trying to mentally digest the WHOLE set or the WHOLE practice.

Take it one lap at a time if necessary.

This approach will keep you present and help keep you from feeling overwhelmed.

Swimming one rep at a time is a superpower as you are swimming in the moment, maximizing your effort and focus with each stroke and breath.

Use some positive what ifs.

Building things up to be worse than they are is fully normal. Running through all of the “what ifs” is a way to get ourselves prepared for anything.

The problem is we tend to fixate on the negative what-ifs: What if I fail this set? What if I can’t keep the pace?

Instead, drop a couple of positive what ifs: What if I give a full effort the whole way through? What if I go in and attack every rep like it’s the last?

At the end of the day, your brain is just trying to help you out by imagining worst-case scenarios in order to prepare you for any outcome.

But using some positive what ifs is an easy way to quiet the negative chatter and reduce the overthinking that can spiral off into needless anxiety and stress.

The Bottom Line

Swimming is not an easy sport.

You don’t need me to tell you that.

But it’s wild how often we make it so much harder on ourselves by building up a hard set to be “impossible.”

The next time a big, hairy test set is coming your way, try the three tips above to get yourself into the right state of mind for peak performance in the water.

More Stuff Like This

This Mental Training Workbook Will Help You Swim Like a Rock Star This Season. Confused about mental training? Want to unleash pro mode on your swimming this year? Learn how this mental training workbook will change your mindset and help you pummel your PB’s this season.

Why Change is So Hard in the Pool (and How to Make It Easier). We all want change in some measure—so why is it so dang difficult to make happen? Here’s the reality behind making change that actually sticks in the pool.

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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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