If you are serious about accomplishing big things in the pool you need to rethink the way you train. Here is why practice is everything.
Oh, I know, it sounds like I’m being hyperbolic… practice is everything.
It sounds like something you would repost to your Instagram feed on a fancy background with a setting sun or a swimmer thundering across the pool with frenzied determination. (Here, I went ahead and did it for you below.)
Or something that coach would scrawl across the top of the whiteboard, to which you would mentally flush along with the rest of the inspirational crap your teachers, parents and social media feeds try to impress on you.
If excellence in the water (or anything else in life for that matter) is important to you, and it is something you are struggling on achieving, than you need to rethink the way you approach practicing.
Here is just some of the cool stuff that happens when you start acting like practice is everything.
1. You start doing the “little” things waaay better.
When we talk about the things we want to accomplish in the sport it’s usually in terms of records, medals and placings. It’s the final result we fixate on, and as a result, practice as a mechanism for making that happen gets pushed to secondary status.
We dream about our big goals, while treating our workouts as a nightmare that we have to endure.
Makes sense–winning a gold medal in world record time, and daydreaming about it, is fun and doesn’t require any effort. Showing up every day and going all-in with your practices requires all of your effort.
When your mindset is on walking onto the pool deck with an “I’m going to compete my chlorinated pants off today!” the focus is on preparing to practice fast every day.
When you treat your practices with as much diligence and focus as you would for the big meet some powerful changes start to happen.
- Paying more attention to sleep. Ever notice that the week before the big meet you suddenly do everything you can to start getting adequate sleep? The rest of the training cycle you cut corners on your Z’s, even if you know about the performance decline that occurs as a result. Getting the sleep you need to perform in practice becomes more of a focus when training goes up the priority list.
- You eat for performance. Although swimmers like to think that they can get away with murder in the kitchen because of the volume and intensity of their workload, how and what you fuel yourself plays a pivotal role in how you fare in training. When you consider your food choices with the same deliberation before your swim practice as you do before the big race your food choices inevitably improve.
2. You clean up your training habits.
I’ve been guilty of swimming almost countless garbage meters over the course of my swimming career. Had I taken even a fraction of those practices and meters more seriously who knows where the sport would have taken me.
Excellent practices produce excellent swims. It’s as simple as that.
To be more specific:
- If you explode out of every one of your streamlines your breakouts will not only get immeasurably better, but they will always be there for you because it has become habitual.
- Same goes for your flip turns: speed into the wall and launch yourself out of every turn and suddenly your “normal” turns become “elite” turns.
Practice is where you build the foundation of your races. How you finish high intensity reps in workout is how you are going to finish them in competition.
Practice is also where you can get down and dirty with your swimming without worrying about screwing up.
Competition is expected to be done with perfection—there is no room for testing.
Practice, however, is where you can scrappily work at your swimming. Different breathing patterns, testing underwater dolphin kick combos, and so on.
3. You control how you practice.
Being a practice-minded swimmer sounds like it would be super stressful, doesn’t it? At first blush it could seem like a mental burden that would be exhausting to carry.
Not so–it actually gives you ultimate control over your performance.
How things go down at the big meet isn’t completely under your influence—how the kid in the next lane swims, or how bunched up the events are, isn’t something you can control.
But the way you practice, how you choose to compete within each set against yourself is something you can control.
Don’t underestimate the power of feeling in control of your training.
Let other swimmers worry and fret about the things they cannot control—take your energy and focus and drive it face-down into the things you can control. Your compete level, your effort, your focus, doing the little things right.
By having a “always compete” attitude where all you think about it working as hard as you can today the end result almost becomes a bit of a moot point.
You can relax a little bit about the outcome for a few different reasons: you know the work is being done, and that the result will take care of itself.
4. Great practice means you are always ready to punish the competition.
A “practice is everything” mentality means you will always do your absolute best no matter what the circumstances are. It doesn’t matter if you are tired, your goggles are leaking, the pool is extra wavey–whatever the case, you bring the thunder.
And this type of resilience, this kind of mental toughness plays a massive role in how successful you are going to be in the long run in swimming or anything else in life: It’s one of the key things that research has shown to separate super champions from “almosts”.
There will always be workouts where you are tired, stressed, not feeling the water, but if you are always bringing it, and not saving a full-blown effort for when you “feel like it” you develop a bullet-proof ability to crush it any time.
By having an “always on” attitude you are ready to drop a thunderous performance anywhere, anytime.
And this kind of swimmer is almost impossible to beat.
5. You have one gear—excellence.
If you took an average of your effort and focus in practice how would you rate yourself? Do you find that you bounce up and down with how you perform in practice?
- When you are stressed out about personal life drama your workout suffers.
- You use “not feeling motivated” as an excuse to not work hard.
- Not having enough of something (time, resources, expertise, etc.) as a crutch to not take action or give your best.
These excuses fall away quickly–a “practice is everything” mindset forces you to make excellence habitual. It makes showing up and giving your best the baseline.
You shouldn’t practice at a level that is below the grade you want to achieve. You don’t to D-grade studying and expect to get A-exam results.
When you treat practice seriously this approach to being excellent all the time will inevitably infect the other parts of your life.
Showing up to practice and putting in full effort every day will transform the very foundation of who you are at a person. (How is that for hyperbolic?)
The Next Step:
What does a “practice is everything” mindset look like?
Does it mean being perfect at every practice?
No way. Perfectionism is over-rated, and actually more likely to leave you stalled out than actually taking action.
Here is what a “practice is everything” mindset produces:
- You do the best you can with what you have.
- You perform at your best no matter how tired you are, or how you are feeling that day.
- You prepare for your workouts with the same focus and consideration you prepare for competition.
- You compete at every opportunity with yourself to be better.
But…but…what about competition?
“Shouldn’t I be focusing on getting more amped up for the big meet?”
The good news is that for most of us, taking the big meet seriously isn’t the problem—it’s usually the opposite, of being able to walk on deck at the biggest meet of the year and having the poise and training background to be able to treat it like just another swim.
When you treat practice as everything, when you treat every time you walk out on deck as another opportunity to unleash your best, performing to your max at the big meet becomes almost automatic.
H/T to Pete Carroll, head coach of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, who tipped me onto this line of thinking in his book “Win Forever: Live, Work and Play Like a Champion.”