Do more in the pool by flexing a few simple mental training skills with your swimmers.
Each day at the pool, while you pace the tiled deck, yelling out splits, technique reminders, and for Lil Bobby to stop pulling on the lane rope, the mindset of your swimmers is being shaped.
- One swimmer will give up during hard sets, which translates to easing off when a competitor surges ahead in competition.
- Another swimmer will daydream through training, and then try to make up for it by overthinking on race day.
- Another swimmer will ease into a test set because they worry about the pain to come, and then take out their races the same way.
These behaviors and habits and mental skills are being cemented with each passing day whether you are coaching them or not.
So why not set the table for the mental training skills you want your athletes to have instead of leaving it up to chance?
Why mental training skills can be such a hard sell
How much of the success of your swimmers is mental?
10%? 20% 50%?
Although most coaches will readily admit that the mental part of swimming is critical, there is a lot of resistance to the implementation of mental training skill development.
Some of the classics include:
Seems confusing and mystical.
Mental training skills can seem like “The Secret” type stuff. Think really hard on the thing you want, and you will achieve it. Or something. Unlike traditional training protocols, there isn’t as much clarity with this stuff.
When a swimmer goes into the gym and lifts more weight than they did last week, that’s easy to measure. Same goes for when they improve on a test set—pretty easy to mark progression there, too.
But when it comes to “how much did my self-talk improve this week” it can be tough to accurately measure progress. You might see general changes in a swimmer’s attitude but quantifying this can be difficult (although there are a couple ways you can do this) and hard to put into a periodization plan.
It means something is wrong with the athlete.
A lot of athletes have that “Alpha dog” mentality. They are okay going at it alone, view help as a sign of weakness, and believe mental training skills are for other, weaker athletes.
They work their tail off, grind all week, and don’t want to admit that maybe there is something they can be doing better between their ears.
The truth is, approaching mental training skills with the outlook that something is wrong is, well, wrong. Mental training skills augment and enhance what you already have.
Only used in case of emergency, which is almost always too late.
“It’s mental,” or “It’s some kind of mental block” are frequent comments I receive from parents and swimmers who have seen performance in practice continue to improve, while performance in competition stalls.
When I inevitably ask the swimmer/coach/parent how much time is spent working their chlorinated brain, it’s almost always a sheepish look. Which I get—when things go well, we don’t want to tinker with our mindset for fear of breaking something—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
But no matter how well things are going, the elite-minded swimmer is always looking for ways to improve. Fortunately for your athletes, this gives them a competitive advantage.
Few work their mental training skills when things go poorly, and even fewer work on it when things are going well.
Lack of immediate application.
Because mental training skills are viewed as something to be used in emergencies, or as something athletes don’t quite understand, they believe it will act like a magic wand for whatever ails them in the water.
Mental training skills are skills, not a magic potion or super supplement.
Sure, the things that you can do with them are impressive, but only when applied consistently over time. Just like any other aspect of performance in the water.
Ways to Implement Mental Training Skills
A mental training skills program doesn’t need to over-ride current training and can be implemented with a little planning.
Here are some ideas for how to make mental training easier with your own athletes:
Emphasize the use of mental training skills by elite swimmers.
Use the role models in our sport and the natural tendency of swimmers to comparison-make: highlight the use of mental training by elite swimmers.
Doing so removes some of the novelty from mental skills training…
Here are a few samples:
- Michael Phelps used a pre-race routine that started from the time he woke up.
- Caeleb Dressel and Katie Ledecky write out their workouts and reflect on their training.
- Garrett Weber-Gale used visualization to prepare himself for the moment that things really hurt when racing.
- Megan Quann used race day visualization to lock in the performance she wanted at the Olympics.
- Mary T. Meagher picked a couple things to master every day—and within a couple years was laying a series of beat downs on the 200m butterfly world record.
- Natalie Coughlin focused on the way she wanted her body to feel on race day, and carried this over to her daily workouts.
- Jason Lezak used self-talk to keep himself in the race when he swam the most epic relay leg in history.
- Michael Andrew writes out his goals and puts them up around his house, building an environment that radiates cues for success.
The list goes on and on.
And I know what you are thinking—Cool, these are elite, professional swimmers. Of course they would be working on their mindset. But these swimmers used this stuff while they were coming up, and not just once they arrived on the international stage.
Periodize the mental training skills being taught.
Mental training skills are no different from the physical conditioning and technical work in the pool, with each phase or training cycle carrying a different focus.
Implement relevant mental training skills to help boost whatever it is you are trying to do in the water:
- At the beginning of the year, the emphasis might be habit building and focusing on developing smart technical habits.
- During heavy training, self-talk, visualization and stress management all help to get swimmers through challenging sets and weeks of work in the pool.
- As you get closer to competition, things like managing anxiety and introducing pressure to practice, simulating racing conditions.
Work on focus points and performance cues during practice, try out pre-race routines at in-season meets, do visualization before and after practices. Mental training skills should blend in with your water training, and not stand alone from it.
Create action plans for each athlete on their “one main thing.”
In surveying a group of several hundred NCAA division I swimmers last year, I wasn’t terribly surprised to find that the responses to what their biggest mental struggles were in the pool were remarkably similar.
The ways that the swimmers identified themselves were based on a lot of the same fears: fear of failure, letting down the team, and so on. The identities they carried shaped how they performed in the water in practice and on race day. Things like: “I have a hard time performing during AM sessions” or “I have a hard time bouncing back after a bad practice” or “I always end up comparing myself to other swimmers.”
Tease out what each individual swimmer thinks is part of their identity and help them build an action plan to shape their identity into a more positive direction.
Grade and count reps to measure progress.
Swimmers (and coaches!) love to see progression. We all get a little giddy when a swimmer nearly beats a best time in practice, or levels up to an “impossible” interval. Progressions generate a metric ton of intrinsic motivation, which keeps them fired up to work hard, builds a better overall team culture, and is simply fun.
As discussed above, quantifying mental training skills can be challenging, but it’s not impossible.
Two quick and easy ways to do this is to grade effort and count reps.
Have the swimmer open the pages of their log book, and give themselves a quick grade on whatever their mindset goal is. They can also keep an inventory of reps in the same way you count volume in the gym or pool—“This week I did 65 minutes of visualization.”
The instant feedback that comes from measuring their mental training skills gives them something they can feel good about, provides a benchmark for improvement, and motivates them to best those grades and reps on a daily and weekly basis.
While taking a little extra time each day to work on their mental training skills will help their swimming, this value extends itself well beyond the water.
Mental training skills create stronger students. They are better able to focus. They have a more realistic ability to set crazy-but-doable goals. They have strategies to stick with things when adversity strikes. They learn to manage their energy and emotions. And on and on.
And if that weren’t enough, learning mental training skills will help them develop a far healthier relationship with the sport.
Want help coaching mental skills to your swimmers?
You spend a lot of time helping your swimmers improve their technique and conditioning. Why not also help them maximize what is happening between their ears when they are in the pool?
Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide for a High-Performance Mindset is a 300-page workbook that was written with one purpose in mind: to help swimmers develop legendary mindsets.
Whether it’s learning how best to focus while crushing the laps in practice, how to use self-talk to navigate “impossible” main sets, how to keep their head on straight on when injured, or the best mental and emotional state to be in on race day, Conquer the Pool will help your swimmers unlock their best performances.
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. We also do team orders for clubs, including a healthy team discount and custom branding.