USA Swimming News

Thursday, February 16, 2017

How to Be Mentally Tough

How to Be Mentally Tough

Mental toughness. 

It’s something we always use to ascribe the top swimmers who surround us. They are the ones that are unflinching in the face of pressure in big moments. And they are the ones who are there at the end of practice, hammering down with full effort and full focus as other swimmers fall off the pace and intensity. 

It’s one of those traits that we imagine is innate and natural. And while some swimmers seem to come by it earlier and with ease, mental toughness is something we can all work on. 

It is a skill, a muscle that can be trained and improved. 

Why does mental toughness matter? 

It dictates whether we follow through with something. It’s the thing that decides whether we do the main set properly. 

When viewed in the context of our swim practices, mental toughness is a huge driver of results, creating massive influence on how well we perform when it comes to race time.

But where to start? How do we fashion ourselves a mentally tough athlete?

Here are three ideas for becoming a mentally grittier swimmer.

Flip the switch. 

Being a mentally tougher swimmer starts with the decision to be tougher. And really, that’s all you truly need. We can sit around and read about how other swimmers face adversity, or meditate and visualize on being mentally tougher, but more mental toughness can be turned on like a switch by simply deciding to be mentally tougher.

When the set gets hard, and you feel like giving up…be tougher.

When the pressure is on, and everyone is looking to you to anchor the relay like a champ…be tougher.

It might seem a little silly to think mental toughness is something we can turn on and off, but at the end of the day, it’s a mindset, nothing more. And you, my little chlorinated homie, have the master switch.

Small moments turn to big moments. 

One of the hang-ups I’ve seen with swimmers over the years is that when they decide to fashion themselves as a mentally tough athlete they expect massive changes. If they expect to go from attending 5 practices a week to 10, and if they struggle or fail, it’s an indictment of their mental toughness abilities. Everything has to be done at 100%, or it’s not worth doing at all. 

If you want to be mentally tougher, it starts with little moments of toughness: holding that breathing pattern for the whole warm-up. Getting up when you say you will. Finishing the workout even though coach isn’t looking. 

Sure, those small victories won’t seem like much, but they are fuel to the bigger moments to come. 

Small moments of mental toughness turn into bigger moments of mental fortitude.

Find little moments of adversity. 

You can seek out moments to exhibit mental toughness. As mentioned earlier, it’s a skill, something you can be proactive about developing and improving. Mental toughness is something you can decide to train. 

So how do we do this? 

Pick something to work on today at practice that is a little tougher that you’re used to, and do it. Do 3 dolphin kicks off every single wall. Do 20 minutes of extra core work after practice. Pick a moment of adversity, a challenge, and do it. 

Mental toughness is something you can train—the more you work at it, the tougher you will become, and so will the results.

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer. He writes over at, where he’s written a thorough guide on the butterfly stroke. He’s also the publisher of YourWorkoutBook, a workout log for athletes.

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