We’ve all had the experience of swimming on a team or group that shares purpose and where swimmers push one another. When the culture is awesome, it makes you want to work hard, you get a strong sense of belonging, and it’s, well, fun! You want to go to practice.
On the other hand, there are the not-so-fun groups, squads and teams where you might get ridiculed for wanting to do extra after practice, or you have teammates that don’t cheer for one another in competition, or you get the sense that no one really wants to be there.
Culture and feeling like you are part of a team can go a long way in elevating your swimming, making the sport more enjoyable, and developing deeper relationships with the swimmers in your lane.
While culture generally comes from the top down, there are things that you can do on the regular to make the atmosphere more high-performance and more fun.
Here are a few of my favorites:
1. Spend a minute working with a youngster on your team today. Some of my fondest memories of age group swimming were the moments when a swimmer in the senior group took notice of what I was doing. It didn’t take much—just being recognized with a simple, “Hey, nice job on the main set” was enough to make a profound impact. You can have this same influence on the younger swimmers on your team today. Give them a quick word of encouragement. Help them with their technique. It takes very little effort or time, and the payoff is huge.
2. Use moments of adversity as a chance for cohesion. The bond we have with teammates is grown and chiseled via the countless sets and practices over the course of the season. That seemingly endless set of all-out 50s? The holiday training camp? The get-out swims? All of these are chances for you to struggle together. Embrace the challenges as opportunities to grow as individuals and as a team. When you struggle together, you succeed together.
3. Protect the environment. It’s telling to watch swimmers at the end of practice. Some scurry to the locker rooms as quickly as possible, while some stick around and make sure that the equipment all gets put away, the lane ropes are pulled in, and the backstroke flags are squared away. In the documentary Touch the Wall, which followed Missy Franklin and Kara Lynn Joyce on their way to the London Olympics, the filmmakers caught Franklin cleaning up the pool deck after a high school swim meet. It’s your pool—take ownership of it.
4. Cheer like crazy. I know, not all of us are blessed with the booming voice and the 110-decibel mouth whistle—but that doesn’t mean you can’t do your part in cheering for your teammates, whether they are in lane 8 during the first heat of prelims or in the middle of the pool in the championship final. Cheering shouldn’t be limited to competition. A well-timed, “Let’s DO THIS!” in practice can help boost morale. And again, even if you don’t fancy yourself the loud and boisterous type you can contribute to an encouraging culture with high-fives and determined head nods that read, “We got this!”
5. Don’t complain. Swim practices are hard. For you, for me, for all of us. But you know what makes it harder? That sopping, wet blanket of negativity that comes with complaining. Complaining does nothing for you, and it does nothing for your teammates. The urge will be there—I know the feeling—when things get tough and you are huffing and puffing between reps of a vicious threshold set. While you can’t control how others react, you can choose to not complain.
6. What can we achieve together? All great teams have a North Star, a goal, a purpose. It’s the goal and values that they strive for every single day when emerge onto the pool deck. Having a solid sense of purpose keeps you focused, keeps you accountable, and helps you stay motivated when things aren’t necessarily going your way. The most effective team goals are ones that are designed and agreed upon by the group. Sit down with your teammates and have a conversation that starts with, “What can we achieve together this season?”
7. Excellent team culture is found in the quiet moments. When I talk to swimmers about team culture they understand it generally to be cheering and having shared purpose. These things are important, but if you were to break down excellent team culture, it would be in the quiet moments between teammates. A comforting pat on the shoulder after a bad swim. Wordlessly pushing a teammate during a main set. Helping them with their technique after practice. Culture is much more than a set of fancy values, it’s in the actions behind them that aren’t always apparent, but always felt.
Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer and contributor to USA Swimming. He’s the author of Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High-Performance Mindset, a 300-page workbook that gives swimmers the tools and knowledge necessary to bulletproof their performances in the pool. He also writes a weekly mental training tips newsletter for swimmers and coaches that you can subscribe to for free here.