For all the benefits of swimming, it packs its fair share of adversity.
There are times where you inexplicably swim a PB in practice…and then add five seconds to the same event two weeks later in competition. There are times where you get injured and have to watch your friends and teammates train from the sidelines. And there will be times where things feel straight-up unfair—the kid who never goes to practice kicking your butt in competition, for instance. (Been there.)
Although the sport can feel unfair at times, this is simply part of the deal. It’s right there in the terms of service.
Whether you are an age grouper or Olympic gold medalist, adversity and failure happens to us all. The only difference is in how you decide to react. Will you stand up to the moments of disappointment and wield the frustration into something bigger and better?
Here are some tips you can pull from some of the mentally toughest swimmers on the planet:
Anthony Ervin: Pivot from disappointment into something better.
The relays are a huge part of the Olympic swimming program. We all remember the big moments the relays have brought us.
During the preliminaries of the 4x100m free relay at the 2016 Rio Olympics, U.S. coaches selected rookie Ryan Held to swim in the finals over veteran Anthony Ervin.
When Ervin was told, he had every right to be disappointed. Instead, after a thoughtful pause, Ervin said, “What do we need to do to make the most of this?”
In one swift sentence Ervin—who would go on to win gold in the 50m free later in the Games—demonstrated the “team first” culture that had grown around the US team during the training camp and the Olympic Games. He also revealed an approach that is common with elite swimmers. Sure, adversity is gonna happen—but how can you make this the best thing to ever happen to you?
Garrett Weber-Gale: Visualize the hurt so that you are better prepared for it.
There are a lot of experiences that swimmers share during their time spent circling the black line. There are the nicks and cuts from the last minute shave-down. The inexplicably blown taper. And the shared moments of misery and pain that bowl us over when we “die” in the water.
Coping with the pain and agony that comes when we are pushing our bodies to the limit is something we all deal with in our own ways. Garrett Weber-Gale, a two-time Olympic gold medalist (and member of that relay in 2008 in Beijing), used visualization as a creative way to mentally prepare himself for those moments where he was at peak pain.
“I visualize that moment–the moment when my arms feel like sandbags, when my legs are burning and my back feels like it’s tightening up like a rubber band,” says Weber-Gale. “I get myself to the point where I am completely prepared for the pain. After imagining this point for a long time, I know I am able to endure the emotional stress and physical pain. I look forward to this point because I know I will conquer it!”
Katie Ledecky. Be willing to fail in practice.
The idea that being successful requires a metric ton of failures is hard to digest. Better to train within our comfort zone, where we never fail, then consistently and relentlessly fail in practice. But if you want to improve, you need to test your limits. And there is arguably no one in the pool who has mastered the ability to relentlessly fail in training better than Katie Ledecky.
“There are days she fails catastrophically,” said her coach at NCAP, Bruce Gemmell. “She fails in practice more than anybody in her [training] group, because she’ll start out like, ‘This is the pace I need to swim in the race, so I need to replicate it in practice.’ And she’ll go six repeats like that, and the tank goes empty and she just falls off. But you know what? She’ll come back the next day and try it again. And on the third day, she’ll nail it. And she’s been doing this since the first day I walked on the deck with her.”
Lacing up your suit and stepping out onto the chilly pool deck and knowing you are likely going to fail in practice is tough. Detach yourself from wanting to be “perfect” every day in training and accept that sometimes you gotta get a little ugly and fail in order to get the best from yourself.
Simone Manuel: Failing doesn’t make you a failure.
The DQ. The time you add five seconds to your PB after the best training of your life. The getting passed over for the final spot on the relay. Setbacks, failures and adversity happen to all of us in the water in some form or another. Elite swimmers included.
Perhaps the only difference is that the swimmers at the top of the podium don’t allow failures to derail their progress. If anything, they view failure and challenges as a doorway to excellence. Setbacks aren’t the end of the world—they are simply the start of something new.
“Failure is part of success,” says Simone Manuel, Olympic and world champion in the 100m freestyle. “If you don’t fail, you won’t ever know what success is.”
Michael Phelps: Train for the unexpected so that you are prepared for anything.
At the Beijing Olympics Michael Phelps accomplished what was long thought impossible: He eclipsed Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals from a single Games. Phelps’ week that summer was long and hard. There was the 4x100 free relay, which required a borderline miracle to win gold. There was the 1/100th of a second out-touching in the 100m butterfly. And then there was his goggles filling up with water during the 200m butterfly.
Fortunately, he’d already experienced this form of adversity.
As a 13-year old, Phelps was at Junior Nationals when his longtime coach, Bob Bowman, noticed that the budding superstar had forgotten his goggles before a race. “I saw them sitting in our team area, I could have taken the goggles to him, but I decided to keep them and see what he could do.”
This challenge was tactical. “I’ve always tried to find ways to give him adversity in either meets or practice and have him overcome it,” Bowman said after Michael’s performance in Beijing.
When his goggles did fill up that day in the Water Cube, Phelps was calm. He swam his race, relying on his stroke count to make sure he hit his turns on his way to another Olympic gold medal.
You won’t be able to be prepared for absolutely everything. But by mixing things up in training and challenging your comfort zone, you will be calm and poised when things inevitably do fall of the rails, whether it’s a competitor suddenly dropping a ton of time, spraining a finger during the meet warm-up, or having your goggles fill up with water when you dive into the pool.
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.