Mental training can seem confusing and overwhelming when approached for the first time…
Does it mean something is wrong with me?
Does it mean my brain is busted?
This stuff all sounds kind of hokey—just sit around, close my eyes and focus on my breathing-type stuff?
No, you don’t need mental training because your brain is broken.
And no, it’s not some The Secret-type stuff where you sit around wishing on the universe to give you what you need.
This stuff is backed by decades of research that has consistently shown that mental training, with its various techniques and tools, including visualization, self-talk, and even a bigger focus on the process can help you straight-up donkey kick your personal best times in the pool.
Instead of looking at mental training as fixing something that is wrong, view it as a series of cheat codes for your mindset.
And by extension, how you swim in practice and on race day.
Here’s are eight ways that working on your mindset even just a little bit each day will help you become the swimmer you’ve always dreamt of becoming. Next week, we will look at a few more.
1. You’ll enjoy your practices more.
I know, I know, that sounds impossible. But it’s true. Wanna know what the secret to enjoying hard or mundane tasks?
Not letting your mind wander.
Being “present” and engaged with whatever you are doing, whether it’s a long Fartlek set, or a round of 100s off the blocks, is one of the secrets to enjoying hard work.
“Focusing on everything you’re doing keeps you in the moment, helps you get through practice, and most importantly, helps you achieve your goals,” says Natalie Coughlin, who used a focused and present approach to her swim practices.
2. You’ll redefine how tough you are.
One of the peak moments in swimming comes when we surpass a limit or break past a plateau. These incidents are rarely by accident, and often come via bargaining with ourselves to push just a little longer (“Okay little buddy, let’s do one more rep!”).
Improvement comes via slowly inching the line of what we think is possible each day in practice, and this is difficult to do without the willingness to have the mindset necessary to do it.
3. You’ll be less of a Debbie Downer when things don’t go your way.
How do you react when a race goes belly-up on you? Or when you have a really bad practice? Does it linger, leading you to swim poorly in the days and races still to come?
An improved mindset means you have the perspective to bounce back—and seize the opportunities still before you.
4. You will learn to focus on the right things in training.
When you have a bad practice, does your thinking go immediately to: “Ohmagod, I’m never going to achieve any of my goals” or does it go to, “Okay, somewhere along the way my process fell off the rails.”
Don’t know the difference? Having a sharper mindset will help you navigate the two.
5. Identify good and bad emotions pre-race.
It’s always interesting to see watch how different swimmers prepare and amp themselves up before competition. Some go the chest-slapping silver back gorilla route, others prefer the calm, stoic posture.
In the course of becoming more aware of your mindset you’ll figure out exactly what works for you and what doesn’t.
6. Be better positioned to deal with injury.
At some point over the course of a long season, you might tweak a shoulder, a knee, your back, or get really sick.
For most swimmers, it’s a time where they withdraw in frustration, not completing the recovery protocol properly, extending their injury and leaving themselves vulnerable to being injured again down the road.
Approaching an injury with a better mindset not only helps you heal faster, but it also gives you some powerful ammo to bounce back stronger (“I am going to make this the best thing to ever happen to me!”).
7. How to set absurd and realistic goals (at the same time).
We all have dreams in the pool—whether we say them aloud is another matter. We daydream about swimming in the Olympics, about crushing our PB’s, and of swimming ever faster.
Even though big dreams are common, the ability to parse through the ambitious and the ridiculous is something those swimmers who achieve big things understand.
Big goals matter, but a realization that ambition must be matched with realistic effort is key.
8. How to make perfectionism work for you.
At some point we all confront perfectionism: either we get down on ourselves because we don’t match our high standards (and give up), or we create such lofty expectations that we never give ourselves a chance to make meaningful progress (and give up some more).
There is a form of perfectionism that allows for high standards without the crushing anxiety and stress that comes with the all-or-nothing outlook perfectionists tend to fall for.
These are just eight things that will happen when you pay more attention to your mindset. Come back next week when we talk about a few more…
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.