The ability to focus and concentrate is a powerful weapon for the swimmer intent on drop-kicking their personal best times.
Whether it’s to help them focus on things that boost their performance, calm pre-race nerves, or speed up technical development, the ability of a swimmer to pay attention to the right things in the water factors big-time in how they swim.
Here are some ideas on how swim coaches can help to sharpen the concentration and focusing skills of their athletes in the water.
Routines narrow focus and help to block out distractions, both the external ones and the internal stuff. Pre-race routines are a popular part of race preparation, but pre-workout routines are another way to help sharpen and automate the behaviors and attitudes you would like your swimmers to leverage.
The application of a pre-workout routine teaches the body and mind to expect a certain behavior once the action is completed, so don’t underestimate the power of this kind of thing.
Clear goals and focus points at practice.
Being focused comes with clarity. Swimmers should know what they are supposed to be working on and what they need to do to achieve it.
Vague directions and instruction invite loose focus. “Because I said so!” isn’t the most inspirational line to use when a swimmer asks why the workout is what it is.
“This set is going to help you build back-end endurance,” or “This set will help you not drown like you are wearing a wool sweater on the last lap,” gives swimmers purpose, focus and encourages buy-in.
Keep it simple.
Multi-tasking is something the brain doesn’t do very well. The narrower the focus, the deeper the effort and resulting performance. Avoid the urge to overload things to work on.
Because there is a limited number of training opportunities, coaches will sometimes try to cram in as many focus points as possible into a set or practice.
High-grade focus comes from minimizing distractions and not having your athletes bounce from cue to cue. Go deep and go simple.
Emphasize things they control.
We lose ourselves in our swimming when we concentrate on our own performance. Avoid comparisons to other swimmers and teams and instead emphasize mastery of self.
Swimmers are comparison-making machines to begin with, and this shift in focus distracts them from doing the work they need to do.
Use high-grade focus in spurts.
Focus is a high-intensity brain activity. We can only maintain full-throated focus for so long before our brain needs a time-out. Our sport (usually) has a pretty good work-rest ratio, with rest intervals being a good opportunity for swimmers to refresh mentally as well as catch their breath.
It’s not just the physical recovery between reps and workouts that you should be paying attention to. When focus begins to waver, consider hitting refresh on the set or rep.
Provide feedback on the spot.
Focus works great when the guard-rails of feedback are there to guide it along. A swimmer might be focusing as hard as they can, but if the technical output isn’t what it should be, that constructive criticism should be given quickly and consistently.
Waiting until the set or practice is over to provide feedback robs athletes of an opportunity to correct things in the moment.
You can’t over-communicate on focus points.
Over-saturate the environment with the things you want your athletes to focus on. Focus is a skill that needs consistency and repetition for improvement.
In the same way that you want to carpet-bomb your environment with cues and signals to build awesome team culture, focus points need to be reinforced daily. The moment your athletes tell you that they are getting sick of hearing them is when you know that it’s finally starting to sink in.
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.