Eric McGinnis is the Rollins College Strength & Conditioning Coach and Sports Performance Specialist, a former Kentucky All-American and World University Games gold medalist, and the brother of former Virginia Tech All-American Zach McGinnis. He also is a trainer at Spectrum Sports Performance.
This blog discusses reasons why some swimmers are really good in training and sub par in competition. People involved in the sport of swimming know that this is a common occurrence. Most coaches will argue that the swimmer is just a head case or mentally weak. I’m going to challenge that notion with some non-psychological answers. Although my background is in swimming, you might be able to draw similar comparisons with the same problem in other sports.
Reason #1: You think showing up to practice is enough
Just because you go to every practice, swim every yard, make every interval, and lead your lane, doesn’t mean you are working hard. Yeah…I said it. Great athletes take pride in what they do and they are meticulous about it. You need to ask yourself if you’re thinking about the little things that YOU need to work on. Technique work, putting more weight on the bar on your lifts, and specific mobility work are just a few examples of things that get overlooked but carry a lot of weight when it comes to improving.
Reason #2: You’re trying to be the best…at practicing
Like it or not, Allen Iverson makes a good point (although in a ridiculous way). You’re lying to yourself if you think that winning warm-up everyday makes you the best. Start preparing yourself to be the best racer, not the best trainer. When I was in college at the University of Kentucky, I made it a point to always win the first of anything that was all-out. My theory was that when you go to a meet, you get one chance to win, so the first one is all that matters. If we did 10×100’s, I would treat number one like it was the only thing we were doing that day and I never lost. To me, even if I lost the next nine 100’s (which I usually did) I was still preparing myself the most effectively. When we go to a meet, my competitors won’t have nine other chances to beat me if they lost the first time. My message is don’t try to be the best at making it through an 8,000 yard workout. Try to be the best at competing in your event.
Reason # 3: You’re a fast twitch athlete living in a slow twitch world
The term sprinter gets thrown around VERY loosely in swimming. The truth of the matter is most swimmers are far from sprinters. I believe this is partially because truly fast twitch athletes are chased toward other sports by the traditional training program of swimmers. Ever wonder why sprinters are always labeled as lazy? Some of you might think it’s because they are lazy but I disagree. If you found that the harder you worked at practice the slower you swam, would you work hard? This is often the case when you get a swimmer whose best event is the 50 freestyle but they train in a program centered on distance swimming. It’s not that sprinters don’t need to work hard to be great. They need to work hard at swimming their event. If you really are a sprinter then all that hard work you’re putting in to the “3,000 for time” could be what’s holding you back in competition.
Reason #4: You HOPE you’ll be good
Ok, so I had to put one reason that’s mental not physical. I’m no sports psychologist, and I know there can be a million and one reasons why someone mentally struggles in competition, however, I’ve been around lots of high level athletes, including both athletes who were consistently successful as well as athletes who had all the potential in the world yet were not successful, and I can simplify the difference into one quick fact: the ones who were successful knew they were going to do great long before they ever did. There is a higher correlation with confidence and performing well than there is with practicing well and performing well. Now, I’m not trying to say you shouldn’t train hard OR that it doesn’t have an effect on performance, but I have numerous examples of athletes that continued to do well not because they trained great, but because setbacks that would typically have a negative effect on someone were insignificant to them.
Swimmers have a tendency to think they work harder than other athletes and we need to get over ourselves because we don’t. Of all the individual sport athletes I’ve seen, swimmers are probably the worst at warming up, the least focused during technical drills, and the most poorly informed about their competition and the swimming world outside of their own practice. If you’re a swimmer, I challenge you to stop bragging to your friends about the fact they you swam a 3 hour 10,000 yard practice on Saturday. Instead, take some pride in actually focusing on what it takes to make yourself better and enjoy the sport in the process. Feel free to leave some comments if you have anything to add.