Courtesy of Will Jonathan
Your mind is, by far, the most important asset you possess as a swimmer. It’s the most potent weapon you possess in your arsenal. And yet, many swimmers never bother to take the time to train their minds for performance nearly as much as they train their starts, their kicks, and their turns. The fact of the matter is that you can have all of the talent, skill, technique, and ability in the world. If you don’t have the mind to match them, those things will count for nothing because they’ll never be utilized properly, much less to their maximum.
There is no such thing as “muscle memory”. You muscles have zero capacity to think. Every physical action you produce in the pool is born out of your mind, and it’s the quality of your mindset when you go to swim that determines the quality of your physical actions in the pool. An unconfident mind will produce an unconfident stroke. An unmotivated mind will produce unmotivated kicks. An unenthusiastic mind will produce unenthusiastic turns. And, a negative mind will produce a negative performance that will inevitably produce negative results.
What separates the elite from the great, the great from the good, and the good from the bad has little to do with anything physical. When you reach a certain level, everyone has talent, skill, technique, and ability. What creates the difference between athletes and the results they experience is the mental aspect of sport. It’s how they mentally approach competition, how the cope with pressure, how they respond to challenges, and how they react to the results they experience. The athletes that are the best at those things rise to the top, and the ones that don’t will sink to the bottom.
On the day, when it’s time to perform, it’s all about the mindset and mental state you’re in when you go to swim. If your mindset is in a peak state, you’re going to have a peak performance and experience peak results. If your mindset is in a negative state, you’re going to have a negative performance and experience negative results. So, getting yourself into the best mindset possible to perform to the maximum of your ability is absolutely essential. To do that, he is my list of the 10 essential fundamentals for a strong swimmer’s mindset:
1) Swim to have a great race, not to avoid a bad one.
Swimming to avoid a bad race is swimming out of fear. Swimming to have a great race is swimming with confidence. Because of all the training you do and the preparation you undertake, you have a much better chance of swimming great than you do swimming badly. And yet, many swimmers almost always naturally gravitate towards thinking about the worst case scenario.
If you think about swimming badly, you’re much more likely to make it happen. And, the same is also true when you think about swimming great. The more you do, the more it’s likely to happen. In either case, it’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Great swimmers know that, if they focus too much on not swimming badly, they make it more difficult for themselves to swim freely and to their maximum. They swim believing in what they’re truly capable of, not fearing what could potentially go wrong.
2) Care less about the results and more about the process.
Many swimmers will tend to get this one backwards. They’re so focused on hitting PB’s and making cuts that their mind becomes cluttered and distracted from focusing on the very thing that will create those result they want. On top of that, by caring too much about the outcome, you develop an emotional dependency on it, which will place on your shoulders unnecessary amounts of pressure, nervousness, and tension when you race, things which will make it much harder to get the results you’re after.
Always remember that thinking about or worrying about your results is completely pointless. Your results are totally beyond your control. They exist in a future that hasn’t even been created yet. Results don’t come from caring about them. Results come from performing, nothing else. And, the best way to perform your best is to not think or care about the outcomes of your races. If you put every ounce of your focus and concentration purely into your performance, then the result will take care of itself.
3) Use your mental reset button.
A common mistake that many swimmers will make is that they’ll carry the results from a previous race into their next event. If their previous race was a good result, then they go into their next event either too overconfident or they become fearful of not being able to sustain or surpass the results they just managed to obtain. If their previous race was a bad result, they go into their next event with that bad result weighing on their mind and they also assume that because their previous race was poor, their next one is likely to be the same way.
Great swimmers have great reset buttons. Whether a race is good or bad, it’s irrelevant to them. When a race is finished, they get their minds out of the past, hit their mental reset button, and become completely focused in the present moment on what they need to do right now. They don’t let good results or bad results affect their mindset either way. If they have a great race, they go into their next event with a peak mindset. If they have a bad race, they go into their next event with a peak mindset. Great swimmers don’t let past results impact future performances.
4) Love the challenges and obstacles of the day.
To be an elite level swimmer, you have to have the kind of mindset that acknowledges, embraces, and loves challenges and obstacles. The harder things become, the better you become. The tougher things get, the more your best comes out of you. You’re not intimidated by the opposition swimmers when standing behind the block. You don’t put your opponents on a pedestal. You see yourself as their equals. You want to swim against the best and are eager to swim against the best.
During a race, if the race is tight and your opponents are neck and neck with you, that doesn’t bother you. It actually has the opposite effect. It makes you want to swim more determined and it lights a fire in you. If your opponents are ahead of you, that drives you to keep pushing, go beyond your pain barrier, and catch them up. It doesn’t tire you out or cause you to give up. When the race starts to hurt, you get stronger and you push harder. You love the pain and you’re willing to bulldoze through the burn in order to finish strong.
5) Visualize the start of each race.
When you get behind the block before your race, stare at it. If you’re a backstroker, see yourself in the water preparing to go. With your eyes open, picture yourself in a perfect starting position. Then, see the start of the race. Picture the perfect start. See yourself making perfect kicks under water. See yourself rising up out of the water. See yourself performing with flawless stroke technique. See yourself making the perfect turn. See yourself making more perfect kicks, rising up out of the water, executing perfect stroke technique, and touching the starting wall.
By visualizing the first 50 in your mind, you plant into your brain the command of how you want it to perform for you throughout the race. By visualizing a perfect starting position, a perfect start, perfect kicks, perfect strokes, and perfect turns, you’re showing and telling your brain, “This is what I want you to do.” And, the brain always responds to commands. It’s like a small child. If you show a small child what you want it to do, it will do it. If you visualize the perfect race in your mind, your brain will do everything it can to help you make that happen.
6) Believe in yourself fully and unconditionally.
There’s very much a connection between the mind, the body, and our physical actions where everything is interconnected and linked to one another. We know this is true. We see it. You can always tell when someone is feeling extremely confident and has belief in themselves. Their body language changes. They walk taller. They have more of a swagger about them. Their physical movements are more assured and they’re able to perform with a higher degree of tenacity and intensity.
A swimmer without confidence and self-belief is nothing more than an empty shell. They become hollow. They walk around with their shoulders slouched. They look frail and vulnerable. When confidence and self-belief is gone, the tenacity and intensity they used to perform with is replaced with a very visible look of doubt and uncertainty. Confidence and self-belief as an athlete is like the gasoline that fuels the car. Without fuel, a car can’t even move. Without confidence and belief in yourself, you can’t perform your absolute best. Never, ever allow yourself to doubt your ability and what you’re capable of producing.
7) Have fun and enjoy what you love.
A survey was once conducted of former NFL players. As part of the requirements of the survey, each player had to have played in the NFL for a minimum of 6 seasons or more, so these were players who played in the league for consecutive years and were by all standards considered to be seasoned professionals. The premise of the survey was very simple. They asked former NFL players what they considered to be the most important ingredient to their success as professional football players. Unanimously, all of the players listed the same thing as the most important ingredient: They made sure to have fun and enjoy the game.
If you’re not having fun when you’re competing, then you’re not doing it right. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the “business side” of the sport and to let the need to win and produce success consume you. However, those things are much easier to produce when you let yourself have fun and enjoy swimming. Now, don’t get me wrong. You’re competitive. You’re fierce. You’re emotional, and you have that fire. However, at the same time, you allow yourself to have fun and enjoy the sport you love. You simply cannot swim your best if you don’t.
8) Be your own best friend and supporter.
If a teammate or friend were to make a mistake or have a bad race, what would you say to them? Would you berate them, tell them they’re terrible, and become extremely angry and frustrated with them? Or, would you positively support, inspire, and encourage them? I’m willing to bet it’s the latter. If you’re willing to do that with other people when they have a bad race, why can’t you do that for yourself too? There’s no reason why you can’t, and you should.
Many swimmers develop this poisonous belief that, if they screw up, they have to berate themselves and be overly critical, otherwise, it means they don’t care enough or are taking it too easy on themselves. Nothing could be further from the truth. Beating yourself up and insulting yourself when you make a mistake or swim badly doesn’t mean that you care about yourself. It actually means the opposite. If you cared about yourself, you wouldn’t treat yourself that way, just like you wouldn’t treat anyone else you cared about that way. When things go badly, your best supporter and number one fan has to be you.
9) Trust is a must.
For each event, you and your coaches will have formulated a strategy for how you’re going to race that event. Depending on the event, you might start with a slower pace and then increase that pace as the race goes on (Mid Distance-Distance swimmers). In other events, you might start with an all-out pace and try to hold that for as long as you can (Sprinters). Whatever the plan is, you need to trust it, believe in it, and execute it to the best of your ability.
Lastly, you have to trust in the training. You have to trust in the preparation. You have to trust in your warm-ups. Trust in your coaches, trust in your teammates, and most of all, trust in yourself. If you make the decision to turn on the jets and go for it during a race, trust that decision completely and commit to it without wavering. If you gut feeling tells you, “I can catch her if I go for it”, then go and catch her. Trust your intuition and trust your feelings. They often know better in the end.
10) Let your mind take over.
The human mind is designed to function best on a subconscious level. When the brain can take over and operate without your influence, that’s when it operates to its maximum. To get the most out of yourself when you swim, one of the best things you can do is to just shut off your brain, don’t have any thoughts, and just let your brain take over the race. Let it take control and guide things.
Over-thinking can kill a race. Often times, just clearing the mind and swimming with feeling is the best way to go. Don’t think any thoughts. Just feel the water, feel your body, and feel your movement. Become so entrenched in the moment that when you finish the race, you have a hard time remembering anything that happened during the race. Just get into a deep zone and the training take over.
Those are my 10 fundaments for a peak swimming mindset. Begin putting them into practice ASAP. You’ll be glad that you did.
About Will Jonathan