10 Tools for Swimmers to Manage Self-Doubt

by Olivier Poirier-Leroy. This bad boy originally appeared at YourSwimBook.com. Join his motivational newsletter and receive two weekly emails specifically for the ambitious and free-range swimmer.

When we look at our idols standing on the blocks they loom larger than life. Both in stature, but also in terms of mental fortitude. We imagine they possess unimaginable levels of self-belief, never prone to the bouts of self-doubt that are all too common in our own lives.

In reality this is not the case. Elite swimmers suffer from the same pangs of self-doubt as the rest of us—they have simply chosen to fight back.

Disguised as reason, self-doubt lurks in the dark corners of our minds, whispering to us that we aren’t capable of pushing on, that our efforts are in vain, and that the hard work will be for naught.

Here are 10 different ways to beat back the voices of self-doubt the next time you walk out on deck:

1. Acknowledge it.

Understand that a bit of doubt is natural anytime you are venturing off into something new, foreign, and that will require the testing of your perceived limits. When that doubt sticks its greasy face in the door, simply give it a glance—“Oh, hey buddy. You again!”

Acknowledging it for what it is, simply a natural part of the process, can help to weaken its attempt to railroad you.

2. Don’t get upset that you are starting from where you are starting.

Better late than never. How common an expression, and how true. How often have you looked back on your swimming and thought to yourself—”If only I had started back then? How much further along would I be?”

Well, guess what—it doesn’t matter. What does, however, is that you do start now.

Uncertainty in the form of “once I know how do to XYZ I can start chasing my goals” helps to fuel doubt and provides for some fantastic procrastination material:

  • I’ll start showing up to all my morning workouts when I figure out how to get better sleep.
  • Once I have my technique absolutely perfect than I will give my all on every main set.

If you don’t commit now, don’t start chasing down your goals with the time you have, know this: you will look back at some point in the future—and just like you did earlier—wish you had started now.

3. If doubt is being fueled by perfectionism, lower the bar.

We have gone over the need to chase being good or great as opposed to seeking the impossible gold standard of perfection before. Recognize whether the bar you have set for yourself requires perfection (meaning that it is attainable).

If that is what is fueling your doubt—and this might sound somewhat counter-intuitive—lower the bar to good or great.

Perfectionism is really good at creating hyper-unrealistic expectations, creating a fertile situation for self-doubt to grow.

4. Release yourself from the situation.

I have found in my own experience that the voices of doubt grows larger the more focused and contained you make yourself on a specific goal.

While this type of laser-like concentration is good in spurts, thinking of nothing but your goal, or continuing to hammer away at a specific exercise with no improvement, or going to practice and continually showing a negative return on your work, calls out for a deload.

Take a nap, take the day off, get some nature in (you know, that outside thingy), do whatever it takes to clear your mind of whatever it is that is overwhelming you. With even a little bit of a break you can return with a clear mind.

5. Take your eyes off the long goal.

Those big, season-ending goals are one of the things that help us shake the sheets off those cold, hilariously early mornings. They are what drives us to get to bed early on the weekends, to push through those seemingly impossible main sets, and to push through when every cell in our body is screaming for us to stop.

But they can also be a source of staggering doubt. With the goal being so far in the horizon its impossible to know precisely, for absolute certain, that we are on track to achieving it.

Alleviate this by zeroing in on the day to day goals, the weekly goals, the things you have control over right now and here.

6. Let it go.

Wanting to control every aspect of your swimming is natural. It’s common to question every set, whether you could have done it better or with more effort.

Falling into a loop of over-analyzing everything to death, of second-guessing everything you do in the pool is not only exhausting, really exhausting, but will promote more self-doubt than you will know what to do with. Should I have done this? Why didn’t I do that?

Once it is done, learn the lesson, stop questioning it, and move on.

7. Remember your “why”.

Sometimes we get so caught in the “how” of our swimming goals we forget what drove us to create them in the first place. Getting water-logged with statements like “how will I ever train hard enough to accomplish my goals?” or “how will I ever survive this training camp?” will plant the seeds of doubt as you scramble to hypothesize answers that very often aren’t grounded in reality.

Getting in touch with the “why” of our swimming, what drives us to swim for endless hours in the pool (love of the sport, a desire to swim faster than you ever have, and so on), brave those early mornings and spend weekends soggy and uncomfortably sitting on metal bleachers.

By remembering the stuff that you love about the sport and your swimming goals you can distract yourself from the incessant “how’s” that fester.

8. Keep a little list of the times you out-performed your doubts.

No matter how far along you are in your swimming career, there are moments you can look on with exceptional pride. Those times in the pool where you went above and beyond your expectations, surpassing not only the expectations of others, but most importantly—your own.

On those days where you find yourself burdened with doubt, where you feel like the water won’t stop pouring in, and that there is no way you can take another step forward, write out a list of the times that you did persevere.

They will act as a powerful counter on the days where you are feeling overwhelmed with doubt, offering positive proof that you are a whole lot more capable than your doubt gives you credit for.

9. Argue with your doubt by doing something.

One of my favorite methods for dealing with those pangs of doubt is flat-out action. It’s rare that doubt overwhelms me when I am in the midst of doing something in support of my goals. It is the quiet periods between practices, the minutes in bed where it’s just me and a darkened ceiling, when the doubts creep in.

Action is as surefire a tonic to remedy doubt, as it not only gets you out of your own head, but most importantly, action is proof, while doubt is just conjecture.

You can even play the self-doubt against yourself to deflect pressure and expectations: “Well, I doubt that I can do this, but I am going to give it a try anyway and if I fail, so what?

10. At the end of the day, people don’t care as much as you think they do.

Swimmers often build up these huge expectations, and then feel overwhelming doubt because they feel people will think less of them if they don’t rise to the occasion.

Guess what? At the end of the day nobody really cares. Everyone has their own lives, their own problems, their own swimming to deal with.

And before you feel like this might be insulting or that people should care about how you do, consider that knowing nobody is going to give your swimming more than a passing thought should free you up to chase your goals with no regard to what others might think.

About YourSwimBook

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Featured image: Michael Phelps

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About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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