6 Things Swimmers Can Do for More Mental Toughness

Being mentally tough is essentially about conquering yourself.

  • By using more productive self-talk in the water…you push through doubt and discomfort during hard sets and practices.
  • You use visualization to prepare for the stress of competition…and rise to the occasion when it matters most.
  • You focus and concentrate on specific things at practice…and improve faster than ever because you are fully engaged and present.

Mental toughness is more than just about being “tough”…it’s about maximizing your talent, skills, and ability.

It’s taking what you already have and using it more consistently.

While I doubt there is a swimmer out there who wouldn’t like an extra couple pounds of mental toughness, there is a persistent misconception that mental toughness is something you have or you don’t.

In reality, mental toughness is something that can be properly programmed and trained.

Your mental toughness is like any other skill…

Spend time working on it, you are going to get better at it.

Spend no time working on it, avoid it because you don’t know where to start or because you think it’s something purely innate, and that mental toughness you hope for won’t show up when you need it most.

Here are some simple things swimmers can do to build mental toughness.

Write positive self-talk on your water bottle.

If there is one skill to work on for more mental toughness, it’s this one.

Be intentional about the self-talk you are going to use, and write it down so that you read and see it precisely during those moments when you need it most.

Your self-talk shouldn’t be unrealistic, and should be unique to you and your personality.

The best way to go about better self-talk is to look into your inventory of great performances and tease out the forms of self-talk you used then and applying it to what you are doing now.

Finish strong in everything you do.

Effort and focus always starts strong. Whether it’s a season, a main set, or a week of training, at the outset we are fresh and energized.

As the effort and fatigue go on, our concentration diminishes. Often this leads to our effort tapering off as we near the finish.

Finishing strong is something we could all do a little more of.

The benefits of closing everything you do with maximum effort should be obvious, but let’s quickly recap: Finishing strong all the time makes it a habit (builds confidence), immediately separates you from the competition (fatigue makes cowards of us all), and shows you how mentally tough you can be.

Be the swimmer who finishes strong, all the time.

Evaluate your workouts regularly.

One of the less-talked about realities of fast swimmers is that they aren’t just talented (even though that for sure helps!), it’s that they are better able to sort through their performances, good and bad, and take lessons and motivation from them.

Good swim or bad swim, they learn and move forward.

This type of self-awareness and willingness to use every performance as fuel for the next is like putting fins and paddles on your swimming.

You are simply going to improve much faster when you can use experiences for more informed training and preparation.

Put on your white lab coat and objectively look at your training. What are you doing well? Where are you being successful? How can you spread that around further? What are things you can improve on?

Instead of avoiding your weaknesses and opportunities for growth to protect your ego, take a step back and evaluate how you train, how you prepare, and how you can be even better.

Grade your biggest mindset opportunity daily.

One of the issues that I hear about from swimmers who want to get mentally tougher is that they don’t really know how to measure their mental toughness.

How each swimmer defines mental toughness, and what it means to them, is unique.

Grade your mental toughness.

Give yourself a tangible target to work with, even if the skill itself seems like an abstract thing.

I’ve always found that grading effort after practice is an easy way to put more focus on excellent effort during training.

Set daily challenges and goals in practice.

Daydreaming during practice is something we all do to a certain degree. But if that’s all you are doing, then you are going through the motions and not really making the most of your time in the water.

One way to focus up is to set yourself small goals and challenges each day at the pool.

  • Today I am going to push off with perfect streamlines for the whole practice.
  • Today I am going to finish every rep of every set with a race finish.

Little things that go beyond what your coach expects of you will not only keep you engaged and present at practice, but this kind of engagement is a lot more fun and rewarding than allowing your mind to wander and your swimming to suffer.

Visualize yourself overcoming adversity.

And not just swimming the “perfect” race. Mental imagery is a proven way to bulletproof your race-day performances.

Countless Olympians from Michael Phelps to Katie Ledecky use this mental skill to prepare for the stress of competition. Often swimmers are blindsided and choke on race day because they aren’t prepared for the pressure, stress, and expectations.

When you use visualization properly, to rehearse the nerves, the butterflies, the block under your feet, the cold rush of water when you dive in, moments of adversity in real life aren’t as devastating.

Because you’ve imagined yourself thriving in the face of adversity ahead of time, the sting and shock of your goggles springing a leak or your legs feeling cement on the final lap doesn’t derail your focus and energy.


Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer. He’s the publisher of YourSwimBook, a ten-month log book for competitive swimmers.

Conquer the PoolHe’s also the author of the recently published mental training workbook for competitive swimmers, Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High Performance Mindset.

It combines sport psychology research, worksheets, and anecdotes and examples of Olympians past and present to give swimmers everything they need to conquer the mental side of the sport.

Ready to take your mindset to the next level?

Click here to learn more about Conquer the Pool.

COACHES: Yuppers–we do team orders of “Conquer the Pool” which include a team discount as well as complimentary branding (your club logo on the cover of the book) at no additional charge.

Want more details? Click here for a free estimate on a team order of CTP.

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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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