7 Race Strategies to Confuse, Deflate, and Defeat the Competition

by Olivier Poirier-Leroy. You can join 9,000+ swimmers and coaches who read his motivational newsletter last week by clicking here.


The meters and yards have been stocked up, the taper has gone well, and you executed a fantastic shave down (hardly any cuts!). Now all that remains is to get up on the blocks and unleash that bottled fury of talent and hard work you have been stockpiling over the previous few months.

Despite all the grueling work in the pool, we both know that isn’t usually enough. After all, swimming is 40% physical and 100% mental.

The race starts long before the gun goes off, from downplaying expectations for all those to hear, to feigning injuries, to the antics and mental warfare in the ready room, with the winner often being not necessarily the most physically fit athlete, but the one who is able to best stick to their race plan.

The mental back-and-forth doesn’t stop once the 8 swimmers hit the water. Often races are won and lost based on the strategies and tactics used over the course of the swim.

Below I share a few race strategies that I have observed and used over the years of swimming. They work best—like most things in competition—when your rivals have no idea what you are up to.

That is where the true power of these tactics comes into play—the less they expect it, the more it throws them off mentally. You are forcing them to react to you and knocking them off of their own race plan.

(There is obviously no guarantee that these will work. And as such with each I include the counter to each strategy. But they are worth knowing, both from an offensive and defensive point of view.)

SEE ALSO: How to Prepare for a Swim Meet

Here are 7 different race tactics you can use the next time you hit the pool deck:

1. Rope-a-Dope.

Want to utterly demoralize the competition? Let them swim their absolute hardest, and still watch you reel them in. This is a fun tactic to pull on someone. If you’ve been swimming for even a small amount of time you know how discouraging it feels to watch somebody methodically reel you in, so you know how effective it can be.

Counter: The competition, so full of confidence from their early advantage surges out to a stronger lead, perhaps so large that it cannot be overcome, no matter how deeply you negative split your race.

2. Hide-and-Seek.

In the shorter races it is pretty difficult to gauge where your competition is, especially when there is another swimmer between you and your main competition. By swimming alongside the swimmer next to you, and out of sight of your main competitor, you position yourself to be able to make a sudden move, hopefully pulling ahead quickly before they can react. Peek-a-boo!

Counter: The main drawback in this strategy is that you have to aware of where your competition is—he or she can just as easily disappear behind the cover of the swimmer beside you as well.

3. Outside Smoke/The Gutter Ball.

You purposely sandbag the heats and semi-finals in order to get one of the outside lanes, where it is mega hard to see you. When the final comes around, you drop a smoke bomb on everybody and zip out to a quick lead and are never seen again.

It was like you never existed until that fateful realization your competitors have when they touch and see you hanging off the lane rope at the other side of the pool happily chewing on your goggle straps.

Counter: Sandbagging your heat swims a little too much means missing the final entirely, so be sure of what you are doing. All it takes is for a couple swimmers to swim a little faster than expected to bump you completely out of those outside lanes and out of second swim territory.

4. Fast and Furious.

From the dive it’s go-go-go! No pacing, just blast out like a lunatic to as big a lead as you can muster on the first half and pray to anything and everything that you can sustain some measure of speed coming home.

Risky, but makes for great viewing (almost always gets the teammates and coaches on their feet), and also forces you to push yourself to upper limits of what your body can handle. There’s no saving anything, and if done correctly you leave nothing in the tank.

Some of the most agony I have every experienced is taking it out like a shot over the course of the front end of a race and then limping home.

An added benefit of this strategy is that it forces the swimmers in your heat to react to what you are doing from the get-go, thereby taking them immediately off of their own race plan.

Especially effective if you are not predominantly known for taking it out like the Tasmanian devil.

Counter: Hurts like a son of a gun. Watching some swimmers pull you in mercilessly on the last lap while you try to keep your stroke from completely and utterly falling apart.

5. Hot and Cold

This is more for you sassy middle and full-blown distance swimmers. Turn up the pace on the second 25 or 50 of each 50 or 100. On the “off” 25’s and 50’s focus on maintaining the distance and pace ahead or behind your competition.

Having those “off” legs of your swim will give you the illusion of rest, even though you are still crankin’ along.

Counter: After a couple times of doing this your competition will be fully aware of what you are doing and might do the opposite in order to gain extra ground on you (i.e. hammer down on one of your “off” lengths).

6. Mid-race Breakout

Again this is more for the 400 and up swimmers. At some pre-determined point during the race, somewhere in the middle perhaps, bust out and hammer down an exceptionally fast split. Picking up the pace suddenly and taking off will startle your opponent, and while they might give chase, the delay between you peacing out and them figuring out what is happening is sometimes enough to put an insurmountable lead into place.

Counter: If you try to sprint off, and no distance is gained, than you sense as though expended a whole bunch of fuel fruitlessly.

7. Uber for Swimmers

Jason Lezak did this perfectly in 2008 in the 4x100m freestyle relay in Beijing. Bruce Hayes did it against West German superstar Michael Gross in 1984 in Los Angeles in the 4×200 freestyle relay. The swimmer’s version of a judo move, you use the speed of the swimmer next to you against him or her. Best done at high speeds (bigger the wake, bigger the draft), cozy up to the lane line and hitch a ride, saving that energy and nitro for the last burst into the wall.

Counter: Getting too close to the lane rope and mashing your face and hands on it. Your competitor could see what you are doing and move away so far that he gives away his glorious draft to the swimmer on the other side.

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7 Comments on "7 Race Strategies to Confuse, Deflate, and Defeat the Competition"

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as an assistant at West Point in the late 80’s – early 90’s,we had a big 6′ 4″ or so sprinter named Greg. Yale had a 5’10” or so sprinter named Jason who the previous year I believe was the 1st Ivy League swimmer under 20 in the 50 Free. In a dual meet at West Point the year after Jason went 19+, he kneels down to splash water on his face before the 50 and does so quite vigorously. Greg seeing his opportunity to throw Jason off his game, kneels down to do the same but then also takes several hands full of water and throws it to his left hitting Jason with it. Totally flabbergasted, Jason gets all… Read more »
liquidassets
I know most will probably disagree with me, since that’s obviously nothing compared with the trash talking and mind games that happen in contact sports, but personally I would ideally prefer pure competition without the excessive mind games. I’m not saying it should be a rule infraction or anything, I just think that if you need that degree of mind games to win, then maybe you’re really the inferior swimmer. On the other hand, given the reality of competition, I can see both sides of it: Nature and the luck of the draw, whether we like it or not, gives some athletes the advantage in size, strength, aerobic capacity, environmental experiences, superior coaching/training, feel for the water, etc. Occasionally one… Read more »
liquidassets

Of course since Greg was a 6’4″ sprinter against a 5’10” guy, he should have had the advantage to begin with without needing the trick!! 😉

Varsity Swimmer

🙂 🙁 😉 ;( 😛 B)

When someone tries a Mid Race Breakout, that’s a good time to draft. Move over to the lane line and get pulled along.

Just say to yourself, “I’m Going with Her/Her.”

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About 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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