7 Tips to Develop Mental Toughness for Swimmers

By Olivier Poirier-Leroy. Join his weekly motivational newsletter for competitive swimmers by clicking here today.

Mental toughness is the resolute decision not to quit. It’s the discipline that keeps you on track, that doesn’t allow your effort to fade off into the distance at the end of a set, that keeps your mental energy focused on maintaining perfect technique when your muscles and lungs are screaming to let your form fall apart.

Not everyone has what it takes to develop exceptional mental toughness. Many simply don’t have the stomach for it. But the results gleaned from incorporating a mentally tough approach to your swimming is undeniable – you’ll swim faster, harder and stronger than you ever conceived imaginable.

Here is the good news – mental toughness can be learned or improved. Here are 7 components of mental toughness —

  1. Making a commitment to starting.
  2. Drown out the negativity.
  3. Be competitive.
  4. Consistency.
  5. Focus.
  6. Step above what’s typical.
  7. Getting into the habit.

1. Starting will forever and always be the hardest part. Those that have epic levels of mental toughness also find that they need to be motivated less. They show up, do the work, and avoid the mental trickery associated with having to motivate one’s self.

Here are a couple easy ways to get into the “starting” habit—

a. Commit to starting, and nothing else. For those days when you have a nasty main set, simply commit to warming up. Once the blood starts flowing, and you feel your stroke coming to you, than the trepidation will generally start to melt away.

b. Start small. Keep everything bite-sized on those big days. Forget trying to mentally digest that big workout; you’ll dwell on it and psych yourself out completely before it ever comes around. Instead, focus on the small steps that are directly in front of you.

3. Stop listening to the nonsense in your head. I am going to tell you a little secret – you are an awful judge of what you are capable of. There has been so many times I have watched an athlete surpass what they thought they were capable of in a training session (myself included).

Similarly, there are times when we hype up our training in the past to create unrealistic expectations. What we are capable of lies somewhere in the middle, an always-moving, almost impossible to hit standard that we never know until we actually get down and try and chase it.

You are not as weak as you think. You are not as soft as you tell yourself. You’re not incapable and you are not undeserving of success with your swimming. Remember — Your mind will give up a thousand times before your body will.

3. Be a sore loser. Get competitive with yourself; always be chasing improvement. Shrugging your shoulders after a bad set might help ease the jab to your ego, but in reality, you should be feeling embarrassed. You should be stung to the point that you want to bounce back and kick that set’s ass.

4. Develop routines. Switching things up can keep you interested and engaged, but unless it is done tactically more often than not it only serves to throw you on a never-ending series of detours. Having consistency in your training is vital – as you already know – but that consistency needs to show up with your effort. Banging out a fast repeat every so often won’t help you develop in to a fast swimmer in the long run, and it won’t make you a mentally tougher athlete.

Being flash-in-the-pan great isn’t very difficult. All you have to do is coast along until you feel like banging out an awesome set or repeat (see: Sammy Save-Up), and then bask in your fleeting moment of glory while slipping back into your habit of coasting along.

5. Focus on the 2-3 things that make the biggest difference. I’m a huge believer in specificity. Doing a couple things extremely, extremely well. When you try to be awesome at a lot of things your efforts get watered down, your results get thinned out, and you end up being kinda decent at a bunch of things. Instead, take the specialist route and get hyper-focused on a couple things. It’s better to be excellent and a leader in a handful of things than to be mediocre at a dozen. Get laser-focused on the things that are going to make the biggest difference in your swimming and pound away mercilessly at them.

6. Take pride in doing more and doing it better than your competition. One of my favorite days to work out is on Sunday. The gym and pool are largely deserted. Everyone is either sleeping off the hangover, resting away lazily on their last day off before a fresh week, or simply taking it easy.

While the competition rests I am in the gym, lifting and running. While the next guy rests on the couch, I am resting in the pool doing technique and drill work. Mental toughness isn’t something you can learn by reading about, it is something you develop by doing.

7. Install a set of cues into your workout. Simple phrases or cues can help your mind get back on track. Tell yourself a simple saying like, “Focus!” or “I will not be outworked” right before each maximal effort you need to pound out. Eventually your body will associate the cue with a full-out effort.

To make this even more effective, use a set of physical cues as well. Simpler the better – 3 deep breaths, clench your fists, and so on. Combine the physical cue with the phrase and you will have a tool to prime your body for max performance at a moment’s notice.


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 Pool Mental Training Book for SwimmersHe’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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Stuck in the Slow Lane
7 years ago

Thanks bro, I needed this. I am twelve-a month away from turning thirteen, and I am stuck n a level that has a bunch of ten year olds. I am STILL one of the slowest in practice!

8 years ago

Good article. It’s always important to have good mental strength before getting into tournaments. My Physio in Toronto ( http://www.physiomed.ca/ ) would always advise me that, physical strength alone will not make anyone a winner and needs to mentally prepare for the game. Some of these tips have been suggested for me to gain better mental strength.

8 years ago

One of the best/most helpful articles I’ve read in a while. Detailed and clear.

Hannah Bell
8 years ago

where’s number 2?

Stuck in the Slow Lane
Reply to  Hannah Bell
7 years ago


10 years ago

How many MA Nag’s today/this weekend? 100 breast coming up soon

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national-level swimmer, swim coach, and best-selling author. His writing has been featured on USA Swimming, US Masters Swimming, NBC Sports Universal, the Olympic Channel, and much more. He has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 …

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