Can You Swim Faster By Caring Less?

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer based out of Victoria, BC. In feeding his passion for swimming, he has developed YourSwimBook, a powerful log book and goal setting guide made specifically for swimmers. Sign up for the YourSwimBook newsletter (free) and get weekly motivational tips by clicking here.

Can we try too hard in the pool? At which point do we invest too much of ourselves, mentally trying too hard to be the swimmer that we want to be, being excessively passionate about goals that we begin to see diminishing returns, insofar as getting completely burned out?

Every coach dreams of having swimmers that are passionate about their swimming. Swimmers who are passionate about the sport are more consistent, more engaged, and make for coachable athletes.

And yet, recent research would indicate that not all passion is created the same.

While one form of passion creates swimmers who produce results while drawing joy and satisfaction from the task, there is another type of passion, obsessive in nature and in name, that actually ends up being more limiting and a frequent cause of burnout.


In 2003 Robert J. Vallerand, a professor of psychology at the University of Quebec at Montreal, conceptualized the Dualistic Model of Passion. The model, and the preceeding research, shows that passion is not created equal.

Vallerand noticed that there were two types of passion that each had its own characteristics, outcomes, and psychological traits.

Obsessive passion is generally marked by a nearly uncontrollable desire to work on or improve something. While this type of relentlessness and determination can be largely seen as a good thing, the difference is made where the swimmer is emotionally dependent on the task.

One specific question from Vallerand’s questionnaire sums it up rather nicely, “My mood depends on me being able to do this activity.” Even if a workout goes well, the obsessive will still feel irritated or even shameful that they aren’t doing more, and are unable to flick the off switch and enjoy activities outside of the pool without experiencing guilt or shame.

Perhaps most importantly, the obsessive draws a large part of their self-identity and self-worth from how they perform in the pool. A bad practice tends to undermine the swimmer’s sense of identity. The persistence and doggedness originates from a desire to protect their ego, and not because they are drawing intrinsic joy from training hard.

Here are some indications that a swimmer is exhibiting obsessive passion:

  • Your self-image is completely tied to how you do in the pool. If you have a great workout you are riding high; but if things go somewhat okay, or worse, terribly, than you are down in the dumps for an extended period of time. The self-talk that comes along with setbacks is merciless and unforgiving.
  • You define yourself solely as how you do as a swimmer. You identify yourself as a swimmer and nothing else. There should be other things in your life with which you can define yourself; student, entrepreneur, brother/sister, volunteer, coach, etc. Your identity is tied almost exclusively to how you perform in the pool.
  • You “must” or “need” to train hard. When you use that self-directed voice in your head, what kind of language are you using? If you are consistently telling yourself things like, “must”, “need”, or “have to,” than you are almost sitting in the obsessive side of things.
  • You feel a ton of pressure to get things done perfectly in the pool. Because an overwhelming amount of your identity is tied to swimming, you place a ton of pressure on yourself to perform. Practices are to be done perfectly, or not at all. There is no middle ground with how you train. As a result, you don’t actually feel all that great about the training you do in the pool, even when it does go what could be considered well.

Harmonious passion, although it sounds like a boy band from the 90’s, derives chiefly from intrinsic pleasure. A swimmer experiences it when they have a sense of power and sway over their training.

Their swimming fits in well with the rest of their life, and they are able to disengage from the sport when away from the pool. Although they don’t obsess about the sport, or feel guilty about themselves when they are away from the water for not training more, they are still remarkably passionate about their effort and involvement in the pool.

This athlete is dedicated to their goals on the water, but their identity and sense of self-worth doesn’t ride on it.

You are experiencing harmonious passion when—

  • You don’t take bad practices personally. You know that sometimes things just don’t click, even though you prepared yourself as best you could for the training session. While disappointing, a poor practice doesn’t ruin your day.
  • You frequently enter a state of flow. You know those magical moments in your swimming where everything just seems to come together? Where the water bends to your will and you are able to perform at a high level without having to coerce the awesomeness out of yourself? Where time starts to fly by? That is “flow,” and it is something those who like what they are doing and are able to apply their skills and talents towards it frequently find themselves in. (We’ll certainly be touching more on flow in the future, so stay tuned.)
  • You meet your training sessions with a positive attitude. Going to the pool and swimming out of your mind is something you kind of look forward to. You take it as an opportunity to improve, to challenge yourself. You view it as a rewarding mixture of work and play, and as such, meet it with relative enthusiasm.


At the end of the day, those who work with harmonious passion consistently are more likely to achieve long term success. Getting all harmonious-like means you appreciate the challenge, enjoy it, and as a result are able to avoid the vicious burnout that comes with obsessive passion. And ironically enough, when you stop obsessing over every little detail in the pool you’ll find that anxiety levels will go down, and your performance will trend upwards.

While I can see the appeal that obsessive passion would have at the beginning of the season or training cycle, using it as a kickstart is fraught with risks. The downsides of it are too numerous to give it serious consideration: lack of flexibility, unwillingness to have balance, and a compulsiveness that is unsustainable (and frankly not a lot of fun).

Instead, seek to find the intrinsic value in what you are doing in the pool.

What type of passion do you find yourself using to get yourself to the pool on a daily basis?

Let me know in the comments.

Originally published Nov 2015


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.

Leave a Reply

Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
5 years ago

Fantastic article – great reflection for athletes regarding their own mindset. Equally important for coaches regarding both their swimmers approach to swimming and their own approach to coaching. Too much passion not necessarily an effective approach.

6 years ago

Olivier, can you write an article about breaking up goals into manageable chunks? Sometimes there is a looming, overwhelming stress that comes with the excitement of big goals that I wish I could handle better.

6 years ago

Any way to counter the obsessive passion?

Vlad Squad loves breaststroke
6 years ago

ive had a lot of anxiety before my races and this article helped me a lot and i think i found my problem. Thanks Swim swam. you will here from me soon when i make the junior national team.

6 years ago

What about phelps? Dont you think he was obsessed with his goals?

Confused Swimmer
6 years ago

How do you suggest attempting to switch from obsessive to harmonious for someone who feels on the edge between the two

7 years ago

I can completely agree with this, although mostly from a meet standpoint. I would practice my heart out at practice but not see the results I wanted from right before my junior year in high school until high school state came around my senior year. I would place way too much pressure on myself at meets and not have any fun. I would tell myself I have to be this fast and get this place so colleges will like me. I later realized it’s not true and I committed to the college I loved. I began to have fun at meets and joke around with my friends and just enjoy the fact that I was there and I ultimately ended… Read more »

8 years ago

Bravo, bravo Olivier! Ce n’est pas seulement en natation qu’on renncontre ces deux types de passion, dans la vie de tous les jours on les voit un peu dans tous les domaines.
Bravo encore pour ce texte fiston:) xxx

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 …

Read More »