The Champion State of Mind: What Swimmers Need To Meet Our Goals

by SwimSwam Contributors 18

October 25th, 2016 Club, Lifestyle


Andrew Gyenis is a graduate of Stanford University, where he studied renewable energy and creative writing. He is a long time competitive swimmer who also spent time racing junior elite triathlons and distance running in high school and spent two years rowing at Stanford.

Since the end of 2014 he has been back to swimming full-time, with a focus on open water and distance races. Since graduation from Stanford in June, 2016, Andrew has been back home in Northern Virginia where he is starting his career in the energy industry and training with Machine Aquatics. 

I used to be the first one in the water at practice, anxious to start my 300 warm up and finish it as soon as possible. Now, I prefer jumping in the water last in my lane. It’s not that my motivation has changed over the years; I’m just as motivated as ever to go best times. It’s that my approach to practice and racing has changed, something that has taken me 18 years of competitive swimming to finally figure out, and something that I will argue all swimmers should adopt if they aren’t approaching the sport that way already.

I don’t jump in the water first anymore because I don’t want the people behind me constantly tapping on my feet as I ease into the first 300 yards of a 4:40 A.M. workout. I’m thinking about the warm up as the first step towards getting my body ready for the main set of the practice, not as something to rush through. My time on that first 300 yards of practice won’t matter in the grand scheme of things; I won’t win a gold medal for finishing first in the warm up or get a SwimSwam article written about my time. The pattern that I have seen time and time again with the best athletes in the world is that they are able to step up when it really counts, when the coach brings out the watch and they have to beat the person next to them to the wall.

To be clear, I’m not advocating sandbagging the rest of the practice besides the main set, but rather approaching each practice as setting yourself up for the best possible performance on the key elements of the practice, and then attacking those key elements with a tenacity equivalent to racing at a championship meet. Just like working on drills, underwater kicks or aerobic capacity, I believe that practicing having that killer instinct in high-pressure scenarios is the most important element of achieving your goals at the end-of-season championship meet.

The Champion State of Mind

Champions will do whatever it takes to win. Lebron James originally left Cleveland for one reason: he wanted to win championships. Multiple championships. He wanted to win so bad that he didn’t care about turning his back on the city that raised him. There was no way that Milorad Cavic was winning that 100 butterfly in Beijing after they stepped on the blocks; Michael Phelps wanted it too bad. I would argue that the Texas men’s team’s current highly competitive intrasquad atmosphere has created their current dynasty; if you are able to step up at a intrasquad meet in October and swim a 45.47 100 yard butterfly (Jack Conger) or a 4:18.98 500 yard freestyle (Clark Smith), the rest of the NCAA should be very scared of what they can do shaved and tapered in March. The onus falls on both the coaches and the athletes to develop that championship mindset day in and day out.

I believe that winning mindset is the reason for the disproportionately high medal count for the Americans in the pool this summer, because our swimmers and coaches understand that championship mindset better than any other country in the world. On paper, there was no way the USA should have gotten nearly as many medals as they did. This is a generalization of the swimming at the Olympics, but time and time again I watched as foreign athletes fell apart at the end of their races while Americans surged to the wall in lifetime bests.

This isn’t true of all of the foreign athletes in the pool at Rio, but after the Olympics there were numerous media outlets reporting how certain athletes cracked under the pressure (for example Emily Seebohm), while the Americans seemed to thrive in the limelight (Anthony Ervin and Maya Dirado stand out to me as blowing people’s expectations away). Until other countries train their athletes to adopt more of a killer instinct, I predict another big medal haul for the Americans in Tokyo.

The Big Sets

I’ve been back home in Northern Virginia for the last couple of months and have started getting back into training with my former club, Machine Aquatics, under head coach Dan Jacobs. Every Tuesday morning practice is called “Taco Tuesday,” where the main set is an all-out effort for time. Dan rotates between four different sets each week: 30×100 freestyle, 3×300 freestyle, 6×100 stroke (no freestyle) from a dive in heats, and 20×75 kick with a board. Everyone knows what’s coming on Tuesday. Everyone has time to mentally and physically prepare. I think it’s by far the most important workout of the week, and everyone in the practice holds each other accountable for putting forth their best effort.

The most important part of Taco Tuesday is that the coaches record every one of the times on the sets, and then add them to an Excel document, which the swimmers and coaches can reference in the future. Dan has also been doing these same sets for years, so there is plenty of data to look at for where various swimmers were at certain points of the year, and then where they ended up at the championship meets. The element of repeatability is essential for coaches and swimmers to understand, as you can’t truly measure improvement without it. Having a four week cycle is also very important, as the sets are spaced far enough apart that swimmers aren’t bogged down by doing the same thing every week, while also being close enough together that you get to repeat the sets multiple times throughout a season to track an individual’s progression.

The Coach-Swimmer Dynamic

I was fortunate enough to be able to witness Katie Ledecky’s meteoric rise in 2011 and 2012, as I was a senior at Georgetown Prep at the time, where she trained with her former coach Yuri Sugiyama. I would occasionally hop in a distance set with her group after school and try to keep up. I remember Yuri had a thick notebook for Katie and documented every practice, with the simple mindset of seeing steady improvement everyday. Yuri and Katie set ambitious goals at the beginning of the season, goals that most people would have considered crazy given her times in the summer of 2011, yet she came away with a gold medal in London by focusing on those few key distance sets each week, taking care of her mind and body, and tracking the improvement.

I watched that same connection with Greg Meehan and Maya Dirado during my four years at Stanford. It’s amazing what can happen when a coach and an athlete are so in sync as I witnessed with Katie and Yuri and Greg and Maya, and what both people can accomplish in a short period of time with proper monitoring and focus.


A key element that has been left out of the discussion thus far, and one that again took a long time for me to grasp the importance of in our sport, is recovery. A swimmer can’t be doing 30×100’s everyday and expect to perform well and stay motivated in the sport. Everyone’s body and mind reacts differently to the strains of a tough phase of training, but I recommend that each athlete takes at least one day each week out of the water and one training session per week with no all-out efforts. That way, when it is time to go fast, the athlete’s mind and body are ready for it.

I talked earlier about how important having some elements of repetition is to training, but I also want to point out that it is the coach’s and athlete’s responsibility to have creative elements mixed in to training sessions each week to keep the mind and body sharp and fresh. At Machine Aquatics we have repeated our Taco Tuesday sets, but every other main set this season has been something new that I haven’t done in 18 years of swimming. However, that’s not to encourage coaches to come up with a ridiculous main set each day; it’s vital that coaches put their sets into context for their athletes in terms of how it’s making them a better swimmer and helping to achieve their goals.

The Mental Side Of Training

I recently sat down with a close friend of mine, Collin Chartier, a pro triathlete from Northern Virginia, and he shared his thoughts with me on practicing and competing. “We spend all of this time getting our bodies physically ready to race for championship competitions by tapering, but what is often overlooked is the mental aspect of big races and how what we do in practice is getting ready for that race. If we race all the time in practice, we won’t have the mental fortitude to step it up at the big competition. We have to be strategic about when we go all out.”

When I asked him about what was the biggest factor in his rise in the sport of triathlon over the last couple of years, he immediately responded with focusing more on the mental side of training. “Our practice performance doesn’t always translate to our race performance, and most of the time it’s because our mental preparation isn’t on par with our physical preparation. Our mind is the biggest limiter; preparing our mind is just as important, if not more important, then preparing our bodies for the big race.”

Preparation For Your Goals

In conclusion, I want to point out that developing a killer instinct and becoming a great racer is not easy; a lot of it is natural talent, but I do believe that an athlete can practice getting better at it. I’ve struggled with it my entire swimming career and have always been better in practice than in races, and have thus felt like I’ve never reached my potential in the sport.

That being said, I love the sport of swimming and genuinely enjoy jumping in the water each day, and that passion for the sport should never be lost in the daily grind of training and racing. Not everyone is in the sport to win Olympic gold medals, but I think that everyone should have long and short-term goals that they are working towards achieving, and having the correct physical and mental preparation is the best way to achieve those goals.


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7 years ago

I’m not sure that the Ledecky-Sugiyama case is a good example. We know very little about their relationship. Besides this famous story when high-school freshman (but not her coach) sets the Olympic target not much is known about Sugiyama’s role in the developing of Ledecky’s champion mindset. It looks to me that he wasn’t fully aware what he had on his hands and just followed the stream. He may was supporting but not leading.
But as I said, very little was said about this tandem. The major piece of information comes from Sugiyama’s speech at coaching clinics. Katie speaks more about Bruce than about Yuri. People who were next to them like the author of this article should know… Read more »

7 years ago

Great work!
Too many swimmers have fallen into the trap of training until they drop, pushing it a step too far every single day, slowly loosing their mental game and ‘readiness’ for the next big race or set. Of course it is really important to work hard as you say, but recovery and having the ability to know when to relax are also really important factors in the process of being a successful in the sport. Athletes who are able to discover this relatively early will bloom in their sport and enjoy it more, and love it for a longer time than those who don’t in my opinion :))

Love your article,
Keep them coming!

7 years ago

While I don’t really disagree with much in this article other than it doesn’t deal with the complexities of humans (like people don’t just get better each time they try something and the mental aspect of that can be damaging if not programmed for… as Dolphin puts very well).

What is odd though is the way things are worded about the author and by the author. From what I could find, Gyenis never swam at Stanford… it appears he rowed for 2 years. The intro makes it sound like he swam for Stanford. Big difference.

He also states that he watched the connection between Meehan and Dirado during his 4 years at Stanford. This would’ve been pretty difficult had he… Read more »

Reply to  Francene
7 years ago

I never said anywhere in the intro that I swam for Stanford. I trained with other rec swimmers at the Stanford facilities my final two years at school. Regardless, how would that be a “big difference”?
Maya and Greg would often times be training at the Stanford facilities at the same time as I was there to swim; after Maya graduated, she would workout with a small group in the mornings with Felicia Lee and others. So yes, I did watch their connection develop over my time at Stanford.

7 years ago

“A swimmer can’t be doing 30×100’s everyday and expect to perform well and stay motivated in the sport.”

That is great advice! I wish more swimmers, especially our professionals and college swimmers, understood this. Sometimes more is not better, and swimmers can shorten their effective careers, and even compromise their health, by overtraining.

7 years ago

Great article! It really shows how committed mentally and physically that swimmers need to be and highlights preparation.

7 years ago

Any thoughts on potential downsides of the cycle of challenge sets for a swimmer that is “in a funk” and underperforming? It seems that someone struggling could get more into a rut by having to continually repeat sets and having to face their struggles via the Excel sheets. I think the article is great for the ideal situations, but how should swimmers/coaches address the inevitable struggles?

Reply to  Dolphin
7 years ago

Thanks for the comment Dolphin. This is probably the toughest question to answer in all of sports (same goes for business, relationships, anything really). I may not have the one right answer for you, but here are my thoughts:
-99% of us swimmers are not going to have the personalized focus that swimmers like a Katie ledecky or maya dirado got to benefit from because we are rarely working one on one with a coach who makes workouts with us specifically in mind. There were over 60 kids at my practice this morning, five or six to a lane, so there is no way that the practice will be perfectly tailored to your personal goals or needs. That being… Read more »

7 years ago

I found numerous insightful points in your article, summarized in my own words:
1. Warm-up as prelude for the main event.
2. Know when to throw the winning mindset switch.
3. Set Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) and record progress toward their completion.
4. Sync up with a trusted coach who can develop creative workout sets.
5. Recover, recover, recover.
6. Prepare both your mind and your body.

I would add that team chemistry and camaraderie can amplify the winning mindset, as seen in Rio by Team USA. Also, I believe that great racers have learned to relax and be in the moment (or zone) while swimming. They can then concentrate on the rhythm… Read more »

7 years ago

Really like this article and I feel it gives great perspectives of swimmers mindset