Why Change is So Hard in the Pool (and How to Make it Easier)

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

The world record. The gold medal. The underdog who overcame the odds.

We are suckers for dramatic stories about swimming.

It’s the “Big Wins” that captivate us.

After all, they come charging through our screens like a drunk moose:

  • “He turned his life around, committed himself to showing up to practice, and after a few months was on top of the podium!”
  • “She was injured, sick, and had no chance of qualifying for the Olympic team. She didn’t let anything stand in her way and now she’s Olympic champion!”
  • “I changed up my training and dropped 8 seconds in my 100 freestyle in just three months!”

These stories, because they are so dramatic have a way of giving us the false impression that the way to achieve big things in the pool is with massive, violent change. The key to crushing it, we take from these stories of epic willpower and strength, is to hammer down and bareknuckle-brawl our way through the obstacles and change before us.

But if it’s faster swimming you want, if you are serious about slapping your personal best times around, you need to stop fixating on the big stuff and work on achieving more Little Wins.

Let me explain.

We All Want the Overnight Success Story

Alrighty, so you’ve had your “enough is enough” moment, or you’ve been hit with a large slab of motivation, and you’ve decided that now is the time to make some serious change in your swimming.

It’s time to achieve some crazy-savage stuff in the pool.

Your goals in the pool are gonna get it.

First of all, good on you.

Second of all, change is hard. Even when it’s good for us.

The ways that we make it even harder are nearly endless: We try to change everything overnight. We try to motivate ourselves solely from a negative emotion (regret or guilt). We underestimate progression. We half-heartedly commit to the change. We don’t align our environment to make things easier. And so on.

But one of the lesser-known reasons we stay stuck is because, well, we actually kinda like being stuck. We are comfortable there. We feel safe.

Even if our present circumstances don’t make us super happy, our brain reasons that this is still better than the uncertainty of making a change.

Big Change Starts and Ends with Little Wins

The concept of Little Wins isn’t revolutionary. There are a few different terms for it: kaizen, master the process, marginal gains, and so on.

It certainly isn’t sexy or glamorous, and it isn’t going to make for good fodder when giving your post-race interview after smashing a world record, “Oh, you know, I just improved little things here and there, consistently over a long period of time. Pretty cool, huh?”

But Little Wins are legit.

And they can work for anyone, whether you are getting back in the water after a year long layoff or trying to reach the pinnacle of the sport.

Here are the three big ways that Little Wins can help you swim better and more consistently this season:

1. Little Wins are a harmless “Bob the Builder” for your brain.

Even though the big change is something we crave, there is a part of your brain which absolutely does not.

For a moment, let’s go to Metaphor-town and  think of your brain as a well-manicured home in the suburbs. The temperature is regulated, the furniture is laid out in an orderly fashion, and everything is just right. It’s comfortable. It’s predictable.

When Overnight Change shows up at the front door with a wrecking ball and a ten-man construction crew, the security system goes five-alarm crazy. Everybody scatters, and even though the house isn’t perfect, and it might have been much improved in the long run, for now it continues to be safe and comfortable.

Our brain, in the name of keeping things normal, scares off anything that looks like it might be a threat to the status quo.

But then Little Wins come along.

It’s just one guy with a little hammer. No wrecking ball. No jackhammer. No elaborate renovations. Maybe a couple new pictures. Some new drapes. Nothing crazy. Nothing threatening.

Come on in, Bob the Builder!

2. Little Wins are a Trojan horse for the Big Wins to come.

Starting off slow and easy might go against everything you stand for, but it makes turning up the volume and intensity down the road much easier when you already have the habit partially grooved in place for yourself.

Your brain is a lot needier than you realize. It craves comfort, safety and homeostasis. Anything that threatens this is immediately flagged for review and placed in the spam folder. But Little Wins?

Well, they are just so harmless-looking and cute that they can side-step your brain’s spam review policy and land in your inbox. (Wow…am I stretching it or killing it with these metaphors?)

Little Wins give you a sense of momentum that help ramp up and escalate the change you want to make in your swimming and your life.

3. Little Wins provide thousands of sparks.

Whenever we do something well, whether it is holding the breathing pattern for that lung-buster pull set, keeping our head down into the finish at the end of each rep, or completing the whole workout exactly as it is supposed to be done, we get a nice little hit of dopamine.

It feels good. We feel a sense of accomplishment.

Compare that to fixating on the Big Change. Because it can only happen once, we exist in a state of feeling “less than” until we have our opportunity to decide whether we achieved it or not. This is a flawed strategy, as it gives you nothing to work on in the short and medium term.

Little Wins give us, well, wins that provide confidence, motivation and the realization that we are on the right track. Sure, each of those mini victories might seem inconsequential compared to the big goal, but don’t underestimate their power: they keep the motivational flames burning and smoldering so that you get up on those early mornings.

Little Wins will help your mindset stay positive and on the day-to-day things that will actually impact your performance down the road.

Little Wins: Where to Start

There are always going to be ways we can improve as swimmers. The list of things we can change, boost or even cut out are never-ending.

This avalanche of opportunity gives us hope, yes—look at alllll that improvement just sitting there for the taking—but it gives us an infuriating quandary: with so much to do, with so much to fix, we don’t even know where to begin. So we usually don’t. Or we will try to do it all at once…and burn-out and crash as if we sprinted the first 200m of a 1500m. Fly.

Change is hard. Even when it’s good for us. Perhaps especially when it is good for us.

Resist the urge to wholesale change everything: this approach rarely works out. Instead, take a look at some of the big things affecting your swimming and introduce them to Bob the Builder.

Here are some examples:

Nutrition: If you looked at the sum of your meals over the past week, do you think you could improve 4-5 of them? Could you sub out sugary drinks at a couple of your meals for water? Instead of completely revamping your diet, look a couple things you can adjust.

Recovery: What little things could you be doing to improve your recovery? Even just by a little bit? Here are some simple ideas that take little effort:

  • Put a banana and a protein shake in your swim bag every day so that you have something for post-workout.
  • Go to sleep 20 minutes earlier each night.
  • Write out a 3-point gratitude list in your training journal.

Staying hydrated: Every cellular process that happens in our body requires some of that delicious H2O. You already know that you should be crushing water in and around your practices, but are you drinking water the rest of the day too? Drink a glass of water when you wake up. How’s that for a small goal?

Technique: What is one little thing you can easily do for the whole practice today? You don’t need to swim the entire practice with 100% flawless technique (well, that’s the goal, but if you are swimming at 20% awesomeness currently let’s start by leveling up to 30-40% to begin with). It costs you little to do one thing technically awesome for a full swim practice. A tighter streamline. A little more undulation on your dolphin kicks. A slightly higher elbow.

The Next Step

Now, I know what you are thinking: this way is too slow.

To which I would say, Yes. It’s slow. It requires patience, which the Overnight Change story has conditioned us to not have.

But Little Wins are much faster than the perpetual start-and-stop that comes with trying to change everything at once.

If it’s dramatics you want, go to the movies. If it’s change you want, pick away at your swimming in small and doable chunks.


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.

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Coach Mike
3 years ago

I love the ” Bob the Builder” Reference. Very clever. The concept of small ball is a winning mentality. Great Read!

1 year ago

You are a good writer, Olivier.

As a psycho dad, I found the following working when comes to getting young ones to change bad technique:

1. Ask your child what his/her coach asked her to change. Then, take her to local YMCA and have her swim “new way.” It takes a lot of time to change bad habbits and swimming without practice pressure let’s your child concentrate on changes. It is difficult to work on technique during the practice. There are million things going through their little minds. And if they are in puberty, forget about it.
2. Ask your child to pick 2 things s/he will work during next practice and follow up. if you ask that often,… Read more »

1 year ago

What, did you minor in creative writing? I absotutely loved your metaphor town, and everything after it! At my ripe old age, little wins are all I’ve got anyway!!

1 year ago

This was so well written and helpful. I really appreciate it. Great work and I will definitely be applying this. Thank you so much!

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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