8 Goal Setting Tips for Swimmers

Ready to finally get serious with your goals in the pool? Here are eight proven goal-setting tips for swimmers.

Goal setting cranks up motivation and performance in the pool by increasing effort, persistence, and concentration.

They get you fired up to not hit snooze on those dark early mornings. Help keep you focused during long, challenging main sets. And they are often the last thing you think about before drifting off into a chlorinated slumber at night.

But while goal setting for swimmers looks relatively simple—write out a fast time and boom, you’re done—it’s rarely done properly.

In this guide to setting goals, we’ll list some time-tested and proven tips to help swimmers set goals, build an excellent plan of action, and provide some strategies for swimmers who have struggled with goal setting in the past.

By the end, swimmers will have all the tools required to set and chase down big, scary goals in the pool.

Let’s dive right in.

Goal Setting for Swimmers

This collection of goal setting tips include:

  • Get specific
  • Write your goals down
  • Schedule for success
  • Use process-based goals for consistency
  • Build confidence with short term goals
  • Reduce goal conflict
  • Use feedback loops to speed up progress
  • Recognize the wins along the way

Next, we will look at each goal setting tip in more detail, offering some examples and tips for getting the most from your goals.

1. Get specific.

Goals are at their most effective when they can be clearly specified. When there’s no ambiguity, or confusion, or second-guessing.

Swimming has the benefit of being very exact when it comes to results, all the way down to the hundredth of a second. Choose a goal time that is ambitious but within the scope of your skills and abilities.

A study titled “Effects of goal setting on sustained attention and attention lapses,” published by psychologists at the University of Oregon and University of Texas in 2023, found that specific goals increased time on task and increased overall attention.

Which intuitively makes sense.

By creating a clear target to aim at, you are more likely to fully concentrate and focus your effort towards achieving it. Specificity removes the clutter and distractions.

When Caleb Dressel became the first man to break 18 seconds in the 50-yard freestyle at the 2018 NCAA Men’s Swimming Championships, he had a clear target of 17.6 in mind.

Not “go fast.”

Or “set a personal best time.”

But a very specific, tangible time that he worked at all year and delivered on under incredible pressure.

Get specific about what your goal is, when you plan on doing it, and as a bonus, what it will feel like when you achieve it.

2. Write your goals down.

Now that you’ve got a specific goal in mind, it is time to take the Big Goal out of the clouds and bring it down to reality.

Every swimmer has goals dancing around their chlorinated brains. When we close our eyes at night in bed, inevitably we drift into fantasizing about accomplishing something utterly awesome in the pool.

That shiny gold medal. Breaking a world record. Making the Olympic team. Dropping an unexpectedly huge amount of time from a PB.

A study published by psychology professor Dr. Gail Matthews in 2015 found that participants who wrote down their goals were significantly more likely to follow through and accomplish them versus those who simply kept goals locked in their mind.

Writing down your goal will give you a jolt of motivation, to be sure, but it’s also a big step in legitimizing the planning and effort that comes next.

Where you write them down is ultimately up to you. But having them somewhere highly visible is key.

Over the years, I kept my goals on the opening page of my logbook. Each day, when I opened the book, the goals were right there, smiling back.

Katie Ledecky, Olympic legend, had her goal times for the Rio Olympics inscribed in code on her pull buoy at the pool. Poolside, every day.

Michael Phelps reportedly had his goals bedside, goading him to get up for those early morning swim workouts.

Write down your goals.

It begins the process of making them real.

  • “I have my goals somewhere I can see them, so when I get out of bed I know I’m waking up to work on what I’m trying to achieve.” – Michael Phelps

3. Create a schedule for success

Success in the water requires showing up. Seems super obvious, but getting your feet across the tiled pool deck and into the water is crucial for building the reps to achieve your goals in the water.

There will be days where getting your butt in the water will feel harder than the main set.

For the days when the dips in motivation feel stronger than an ocean current, rely on a schedule by using implementation intentions.

Implementation intentions are a planning tool that link existing behaviors with a goal response.

[Thing I am already doing] + [Thing I aspire to do] = Yippee!

Here are some examples:

  • Each morning when I wake up, I will drink a glass of water and foam roll for ten minutes.
  • Each day after practice, I will spend 15 minutes stretching and doing bonus core training.
  • Each Monday and Wednesday, when I get off school, I will put on my dryland gear and head to the gym.
  • Each time I push off the wall in practice, I will do five dolphin kicks.
  • Each time the main set starts, I will focus on doing the first repetition to the best of my ability.

You can see the potential with this type of planning!

Implementation intentions have a unique way of normalizing behaviors you want to instill and that will help pave the path towards accomplishing your goals in the water.

There is a body of research (Wang et al., 2021) that shows the effectiveness of this type of goal planning, from increasing cancer screenings, voting habits, and yes, adhering to fitness and exercise goals.

Try a couple of them in the early days of the goal setting process to get your feet wet and progress to more challenging intentions.

4. Use process-based goals to stay consistent.

One of the challenges with ambitious goals is the constant pressure we place on ourselves to live up to our big dreams.

Pressure can be a privilege, but when swimmers obsess over outcomes, they can set themselves up for disappointment on days where things aren’t clicking in the water or when motivation is lagging.

Process-based goals help to simplify things and can be an excellent alternative to traditional outcome-based goals that can leave swimmers feeling drained and discouraged.

Unlike outcome goals, process-based goals are things you have total control over. They can include:

  • Give a 9.5 out of 10 effort each day at practice.
  • Do 5 dolphin kicks off every wall.
  • Show up to the pool ten minutes early.

Note that there is nothing about times or results in these simple-looking goals.

The power in process-based goals is that they are built with the implicit understanding that some days the results will be great, some days will be good, and on occasion, not great.

But the effort can always be great. You can always show up to practice ten minutes early. You can always do X number of dolphin kicks off every wall.

  • Process goals promote the daily behaviors and actions in practice that in turn more reliably create the desired outcomes you have for yourself in competition.

This counter-intuitive approach works because it unshackles you from the pressure and stress that comes from basing effort in the pool on how you feel from moment to moment or a result that you don’t have total control over.

You can use process-based thinking for competition, too.

Instead of agonizing over specific splits, you focus on the specific elements of a successful swim.

Olympic champion Nathan Adrian used this building block approach to goal setting over a career that was hysterically consistent.

Instead of stressing about specific splits or outcomes, he focused on mastering each element of an excellent swim.

When setting goals for the end of the season, think about a handful of process-based goals you can use to keep yourself consistent in training.

5. Build confidence with short term goals

Short term goals play a vital role in building momentum and confidence as swimmers chase the longer term goals at the end of the season.

The Big Goal, winning a national title or breaking records, can often feel far-off and daunting, especially in those moments when we start thinking about the gulf between where we are and where we want to go.

Short term goals are the rungs on the ladder that can take a lot of different forms, from attendance goals to race pace targets in training.

A great example of the latter is Gretchen Walsh, who lit the pool on fire at the 2023 NCAA Championships, winning everything.

In an interview two months prior to NCAA’s, on the heels of winter training, Walsh was asked about sets that stood out during those months of swim workouts.

One set shined brightly in her memory, a set where she had to hold 100 race pace in progressively longer distances.

Started with 25 yards at 100 pace. And then 50 yards. And then 75 yards. And then, yes, 100 yards, which she swam in a blistering 46 seconds.

Set successfully completed, and confidence successfully unlocked.

“That was definitely one of the sets that I’ll remember and use to help my confidence going into the end of the season,” said Walsh.

These in-practice wins and short-term goals are road posts for progress and are absolutely gangbusters for developing authentic, 100% free range confidence later in the season.

6. Reduce goal conflict

Setting a goal doesn’t automagically mean it’s going to be accomplished or that you will be overwhelmed with the motivation necessary to pursue all that it entails in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

One of the big obstructions with successful goal attainment is something called goal conflict, when a swimmer has multiple competing goals that interfere with one another.

Often, when swimmers struggle with sticking to a big goal, it’s viewed through the lens of a motivation or time problem. If only I was more motivated. If only I wanted this goal more.

Research has shown that limiting goal conflict can induce higher performance when setting goals, especially when compared to vague aspirations such as “do one’s best” (Locke and Latham, 1990).

Think of reducing goal conflict like having a tight streamline in the water.

In the same way that when you push off in the water, you want to minimize drag and resistance, reducing competing goals can help streamline your efforts.

7. Implement feedback loops to speed up progress.

Feedback loops are beneficial for swimmers aiming for ambitious goals because they assist in correcting course deviations, accelerating learning, sustaining motivation, and navigating through adversity more effectively.

Here are some ways to incorporate feedback loops into your swimming:

Log your workout performance. Write out your workouts to get a better sense of what it takes for you to perform at a high level consistently in training. A training journal, whether it’s via a swimming app or the tried-and-true swimmer’s log book, is home base for the results and lessons of your swim workouts.

Check in with your coach regularly. Regular feedback from your swim coach is essential for personalized guidance on technique, tactics, and overall training performance. Use this feedback to better understand your skills and improve performance in the water.

Video analysis. Analyzing your technique and stroke has never been easier. Thanks to GoPros and high-definition video cameras in smartphones, swimmers can film themselves to see if the stroke happening in the pool is the same one they have in mind. Video analysis also opens up a different perspective for you to find opportunities for improvement.

Regular performance reviews. Are you hitting your attendance targets? Giving a consistent effort in training? Maximizing improvement in your diet, sleep, and lifestyle habits? Regularly sit down with your goals and give an honest performance review to evaluate challenges and successes and plot your way forward.

By adding formalized feedback loops into your swim training, you maximize the time spent in the water and give yourself better odds at achieving big things at the end of the season.

8. Recognize the wins along the way

Recognizing and logging the wins along the way is crucial for building the confidence for success on race day.

The method you choose for how to recognize, log, and celebrate the small wins is up to you. The only important thing is holding onto them so that they cement in your mind and are allowed to blossom into authentic self-confidence.

Former world record holder, world champion, NCAA and Olympic champion Missy Franklin used a “confidence jar,” where every time she accomplished something noteworthy in the water, she’d write it down on a piece of paper and place it in the jar.

By the end of the season, Franklin had a collection of achievements that she could open and review to give her a powerful reminder of all the things she’d accomplished.

“It was always helpful no matter what the circumstance, whether it was before NCAA’s or the Olympics, and it always had the same effect,” said the five-time Olympic medalist.

“When you go into a competition, so much of it is mental over physical, and to go into a competition with the best mindset possible is the most important thing that you can do for yourself. My confidence jar helped me do that.”

Recognizing the journey, whether with your own confidence jar, in the pages of your logbook, or in your smartphone, is crucial for helping build confidence over the course of the season…

But it also helps to make the daily grind of training, the journey and process of pushing yourself even more meaningful.

Wrapping Things Up

Ultimately, your goals and the way you set, plan, and execute them should be individually tailored to you.

Some swimmers thrive on the energy and pressure of outcome-heavy goals, while others find better performances within process-based goals.

Implement a routine designed to promote success, recognize the wins, and learn from the challenges and triumphs.

Regardless of the ambition of your goals, they can be a highly effective tool for increased focus, persistence, motivation, and yes… faster swimming.

So, dive in, set yourself some gangster goals, and unleash a hurricane of high-performance swimming this season.


Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national-level swimmer, author, swim coach, and certified personal trainer. He’s the author of YourSwimBook, a ten-month logbook 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, 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 in the pool?

Click here to learn more about Conquer the Pool.




Leave a Reply

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

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 »