This Year Try Being Grateful for the Setbacks in the Pool

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

Gratitude. You’ve likely heard about it over the past couple years as a performance and stress aid. We’ve written about it here on this site, highlighting the fact that Katie Ledecky used her training log as home-base for her own gratituding.

The concept is simple. Maybe too simple.

We sit down, write out the things we are thankful for, turn our thoughts and focus on the things that are going right, giving us some perspective when we are feeling bogged down with stress. Some quick gratitude-listing pulls us back from the day to day minutiae that is consuming our thoughts, causing us stress, and has us tossing and turning in bed late at night.

It’s effects have been shown over and over in research. It’s proven ability to attack and decrease stress is one of the reasons it is covered in my mental training workbook, Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High Performance Mindset.

If you find that you are having a hard time with gratitude, or aren’t seeing the results you want with it, try this sneaky little variation of it that will also help you become more resilient along the way.

Here’s why you should be grateful for the rough patches this year.

Our setbacks often are the springboard for hyper-improvement.

Wanna hear something relatively neat-o? Setbacks happen to everyone, including or heroes in the water.

And one of the striking differences between the best of the best and those that graze on the outskirts of their potential (as evidenced by this research on super champions) is that setbacks propel success for our champions.

Let’s say you get injured. Or really sick. Or you simply aren’t the improvement you so badly want.

A super champ would use this moment of aggravation to their advantage. They would use it to propel themselves to the next level.

Be grateful for your setbacks—they can be just the thing to refocus your efforts in the pool, sharpen your mindset, and send you flyin’ towards those PB’s with fury and vengeance.

Mike Barrowman, former world record holder in the 200m breaststroke, used his disappointing showing at the 1988 Seoul Olympics to help fuel his training for the next four years. Over that span he would break the world record in the event six times, the last time in Barcelona, Spain, at the 1992 Olympics on his way to gold.

Setbacks reveal character.

When things are going well for us in the pool it’s easy to put on a mask of confidence. It’s when things don’t go well that our character and our mindset really start to show, for better or worse.

Being mentally tough when we are feeling motivated is easy. Sadly, a lot of parents (and a few coaches) are under the impression that we need to baby young athletes, helping them to avoid anything that remotely smells like adversity.

This does them a great disservice in the long run: if you never learn to deal the chlorine hitting the fan at the beginning of your career, how can you be expected to be emotionally and mentally resilient during those high-intensity moments like the national and international stage?

You’ve likely trained with someone who had it “easy”: they coasted along on their talent, never having to really face any adversity in training or competition. But then what happens when they come head-to-head with someone who is talented and worked their butt off in practice? Our coasting athlete gets destroyed on the scoreboard and mentally.

It’s not a coincidence that the swimmers who have suffered trials and tribulations are often the ones who are most unflappable when pressure and stress get cranked up.

Don’t fear adversity. Be grateful for the fact that it presents you an opportunity to becomes stronger and sharper.

Setbacks prepare you for what is next.

Setbacks and failures don’t break us. It’s our reaction to them that dictate whether we quit or not.

Those moments of hardship, when you embrace the lesson make you stronger. They level up our mindset, our ability to withstand, and steady us for bigger and badder challenges to come.

Let’s be honest here: no matter how well we prepare, how tight our nutrition and sleep habits, and how focused and deliberately we train, there is adversity up ahead in the water.

You can’t remove every source of friction in the pool (where’s the fun/challenge in that?), but you can steel yourself for them by regularly overcoming and facing adversity in the water and in your life.

Being grateful for setbacks means that we use them as learning moments that prepare us for the bigger moments of adversity to come.

The Takeaway

Does this mean that you want or welcome setbacks and failure? Nah. Ain’t nobody got time for that. See them not as a sign that you aren’t deserving, or that it’s going to be too hard, or that your swimming is destined to fail.

Instead, be grateful for those patches of adversity: they are opportunities to grow. To thrive. To friggin’ excel.

Like anything in life, or in the pool, the impact that adversity—whether it’s losing the big race or getting injured—is largely predicated on how we choose to react to them. In other words, how bad that setback ends up being depends on how we frame and react to it.

In a world that bemoans, gets outraged, complains, and looks for easy passes or excuses, be the swimmer that makes the most of their tough spots. This isn’t easy: the default reaction is to withdraw. To quit. To find an easier path. To lay blame.

Be grateful for the challenges. They are opportunities to reveal character, to grow, and to hurl you headfirst into bigger and better things ahead.


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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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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