How to Bounce Back After a Bad Swim Practice

Bad swim practices happen to us all, no matter how well-meaning we are with our swimming. Here’s how to turn things around and get back on track.

We swim so often that it’s bound to happen once in a while.

The inexplicable duffer of a practice…

You know, you feel good, nice and loose, head down to the pool…

And for whatever reason, it’s not there. Your stroke is sliding on you. Everything feels 32% harder than usual. Your teammates are lapping you with ease.

The free-fall of confidence that follows is fast and abrupt.

Why we latch on so hard to bad practices

Ever notice how bad practices stick out like a sore thumb in your mind?

You can have two weeks of good to great workouts, but the moment things fall apart in one practice, it’s all you can think about.

This is isn’t weird.

Compared to a positive workout, a negative workout leaves a much deeper impression. The experience is sharper in our mind, we use stronger words to describe it, and we process it more thoroughly in our brain (i.e. we think about it way more).

Research (Baumeister et al, 2001) has demonstrated this aspect of human nature over and over again. We dwell more intensely on negative experiences.

It’s what we do.

So, knowing this, keep in mind that those bad practices are going to stick out because it’s human nature to take three shades of highlighters and emphasize them.

Got it?


Moving on…

Stopping the spillage

Bad practices happen. But there’s something worse than one bad practice. It’s when one bad practice causes a streak of stinkers to happen.

  • Because today went poorly, maybe you don’t end up going to morning practice tomorrow.
  • Maybe your focus isn’t what it should be the next time you hit the water.
  • Or your tolerance for chasing the limits of your, err, limits is taken out at the knee.

Suddenly, that one bad practice spills across your week, multiplying like mold on that soggy swim towel that’s been under the bleachers for six months.

The crash in confidence that follows leaves us feeling helpless—What am I doing? Am I getting worse? Am I wasting my time with this sport?

If you are the kind of swimmer who has trouble letting go of a bad swim practice, here are some ways to make that bad workout stand in the corner and think about what it did so that you can move on with your swimming:

Focus on a couple technical things to master at your next practice

Confidence is a skill, and one that can feel exceptionally delicate at times.

We have a great week of training and we are on top of the world. Chest-thumping at the world like King Kong on top of the Empire State Building.

When a bad practice or two careens at us out of nowhere, we find ourselves sitting on the edge of the pool, trying to collect our shattered confidence, thousand-yard stare splashed on our face.

How do we find our way back?

How do we begin the process of rebuilding our confidence?

Start with your technique. Why? Because when your confidence is fragile it’s best to stick to skills. Not how you feel, or even times and results.

Swimming well is the kindling for setting your confidence ablaze.

The Little Wins that come from streamlining, pulling and kicking with exceptional technique build confidence, brick by brick.

Swimming well also naturally lends itself to swimming fast.

Here’s legendary Olympian (and Tarzan actor) Johnny Weissmuller to illustrate my point:

“Throughout my career I swam for form. Speed came as a result of it.” — Johnny Weissmuller, 5-time Olympic gold medalist

You can’t always control how motivated you feel that day. You can’t even perfectly predict how much speed you will have in the water.

But you can control how focused you are on your technique.

Can you swim the next practice with the tightest streamline you can muster?

Can you do your next workout swimming a little slower but with killer technique?

The road back to fast swimming and good workouts begin with swimming well. Full stop.

Refill the tank mentally and physically

Punishing yourself mentally after a bad practice can feel like the “elite” thing to do. By getting super mad at yourself you are showing that you super care.

Instead, take that determination to be your best and apply it to refilling the tank.

  • Get an extra half hour of sleep.
  • Eat the healthiest dinner you can.
  • Do some mindfulness work to calm your brain.
  • Go for a walk outside and mentally unplug from social media and your phone.
  • Drink a bunch of water.

It’s natural to want to dwell and overthink that bad practice: I had a bad workout today, so obviously my goals for the season are toast.

Stressing and overthinking a bad workout rarely results in a better session next time around. Obsessing on what has been almost never helps what is to come.

Often the best thing you can do for tomorrow’s practice is to refill the tank today.

What’s your best average?

When you step up on the block, the performance you carry with you is the average of all the training you’ve done leading up to it.

The performance that shows up on race day is a reflection of the average of allyour workouts. If you are regularly putting down 8/10 and 9/10 workouts, a couple 2/10 or 3/10’s won’t crush your average.

Look back through your history of workouts (moments like this it is handy to keep a trusty workout journal). Not only should flipping through your workouts remind you that on average you are putting in solid, solid work, but you will also see other occasionally sucky workouts in the rear-view.

Why does reminding yourself of past face-flat workouts matter?

Because they are reminders that they happen, and that you can bounce back. You’ve done it before. You’ve done it over and over. And will continue to be able to do so.

A bad practice prepares you for bad races.

Are you the kind of swimmer who goes to a meet and swims perfectly according to expectation for every single race?

If so, congratulations, for you are a unicorn among a flock of horsies.

Just like everyone has bad practices from time to time, there are races where things fall apart for us in competition.

So, here’s the silver lining of that stinker of a practice: it’s giving you a dry run to see how you deal with adversity when it doesn’t extra matter.

You have a chance to figure out how to bounce back now so that when the stakes are high and the pressure is on, you know that you can get back on track after a bad race.

Swimmers tend to think that the way they perform mentally in practice and competition are totally separate. But they aren’t. The way you deal with adversity in training is the trailer for the movie on race day.

Although we mythologize the power of the swimmer’s taper and the electricity of high-pressure competition, at the end of the day your mindset in competition mirrors your mindset in practice.

Breakthroughs require showing up.

I talk a lot about the difficulty of trying to predict breakthroughs. Although we tend to believe we can guesstimate the exact moment where things will crash through to the next level for us, it’s not always the case.

Sometimes that breakthrough happens when we least expect it:

  • That new interval feels easy on a morning where your stroke doesn’t feel that great.
  • You swim a near-PB at the end of a grueling week of training.
  • In the midst of studying for three different exams you smash your best in-practice time for a 200-meter kick.

Sometimes, they just happen.

The prerequisite? Showing up.

Sure, you had a bad practice today. But you showed up. You punched the clock.

Think of all the excuses you could have used to not show up to the pool today. Think of all the swimmers out there who didn’t even bother going to practice at all.

You can’t always predict when things will bounce back, or the exact moment where you will go a near-PB in practice. I can’t count how many times I’ve gone to the pool, not felt particularly great in the water, and by the end of the practice was going faster than I’d ever gone before in training.

Your job is to put yourself in the best position possible each day in training to succeed.

To show up.

The results will take care of themselves from there.

To sum up, here’s your bad practice battle plan:

  • Focus on technique. Slow things down.
  • Take care of yourself outside of the pool. Refill the tank.
  • Remember that success is an average. Look at the practice within the context of your training cycle and season.
  • View bad practices as mindset training for competition.
  • Keep showing up. The breakthroughs will happen.


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 PoolHe’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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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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