7 Misconceptions About Mental Training for Swimmers

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

Research over the past few decades has shown over and over and over again that mental training can be effective at improving performance in the pool.

Bigly amounts.

And yet, not a whole lot of swimmers regularly work on their mindset.

They seem to be content training their butts off, buckling under the pressure at swim meets, and then left perpetually wondering what went wrong.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Mental training can help you work on just about anything you can think of in the water: from developing better technique, to pushing yourself harder in practice, to putting yourself in the best possible position mentally to race like a monster at race time.

But, like anything, it requires work.

It requires patience.

And, for many swimmers, it requires understanding what mental training is and what it is not.

Here are some of the more common myths and misconceptions that abound over mental training for swimmers:

1. Mental training looks too confusing for me.

You aren’t alone!

It’s not even just individual athletes and coaches that are apprehensive of mental training, there are lots of organizations, teams and sporting associations that are hesitant to invest in their cranking up their CPU’s.

Unlike the physical and “harder science” aspects of performance in the pool, mental training is harder to quantify and measure. When you go to the pool and bang out a bunch of 50’s at race pace, you can look at the exact times and know that you are improving by a very specific variable.

When you go to the gym and pick up and put down a dumbbell, you know exactly how much you lifted, how many reps, and what your past performance was like and what you would like to lift in the future.

How do you measure confidence? How do you measure feelings of control? How do you measure mental toughness? How do you measure anxiety?

This inability to easily measure and quantify aspects of our mindset lends to the mystery and confusion around mental training. (There are some ways that you can quantify your mental training: not as specific as tracking splits to the hundredth of a second, but close.)

2. Mental training means something is wrong with me.

First of all, your brain isn’t broken. We all experience our own peculiar set of hang-ups when it comes to the mental side of the sport.

The odd thing about mental training is that working on clearing your mind and focusing on the stuff that works doesn’t mean something is wrong with you and your noggin. Most of the behaviors that impede our progress in the pool are actually quite natural and instinctive.

It’s normal to want to avoid pain (and so we ease off in moments of great stress during practice).

It’s normal to get anxious when we are in a state of high pressure (it served our ancestors well to get anxious and motivated to act when threatened).

Think of mental training as a user manual for your brain and your mindset and not as a repair kit.

3. Working on my mindset takes way too much time, man.

The good news is that mental training does not take that much time.

Especially when you have a targeted approach with it: if there’s something you want to work on, lowering stress via visualization, for instance, it takes just a few minutes a day.

Instead of adding training time for it, incorporate your mental training work within your practices. Improving your self-talk is a fantastic way to improve confidence and effectiveness in practice: but to be truly effective with it you should be working on it during practice.

Often it’s not more time that it required, just a little bit of planning and more focus during your swim practices to remember to work on it.

4. Swimmers either have mental awesomeness or they don’t.

Some swimmers come by mental toughness more easily than others.

There’s no debating that.

Some swimmers seem to be mentally tough from day one, while others need to work on it.

That’s the key, though: it’s something you can work on. Don’t fall for the misconception that a killer mindset is innate and completely out of your control.

Things like improving your self-talk, experiencing more confidence and control via visualization, and learning how to bargain your way through not quitting during agonizing workouts is something you can learn and develop.

Working on it purposefully is better than hoping that you suddenly become mentally tough one day, or that you develop the skills you need to truly excel at some point over time.

5. Mental training is a last-minute training aid.

Hate to break it to you, but mental training is shoddy for a short term fix, which is how most athletes treat it. Yes, there are things you can do to help you reduce anxiety in a pinch (journaling and mindfulness are two good ones).

Swimmers often treat mental training like a Costco-sized can of Red Bull: give me a sweet adrenaline buzz right now when I need a nuclear burst of energy and mental focus!

In the same way that it takes time to evolve into a stronger and more efficient swimmer, it takes time to turn the corner with your mindset.

There will be some rapid bursts of improvement here and there, but mental training is no different than your physical training: time spent consistently over the long term will yield best results.

6. Mental training is a miracle worker.

While the benefits of mental training are proven and powerful, don’t go for the dream-scenario that honing your mindset will be the thing to make you an elite swimmer.

You still need to show up every day, apply it, work hard, and put in the reps.

It’s not a cure-all for missed training, nor is it going to replace the other fundamentals of your training: showing up and working hard, hitting those early morning workouts, eating well and sleeping like a champion.

Mental training is simply another piece of the puzzle.

7. Spending time on mental training is only for elite swimmers.

It probably won’t come as a surprise to learn that a majority of pro-level athletes use at least one type of mental training technique (one study found that 96% of Austrian pro athletes did some sort of mental training).

While we tend to think of mental training as an “extra” and only applicable to the high-pressure environment of nationals or the Olympics, anyone can benefit from a better mindset.

After all, the benefits of an improved mindset: deeper focus, the ability to consistently push yourself, and not quitting in the face of adversity, are lessons that should be learned early and can applied well beyond the end of the pool.

The benefits of mental training do something else for young athletes that is priceless: it helps teach them that they have control over their emotions and mindset.

Michael Phelps’ long-time coach Bob Bowman taught him relaxation and visualization techniques from an early age that helped keep Phelps from being too excitable behind the blocks. Phelps was also a voracious goal setter, creating goals from an early age of the things he wanted to do in the pool.


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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3 years ago

Excellent to the point article! Thank you.

Ol' Longhorn
1 year ago

Phelps has ADHD. He wasn’t just “nervous” behind the blocks as a kid.

Reply to  Ol' Longhorn
1 year ago

No amount of mental training is going to compensate for an estranged dad while growing up.

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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