Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect, This Does

Practice makes perfect.

Practice makes permanent.

Practice makes me eat bowls of pasta until I’m full…of shame.

We’ve heard these lines before from coaches, parents, and tallish swimmer-authors who write about mental training and stuff on their website. (That’s me, in case there was confusion.)

Practice is a lot of things to us swimmers: it’s where we go to get all wrinkle-fingered. Where we social kick with our friends. And where our coaches throw main sets at us that leave us so stunned that all we can do is laugh.

Most of us work hard. We huff and puff through the test sets. And we grit our teeth and struggle through the struggley moments in training.

But beyond effort, how focused and deliberate is the swimming you are doing each day?

Is your training slowly being escalated each week, with small measurements of improvement being the goal?

Are you doing those “I can’t feel my shoulders anymore” sets with the best possible technique and attention to crushing your walls, flip-turns, and streamlines?

Working hard is awesome—but if you want that high grade, AAA-rated performance on race day at the end of the season, you need to inject deliberate focus into that effort.

Which should make you wonder…

Is the swimming you are doing in practice each day reflecting what you want to accomplish during championship season?

Are you being all that deliberate in your training, or are you going in to the pool, swimming through the sets and kinda hoping that you automagically unlock some new level of speed on race day?


How to Sharpen Your Swim Practices

Here are some questions to ask yourself that will help you sharpen your effort and focus during training:

Are you using practice to develop the race of your dreams?

It’s not enough to go to the pool and work hard. Lots of people do that.

But what is it specifically you want to get out of your training besides “get faster”? Is it improving your walls? Mastering those pesky breathing patterns? Improving that high elbow catch? Kicking things up with your kick?

When you compare how you want to perform at the end of the year, work backwards and figure out what skills you need to work on in practice.

Are you treating each practice as a chance to get better?

You don’t need to crush a practice-best during training to get something worthwhile from the time you are spending in the water.

If you are having an off-day in the water, are you going to work on improving your resilience and try to find a way back to where you are being productive in the pool?

Everything is practice…until it’s not.

Are you reviewing your training?

preach a lot about work ethic and effort. But part of this also includes being diligent and hard working with progression and evaluation. Are you escalating from week to week? Are you making things incrementally more difficult? Are you sitting down and reflecting on where things are going well with training, and where things aren’t?

Evaluating and reviewing your training gives you a chance to further maximize your time and energy spent in the pool so that you can improve at a faster rate.

Are you making practice hard enough?

Things tend to fall apart for even the most well-meaning swimmer when they completely separate the mindsets necessary to be successful in training and in competition.

The difference is subtle until you see it: in practice we are meant to be vulnerable, technically-obsessed, and willing to fail, where in competition we need to be aggressive and clear-minded.

That being said, during practice there should be moments where you adopt the racing mindset: Getting up on racing of the blocks. Test swims.

Practice is typically such a pressure-free environment that when we walk onto the pool deck for a meet the sudden increase in pressure sends our pre-race nerves skyrocketing.

While it’s impossible to completely duplicate the environment at a swim meet in training, you should strive to do so regularly to condition you to the stress and pressures that competition bring with it.

The Next Steps:

Here’s where we go from here:

  • Troubleshoot your training. Where are the big opportunities for improvement? What can you start working on today in the water that will help you big-time down the road?
  • Figure out precisely what you want to improve. “I want to be faster!” is a nice goal, but it lacks clarity. It could mean any number of things. Dial in on the specific things you want to get better at. Taking one less stroke per length. Doing 7.4 minutes of core work after every swim practice.
  • Break things down with your swimming. It’s hard to be objective about our swimming. It’s our swimming, after all. Sit down with your coach and ask for an honest assessment about where you can be better in practice. Listen.
  • Set regular evaluations. Start writing out your workouts in a log book and leave comments on how you performed that day in the water. Don’t just write the sets, reps and intervals—get elite with your training journal and reflect on how you can further improve.


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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3 years ago

This is great! Any advice on how to instill this in our young swimmers?

Reply to  Karen
3 years ago

…wondering the same question…

Reply to  Karen
2 years ago

Visualisation is a powerful tool. These kids, all ages, whether young and juggling multiple sports and life activities, or midteen and juggling academic rigor, standardized test prep, college selection process, just overall stress inducing life “stuff”, really struggle to find the focus required to hit singles, and hope/expect/trust that all the hard work they are doing at practice, trusting the process, will all result in that all important championship season home run, and in reality there is ALOT that they should be working on that just isnt identified for the most part at the club coach level, or is, but cant be constantly monitored due to the sheer coach:swimmer ratio at the pool (sorry club coaches, is what it is).… Read more »

Reply to  Karen
2 years ago

Younger swimmers could pick one thing each practice to work on. A white board with some choices often helps. As they mature, they will be able to focus on multiple tasks, but with the little ones, it’s important to keep it simple and achievable.

2 years ago

Is the addition of “of shame” at the beginning of the article really necessary? No one, particularly a hard working athlete, should feel shame at fueling their body. Why propagate food shaming? (Other than that great article!)

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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