3 Ways Swimmers Can Get Better at Handling Pressure on Race Day

One of the all-time infuriations (I know, not a word, but kinda rolled off the keyboard) for swimmers is not being able to manage pressure.

They work hard at practice for months on end, but when it comes to the Big Meet, they underperform.

They “choke.”

For this swimmer, not realizing their potential is the worst.

All that training, all that dedication, all that commitment…

For what?

Wondering what could have been and the frustration of not knowing why they were unable to perform at their best when it matters.

The truth is this:

Working hard in practice is hard enough.


You also need to be able to swim fast under the stress of competition.

Here are three things you can start doing at practice today to pressure-proof your valuable hard work at practice.

🏊 Raise the stakes in practice.

One of the main reasons swimmers choke on race day is because they are utterly unprepared for the stress they are experiencing in the moments before they get up on the block.

This is why you need to raise the stakes in training.

To make the stress of competition less novel and scary.

How can you do this in practice?

Options are endless, but most likely you have avoided them specifically because they make your palms sweat a little.

Here are a few ideas off the top of my head:

  • Get out swims
  • Test sets
  • Efforts off the blocks at the end of a hard practice
  • Doing an interval you’ve never tried before
  • Suited time trials
  • Betting a teammate $20 who is going to do the main set better
  • Doing a timed 100m off the blocks while the whole team watches

Even mild forms of stress in practice can help prepare you for the high levels of stress in competition.

You don’t need to make practice exactly like a swim meet to pressure-proof your swim meets.

And you don’t need to make every day a “sweaty palms” workout.

But you should do it regularly.

🏊 Reframe the pre-race nerves with affirmations

“I get just as nervous behind the blocks at the Olympics as I did at my first competitions as a five-year old. I take deep breaths and give myself positive affirmations all the way until my races are over,” says Jessica Hardy, an Olympic gold and bronze medalist.

Every swimmer experiences the nerves, the churning belly, the constant urge to pee on race day.

The key is to frame the nerves as excitement, not something to be feared or squashed or suppressed.

Each day, in the pages of your training journal, write out a couple of affirmations reminding yourself that competition is fun and that pre-race nerves are excitement.

  • “I enjoy seeing what I can do when I step up on the blocks.”
  • “Competition brings out the best in me.”
  • “I love swimming against faster swimmers because it gives me a chance to see how fast I can go.”
  • “Butterflies in my stomach mean that I am ready to go!”

You get the idea.

Choking is often a result of simply misinterpreting what you are feeling in those arm-swinging and goggle-checking final minutes before you race.

Make the mental habit of framing the nerves as a performance-booster.

And daily affirmations are a great way to build this habit.

🏊 Everything is a challenge

When we are approaching a tough situation, whether it’s a 2k for time at practice or a finals session at the biggest meet of the year, the way we frame what we are feeling is the key to unlocking our potential.

We are better equipped to manage stress and anxiety and uncertainty when we take the view that it’s a challenge, not a threat.

Studies with athletes [1] have shown that when we view things as a challenge, cognitive functioning improves, our lungs take in more air, and anaerobic power goes up.

challenge-based mindset helps us see things clearly and primes our body to rock and roll.

But when we view things as a threat, we tense up, we focus on non-essential cues (“Why did my competitor go so fast?”), and our breathing becomes shallow.

Not an ideal state to be in when we want to swim our best.

Start adopting a Challenge Mindset in practice today.

  • “This test set is an opportunity to see what I can do in the water.”
  • “This morning practice after five hours of sleep is a chance to see how fast I can swim on a night of bad sleep.”

Doing this in practice will help you approach the uncertainty and stress of competition with a challenge mindset as well.

  • “This race is going to be tight, but I’m curious to see how fast I can go!”

When we view tough things as challenges, the fear and the choking lessen.

Ultimately, competition is supposed to be fun.

Get excited, race, and let your hard work shine.


Olivier is a former national-level swimmer who is obsessed with helping swimmers develop a high-performance mindset in the pool. 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.

The book was written with the feedback of 200+ Olympic champions, head coaches, former world record holders and NCAA champions.

Ready to take your mindset to the next level?

Click here to learn more about Conquer the Pool.

COACHES & CLUBS: Yuppers–we do team orders of “Conquer the Pool” which includes 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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1 year ago

Where was this article when I was 14?

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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