Are You Swimming Faster in Practice than Competition? Here’s Why.

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer based out of Victoria, BC. In feeding his passion for swimming, he has developed YourSwimBook, a powerful log book and goal setting guide made specifically for swimmers. Sign up for the YourSwimBook newsletter (free) and get weekly motivational tips by clicking here.

There are fewer things more infuriating for a swimmer than not being able to tap into the well of talent and ability when it matters most. When your results don’t match your training it’s difficult not to experience those familiar doubts and fears: Maybe I’m not that good at this. Perhaps I don’t have any talent. I’ll never be as successful as I want to be. All that training was for nothing.

It can be doubly infuriating when you cannot pinpoint the reason for this perceived shortcoming, which only ends up fueling those doubts, making you feel like you will simply never swim up to the potential you exhibit in your workouts.


But in looking at this problem, for a moment hold up your training and competition side-by-side. What makes them different?

The only marked difference is pressure. That’s it, really. Your technique isn’t any different come meet time, the water isn’t any different, and the pool length is exactly the same. Your physical abilities, if the taper has gone even moderately well, should be at their zenith.

All that is left is the way that you mentally approach your racing.

The main reason for why you are having difficulty performing at crunch time is almost certainly that you are too wrapped up in the results/outcome.

Sure, that sounds deceptively simple, but burying all of our mental energy into the final outcome of the race creates a mental state where you are inflicting massive heaps of pressure on yourself, pressure that only exists when you are at competitions.

The swimmers that “show up” at big meets have the magical ability to handle the pressure, and bypass the resultant tension that is a performance killer. Is this some inherent skill that only some athletes are gifted with?

Not really. The main difference is that swimmers who tear it up come meet time are able to limit the stress and pressure (both internal and external) by focusing on the process of swimming fast, as opposed to thinking strictly in terms of what kind of times they have to post.

The difference may appear subtle, but it’s distinct when you peer under the hood:

A process-drive swimmer focuses strictly on what they are doing in the moment. They lose themselves in the steps instead of being overwhelmed at what is at the top. They zero in on the things that are in front of them, the things they are doing, the things they have control over.

A results-driven swimmer is thinking only about the outcome. This swimmer focuses only on the imagined result. They get lost in thinking about the potential outcomes, what might go wrong, how people will think of them, how they’ll feel if they don’t swim to expectations.

Here is what happens when you adjust your mental outlook from being an outcome-driven swimmer to being a process-focused swimmer:

1. The stress and anxiety goes down. By zeroing in on the things you can control, your warm-up, your stretching routine, your pre-race routine, you let go of the never ending inner monologue that frets about what might go wrong. This has a remarkable calming effect; by focusing on the things you do have power over, you enter a state of calm and confidence that is missing when we get caught up in what might or might not happen.

2. Outside pressure becomes less of a factor. We burden ourselves with staggering and sometimes paralyzing amounts of pressure. But when you add coaches, parents, teammates, media, and so on, you end up wrapped up in a paralyzing blanket of expectations. Detaching yourself from the results, and focusing only on what is right before you frees you from anxiety and tension from outside pressure.

3. Bad swims don’t ruin your meet. Not being so closely interlinked with your results means that their impact isn’t completely punishing when a disappointing race happens. Bad swim? Make adjustments in the process and move on. Good swim? Provides reinforcement that the process is working.

4. You focus on one thing at a time. Those big meets can be exhausting both mentally and physically. Nights with multiple events can leave an athlete mentally drained long before their muscles give up. Phelps tackled his Beijing performance not by stressing about whether or not he was going to win 8 golds, but by preparing for one race at a time. Focus strictly on what you need to do to get up for your next race, and nothing else.

5. You’ll enjoy your competitions much more. The process-oriented swimmer understands that each race, each competition is simply another step to be taken one at a time. To be prepared for and enjoyed individually. As a result of not having the mindset of “I have to swim fast in every race and achieve all of my goals or my life is over” you can actually enjoy the moment where you stand up on the blocks and unleash your hard work on the poor swimmers next to you.

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Joel Edmonds
6 years ago

I go a 30.1 for my sc 50m free push start and then when I race my 50m free LC I go a 29mid.
I am asking if I am not reaching my full potential in race or I am doing just right and training similar to how I race, I am 14 btw.

Reply to  Joel Edmonds
6 years ago

It might just be your technique in short course? Turns? Underwater? Dives? Have you swum sc 50 free lately, since it is sc season? Don’t worry, what you did isn’t bad. What’s annoying is when you constantly hold 33 second 50 yard (25 yard pool) 200 pace, and 1:04 hundred yard breaststroke (25 yard) in practice as a 14 year old. And that is in a set such as 60 50s- 4 50s goal 200 pace goal, 2 easy, repeat; but I can’t even break 1:05 when it matters. My coach says I should be able to go a 1:01 or maybe under a minute, but somehow my technique always disappears at race time. Can somebody explain that? And yes,… Read more »

Hannah Smith
7 years ago

I feel like I always back down in meets because I’m nervous. I always try to help myself have confidence, but I always end up freaking out before a race. How can I have less fear?

7 years ago

The most competitive athletes will often practice harder and faster than other teammates and therefore have less room for improvement in a race than their peers who go 95% in practice and 100% in a race. This is another dynamic that unlike other explanations reflects positively on these “competitiive practicers”.

Reply to  Joe
5 years ago

Agreed. And that 95% is a sliding scale. I know many swimmers who are far better “meet swimmers” vs being “workout swimmers”. The workouts are for preparation for meets and not necessarily the end in and of itself. Each swimmer will eventually figure out what balance works best for them. Being able to perform a certain time in meets doesn’t always translate to maintaining the same set interval as peers.

7 years ago

Also could be that your coach hand-times you in practice and doesn’t start the clock until you hit the water.

Reply to  SammySwim
6 years ago

Can I point out that even if that is true, it is about a second. Most people can go approximately 1-4 seconds faster on the practice time in a meet (with tech suit, etc.). The problem would be more mental and a little bit about warming up.

Michael Mann
7 years ago

The joy of Master swimming, no pressure great results- biggest issue we face is which great restaurant we are all meeting at for dinner!

swim dawg
7 years ago

the real answer…. your not kicking hard enough in your races. period. kick harder swim faster. the 5th stroke is not under h2o dolphin kick. It is flutter kick. Ask Eddie Reese.

Reply to  swim dawg
7 years ago

But that still doesn’t explain the difference between how you are performing and practice versus a meet, which was the point of this article.

7 years ago

I totally agree with this. I’ve noticed that even in practice, whenever I have a bad swim, it’s usually because I lost focus mentally and started thinking about random stuff as opposed to my technique. I try to do that in a race as well, I feel like a lot of my bad races come when I focus too much on beating the competition. It’s always important to swim your own race, especially since some people have very different race strategies.

bobo gigi
7 years ago

Always weird to see very old articles come back. We can read old comments and sometimes see some idiot things we have written in the past. 🙂

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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