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.

About YourSwimBook

YourSwimBook is a log book and goal setting guide designed specifically for competitive swimmers. It includes a ten month log book, comprehensive goal setting section, monthly evaluations to be filled out with your coach, and more. Learn 8 more reasons why this tool kicks butt.

Join the YourSwimBook weekly newsletter group and get motivational tips and more straight to your inbox. Sign up for free here.

In This Story

Leave a Reply

Notify of
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
7 years ago

I think warm up can also be a factor in a swimmer’s performance at a meet versus a practice. It isn’t always a mental problem.

Reply to  Ellen
7 years ago

This is true I think, my best in practice times would come after almost a whole practice, not after a 1000 warm-up. Also the time between their warm-up and racing is often too long for people at meets, I think.

Reply to  nemo
7 years ago

Serious question for you Nemo – why are you practicing in a manner that is so different from the way you compete?

Reply to  ChestRockwell
7 years ago

Well usually you don’t compete the same way you practice… Do you usually swim a race multiple times at a meet? (not including finals), is a good practice where you swim one time fast?

Reply to  nemo
6 years ago

Taking what Nemo said it sounds like he simply doesn’t get enough warm up time. Some people need more warm time then others. How much warm up time you need in my opinion is based on your level of swim and body make up(more muscle to warm up etc)

Reply to  Ellen
4 years ago

That’s right

Rudi Wang
7 years ago


7 years ago

There are a few girls on my team who think that out touching/beating someone in practice (during a set that is not a sprint) is just as important as out touching/beating someone in a race. A few have complained to me that they aren’t dropping time/going same times in practice/etc. They don’t focus on improving the way they swim, they just all out sprint everything. You have to realize that only sprinting will make you better at swimming, and this, I think, is also a factor for some people regarding time improvement.

7 years ago

Another factor is drafting. In longer practice sets, you get a significant advantage from the draft. My 1000yd times were regularly faster at practice than at a meet. 400IM a bit less, but still noticeable. Even when leading a set, you can get a draft as you start to catch people at the end of the line and prepare to pass them.

7 years ago

Going in to a comptiton thinking your ready for action, pumped up and ready to race is a great way to start a meet/comp but going in with the attitude of I’m faster then every body I don’t have to worry I’m going to beat everyone, is terrible and you don’t always perform your best. when you enter the facility you will be racing at you need to be ready, happy, jumpy and excited, to race don’t be the debby downer and walk in all grumpy saying I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to swim if so your not going to be your best of your best.

p.s.get to know the people yor racin against even if… Read more »

Old sprinter
7 years ago

Two observations as a volunteer assistant for a Div. I university team that can lead to delusional expectations in a meet (especially for sprinters): One, leaving the wall up to 2 seconds early and then believing the clock when you finish. Two, coaches that will read out inaccurately fast times for a swimmer in a practice thinking that a super fast time will motivate the swimmer. Then when the meet comes they can’t figure out why their foot touch 25 in the 50 isn’t a low 9.

Reply to  Old sprinter
7 years ago

So true on all points!

7 years ago

Ive heard of basketball coaches making players shoot high stakes practice free throws that determine if the tea will scrimage/leave/to wind sprints etc.

I think this would be a great way to bridge the gap and help handle pressure: if you are going to do meets in pressure then practice pressure and high stakes swims ie “get out swims” etc. It should be a good way to prepare, within reason, depending on each swimmers personality type.

Reply to  Mcgillrocks
7 years ago

I totally agree! My new coach has started doing that with my team. I have improved so much since I have learned to deal with stress in practice.

7 years ago

Olivier: Good stuff. Gonna share this with some of my swimmers.

Others: I apologize, this may come off as too negative or patronizing, but I feel like a huge point was missed here. Yes, misreading times, drafting, and warm ups can affect practice vs. meet times, but I think that’s all kind of beyond the scope of the actual article. I mean, yeah, it fits with the title, and none of it is technically wrong, but process vs. result driven thinking is much more important and ubiquitous than any of that (maybe not more common than drafting, although wake can be a double edged sword). Mindset is, by far, the biggest issue that I see among high school and senior… Read more »

Reply to  Sven
4 years ago

Agreed. Well said, Sven. Reading these comments, it’s as if people missed the point of the article completely. I mean is the comment section just for people to complain and argue with whatever is written? How sad.

Olivier: wonderful 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 …

Read More »