Are You Swimming to Win or Swimming Not to Lose? (And Why The Difference Matters.)

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.

When we are kids the world seems like it is at our beck-and-call. There is no dream too large to consider and no goal too unrealistic. With time in our favor, and the strong wind of youthful ignorance at our backs, we feel like the world is ours to conquer.

But as we get older, the more and more people tell us that something cannot be done. That it shouldn’t be done. And at some point that child-like curiosity and enthusiasm that we can do anything fades. With so many people telling us that we are crazy for dreaming big, that we will never achieve our goals, we begin to believe them.

After a while instead of focusing on the things we want to achieve, we get stuck in thinking only about keeping and saving the things we have left. We stop taking chances, stop dreaming, play it safe. And while we get lost in the cycle of playing it safe, the swimmers around us move forward, steadily leaving us behind.

You see this difference markedly between athletes who swim to win, versus those that swim to not lose.

After all, when someone is swimming to win, they:

  • Are focused on solutions to excelling; generally allowing them to be more creative in the pursuit of finding ways to get better.
  • Tend to think bigger, and are willing to set themselves more aggressive goals.
  • Are a hopeless optimist, and will always find the best out of a situation.
  • Generally only plans for best-case performances, with no thought given towards a Plan B.
  • Make decisions for where they want to be as an athlete, not where they are.

Conversely, when an athlete is swimming not to lose, they:

  • Stop focusing on their performance and get caught up in what others are doing.
  • Dial in their energy on thoughts of losing, and of what they believe the effects of losing will be.
  • Over-estimate what giving it all they have and coming up short will do to them.
  • Believes it when people tell them that chasing extraordinary goals is foolhardy.
  • Are focused on not losing what they already have; of maintaining the status quo. As a result they are very careful in the way they approach their goals and training.
  • At some point in their career this athlete has come to the conclusion that they were undeserving of winning or achieving their goals and have decreased their expectations so that they are simply not coming in last or embarrassing themselves.
  • Trains and competes conservatively; willing to leave some effort in reserve so that they have that excuse ready for afterwards: “I could have gone faster if I really wanted to.”

Research done has shown that there is a clear performance difference in athletes who compete to win versus athletes who compete to not lose. In 30 years of elite soccer matches (World Cup and European championships were used), researchers tracked the result of each and every penalty kick and found that:

  • When a player could win the game with a kick, the player succeeded in scoring 92%.
  • When a player was down a point, and had to score to tie or not lose, the player scored only 62% of the time.

The soccer players were 30% more likely to score when they were competing to win, clearly showing that when presented with an opportunity to not blow the game, they were far more likely to do so.

It’s important to note that everything else about this scenario was the same; each player had to kick from the same spot, into the same-sized net. The only thing that was different was the mental approach they took to the kick.

So where to go from here? If you have identified with some of those characteristics listed under the “not to lose” swimmer, relax.

Here are 5 quick tips to develop the attitude of an athlete who swims to win:

1. Finish what you start. Are you the type of swimmer who gives 80% in practice? Or doesn’t finish the main sets on a regular basis? Get in the habit of finishing the things you start, for once you make not completing the work you set out do a habit than it will extend out into your races as well.

2. Focus on only yourself. Set goals for yourself that don’t hinge on the performances of others. Your training and prep shouldn’t hinge on what others are doing.

3. Be aggressive. When you have established momentum, don’t let it go. When you have a streak of great practices, do your best to extend the chain for as long as you can. Similarly with your races, swim with aggression, confidence and energy from beginning to end.

4. Be willing to dream big. Get in touch with the child-like enthusiasm for achieving hugely massive stuff again. Sure, some of the things that you wanted a kid might have been a little, um, unrealistic (I wanted to be Optimus Prime, after all…), but that doesn’t mean you should stop reaching big.

5. Stop the negative self-talk. At the root this is where playing not to lose starts. The doubts, the wavering belief, the thoughts that you aren’t worthy or deserving of success. Negative self-talk feeds negative emotions, which drives inconsistent focus and performance. Positive self talk has the opposite effect; it feeds into positive emotions, leading to a more relaxed, focused and inherently better performance.


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Sports mom
7 years ago

How about swimming because you love it

7 years ago

I swim not to drown.

8 years ago

Great article, clearly talking about performance and that’s exactly why we train,roar,honest and exactly how the mind chatters the doubt.

Great job

8 years ago

The most important things are to enjoy yourself and do your best; if you focus too much on winning, you can’t handle losing.

Jim C
9 years ago

In open water it is important to swim not to lose your life.

9 years ago

I agree with this article completely.

In high school swimming especially, you typically see kids who are not fully-committed to the sport and confident in themselves go up to the blocks, and become scared of losing. This messes with their mental game, and if you’re not mentally ready to race, you won’t win regardless of abilities and talent.

On the other side, if swimmers go up to the blocks with a confident mind set (but not too confident), they increase their likelihood of succeeding as they believe in their ability to win, regardless of who they are racing against.

9 years ago

While this is a great article, I disagree on a few points.

First, sometimes swimming not to lose is a good thing, when it’s rooted in hating losing. That’s part of what sets swimmers like Phelps and Lochte apart, it’s not that they love winning, everyone loves to win, it’s that they hate losing so much.

Second, it also pays sometimes to focus on others as well. Personally, it motivates me to make more practices and train harder when I know what everyone else is doing. I try to exceed what they are doing by as much as I can and this gives me confidence going into races.

Reply to  Flyin'
9 years ago

I think it’s a fine line between hating losing and swimming not to lose.

In my mind Phelps etc. swim to win so they don’t have to lose. When they lose they hate it, so they go back and get motivated and are able to swim to win next time.

But if you swim not to lose it’s just about avoiding negative consequences. It’s not about dealing with them so you win next time, it’s a mindset rooted in worrying. Instead of fuelling the fire, it’s just a source of constant concern. You don’t deal with it (under this mindset), you just get discouraged but hope it doesn’t happen again.

Reply to  mcgillrocks
9 years ago

I see

Reply to  Flyin'
8 years ago

I think you might have missed the whole point… :))

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national-level swimmer, swim coach, and best-selling author. His writing has been featured on USA Swimming, US Masters Swimming, NBC Sports Universal, the Olympic Channel, and much more. He has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 …

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