Talent is Overrated: 8 Habits of Elite-Level Swimmers

by Olivier Poirier-Leroy. Join his weekly motivational newsletter for competitive swimmers by clicking here.

If you look across the wide expanse of the world wide web there’s no shortage of ways to become a faster swimmer.

There are different types of technique. There are an endless number of swim practices to try. And of course, there are the considerations of dryland and nutrition.

But while it’s easy to pinpoint the reasons why some swimmers are faster than others—talent, height, coaching—there is something else that we can all work on, regardless of how gifted we are in the water…

It’s that little something-something that keeps you grinding in the pool when you are exhausted.

It’s the same thingy that keeps you focused during that gnarly main set when you’d rather let your mind wander off.

It’s mental toughness.

Instead of getting bent out of shape about how you aren’t as talented or as tall, resolve to be the mentally toughest swimmer in the pool.

Here’s just some ideas of how you can level up your mental fortitude in the water:

Show true humility.

It can be humbling to have to swim and race against the athlete who has won not only the genetic Powerball, but also seems to have more talent than they know what to do with.

While a swimmer might mistakenly say that “I’ll never be as good as them, so forget even trying” and label that as humility, true humility is understanding what your gifts and talents are and focusing on those.

Instead of wishing they had what others possessed or could do, or feel entitled to something others have, our mentally tough swimmer is humble and grateful for what they do have and are eager to exploit their abilities to the maximum.

Have a ceaseless curiosity about their own limits.

I’m wary of swimmers who seem convinced that they know what they are capable of. That they “can’t” do something (even though they have never really tried). Of course, this conviction is usually shaken and finally broken when they do eventually break through.

Unfortunately, they also wasted a lot of time and training in “can’t” mode, making progress in the water take longer than it would if you were willing to be more curious about your self-perceived limitations in the water.

Mentally tough swimmers are curious about what they are capable of doing in the water, and as a result, are more willing to test out the outer reaches of their abilities more regularly.

As a result, there are far more opportunities for improvement along the way compared to our swimmer who is so certain they “can’t” do something.

Be ready to learn.

Similarly to the swimmer who simply “can’t”, there is the swimmer who won’t. They won’t take criticism—even when it is to their direct benefit to do so.

Being coachable is a big part of being mentally tough, and perhaps not for the reasons you might think: often we associate mental toughness with stubborness.

Being stubborn with not giving up is different from being too stubborn to learn from others, your successes and your failures.

Use negative emotions productively.

We all experience frustration, disappointment, and outright grumpiness over the course of the season.

We stub our finger on the bulkhead. Cut our finger open on a cracked blade on the lane rope. Blow a knee while in the gym.

It happens.

The emotions that follow can either hinder you further by pushing you to withdraw and give up, or you can use that surliness and upside-down-frown to propel you to bigger and better things in the pool.

fascinating study that looked at the mindsets of super champions versus the “almosts” showed a marked difference in how the elite perceived and reacted to adversity—while the initial frustration was identical with both groups, our high achievers used that anger and frustration to double-down on their training and come back stronger than ever.

Have the patience to unstuck yourself.

Mentally tough swimmers have a patient approach with those pesky practices and sessions where things aren’t going their way.

Here’s an example.

You go to the pool, and things just feel off. Your stroke can’t get it together. Your feel for the water is floating away from you. And your legs may as well be dragging along the bottom of the pool behind you.

So, what do we do? Throw in the chlorinated towel? Get frustrated and bail?

Nah—our mentally tough swimmer slows things down, does some drills to increase their feel for the water (closed fist freestyle, FTW), and concentrates on doing one or two things really, really well (supremely tight streamlines, for instance).

This patience is eventually rewarded–rarely immediately, but with some perseverance the big breakthrough is right around the corner.

Stop waiting.

Over numerous occasions, both in the water and in my dryland life have I caught myself falling for the myth of “perfect conditions”:

I’ll really start working hard when I am in better shape. When I have access to a better facility I’ll do more work on my starts. I didn’t sleep that great last night, I should probably take today off.

Mentally tough swimmers don’t just do things when things are easy, or when they are convenient, or when they feel like it. They understand opportunities and time are limited, and act with a sense of urgency.

Build routines that support your goals.

The stop-and-go athlete is a common sight on pool decks: they are the swimmer that shows up, fired up and ready to lay waste to some workouts…for about three days.

And then? Bye-bye.

You don’t see ’em until they are motivated again. Till they “feel like it.” Forever waiting for that deep and unyielding motivational wildfire to seize upon them.

For the mentally tough swimmer, motivation hardly comes into the picture. Sure, it’s there, but it’s not the mitigating factor in what kind of effort they are going to put in at the pool.

Their routines, their process are what dictate whether or not they are going to show up, not how motivated they are (or aren’t).

The Takeaway

Mental toughness is something that is talked about at length with our sport. It’s frequently cited as a major factor in how successful a chlorinated athlete will become over the course of their swimming career.

It’s something you can and should be working on with regularity in your training.

Seize upon the daily opportunities and challenges that present a chance to harden your mindset (and confidence). Open up your mindset so that you aren’t limited by what you “feel like” doing from moment to moment. And show up on deck with an optimistic and challenge-oriented mindset at your next practice.


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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You forgot #8: Have great swimming genetics

Caeleb Dressel Will Get 7 golds in Tokyo

So true

HB Swim Dad

#8: this is truly the saddest day in the age group swimmer’s life; to accept that they may never make the A cut, no matter how “mentally tough” they are, simply because their genetics place a hard ceiling over how fast you can swim. As my son is turning 14, like most boys he’s finally hitting his growth spurt, adding muscle and length to his young body – his improvements are marked and clearly a result of his maturing strength and size. However, some of his 14 year old teammates have appeared to hit peak growth already and plateaued in their times, while other more genetically blessed swimmers are still growing and their times are dropping accordingly. This is where… Read more »

I don’t mean for this to come off as preachy as it’s going to sound – but if not making the A cut is the saddest day of their life, then I think it would be a great time for a parent-child conversation about perspective and motivation and the bigger picture.


If a 14 year old stops improving, they need to get a new coach, no matter where they are in their growth spurt.

OC Dad

Yep, that’s when many of them wake up from their dream of Olympic greatness and focus on new dreams, activities and interests. It’s a good thing to grieve then move on.

Ol' Longhorn

Would it be different if it were the third-place finisher in the Olympic trials? Would you give the same advice to those third placers who call it the biggest disappointment in their lives? Haven’t seen that comment yet. Of course it’s the saddest day in a 14-year-old boys life. Unless they’ve lost a parent, sibling, pet, been dumped by a girl —- all of which are statistically unlikely at that point in life —- it’s probably going to be a very sad day at 14 to realize no matter how hard you try, or how much the coach says if you work hard and are mentally tough, you can achieve all your goals, you may never make it. Don’t minimize… Read more »


Superior Genetics or not the focus on age group swimming and up should always be on technique. Parents need to stop trying to move their kids up the ranks to swim longer or with faster kids before the swimmer has good technique. Just because you can keep up doesn’t mean you should be swimming with a higher group. I have known many swimmers of shorter stature who are just as fast as the more genetically gifted ones because they used their mental gifts to pay attention to coach’s drills and do things correctly. I have also known giants to whom everything came easy as a 10 and under who stop improving later on. It is almost always because of parental… Read more »


Swimmers should never have to chose to accept wether or not they can make a cut. If a swimmer truely wants something accomplished I believe they can make it though it will take some time. Just because a 14 year old may not be improving a lot now does not mean that they will never make another cut again. If someone truly wants it then they can make it. Its all about how much the swimmer wants it not how much anyone else wants it. Yes, swimming can come naturally to some swimmer but hard work can beat talent too.

Ol' Longhorn

This is complete BS. Hard work without talent never beats hard work with talent.


There are many not so muscular, not so tall great swimmers. Cody Miller, Jordan Willimovsky. And younger, Ivan Puskovitch, Daniel Roy. Puberty happens at very different times for boys. Great technique will eventually win over tall and sloppy.


Would have been better just to have a title – 7 Habits of Highly Successful Swimmers. Talent is NOT overrated. You can’t tell me that Dressel isn’t a genetically gifted swimmer. He (and his sister) have talent they were born with. Same can be said about all the great swimmers that have collected golds along the way. Take a look at Biondi’s kid…….seriously…..you don’t believe talent plays a huge role? Coaches have a role in the sport to support the swimmers who may not have the genetic makeup but love swimming and swim hard at every practice. There is a place for them on every team (USA, high school or college). These kids need to be encouraged not to give… Read more »

OC Dad

For the genetically normal struggling to find their place on the team, I think parents may do a better job in the “support” role, even suggesting taking a short break from swimming.


Talent is not overrated.

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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