What To Tell Your Swimmer After They’ve Had a Bad Swim

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. Join 1,800 of your fellow swimmers and coaches and sign up for the YourSwimBook newsletter (free) and get weekly motivational tips by clicking here.

It’s a difficult experience to watch your swimmer come up short of their goals and expectations in the pool. Even though the effort and will were there, the performance, for whatever reason, simply wasn’t.

For some the next part is just as hard. What to say to their athlete. You want to pass on the right sense of comfort while also instilling self-confidence after a crappy swim in the pool. What we say is often determined by how the swimmer him-or-herself behaves afterwards. Reactions from swimmers go up and down the scale from the quiet brooder, to the emotional, inconsolable train-wreck to the time-pad puncher.

There are a couple of the more cookie-cutter approaches when it comes to talking to your athlete about his or her performance—

Dismissive: “You’ll be fine, it’s just one bad swim. Don’t worry about it.”

Supportive: “You’re a talented swimmer, that swim doesn’t represent your skill and talent.”

Silver lining: “At least you weren’t last.”

Challenging: “Yeah, you had a bad swim. So what are you going to do about it?

Is there an alternative to the above? A way that you can be supportive, while challenging your swimmer to step up while also not being dismissive?

The next time your athlete has a performance that they aren’t so thrilled about, try this simple question–

“How can you make this the best thing to happen to you?”

There are several reasons I love this question. (I’ve used the statement version of this on numerous occasions over the years, from break-ups to injuries – “I am going to make XYZ the best thing to ever happen to me.”) Here are five of the more prominent reasons why this angle on the “silver lining” approach should be your go-to the next time your swimmer has a bad swim–

1. It instills a sense of accountability.

If there is one thing we are good at being stinky at, it’s accurate self-reflection. We cover up shoddy training with excuses and over-exaggerate the good training we did do in our minds. Then when it comes to crunch time we wonder why we don’t deliver.

This is natural – after all, we do it to protect ourselves. But in reality it’s a disservice, because we never quite get down to the crux of why we performed the way we did when we create excuses and skew our training history to favor those same excuses.

When you challenge your swimmer to find the best case scenario from their bad swim they are forced to own up to their swim. The good, the bad, and the ugly parts of it.

2. It requires them to look forward.

Swimming back and forth in the warm-down pool after an asinine swim is a lonely experience. With nothing but your thoughts and the cheering of the crowd in the distance to fill your brain you get ample opportunity to go over your swim.

The endless loop of “coulda, woulda, shoulda” and self-pity that fogs up your brain combined with that sickening knot in your stomach is nauseating. Like listening to a record that is fixated on one song and continues to repeat the same tired lyrics.

By asking your athlete how they are going to make this swim a stepping stone for the future it pulls them out of this pattern of rumination and gets them focused on moving forward. The question clears away some of the fog and gets the swimmer focused on what’s next.

3. It places them in a position where they can be proactive and build momentum.

The surest way to build confidence and momentum – especially after a bad swim – is action. Getting focused on making themselves better and improving is an empowering feeling. As mentioned above, once you are pulled out of the toxic cycle of rumination and focused on acting towards better results that confidence and self-belief will start to come back in a hurry.

4. It teaches them to search for a positive outcome in the face of a negative situation.

The reality is that a lot of crappy things happen over the course of a lifetime. We can make contingency plans until we are blue in the face but our girlfriend or boyfriend will still break our heart, we won’t get that job we want, and we’ll lose loved ones.

It’s the way the cookie crumbles.

Swimming, and sport in general, is a microcosm for life. It’s the proving grounds where we learn how to set and chase goals, figure out how to be a good teammate (i.e. work with others), where we develop our work ethic, and of course, learn to deal with failure.

Being able to spin out of negative situations focused on a positive outcome will serve your athlete well in the future, and not just in the pool.

5. Gives them the fuel to take their swimming to the next level.

Once you adopt this mantra a funny thing happens. Instead of viewing that poor performance as an excuse to get down on themselves, the painful memory of that swim morphs into the fuel that will drive them forward. It becomes the high octane gas and the catalyst that will drive the athlete in training in the weeks and months going forward.

What strategies have you used to help your swimmer cope and move on after a bad swim? Let’s hear them in the comments below!

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7 years ago

When confronted with failure in swimming or anything else that’s not life and death, I always find it useful to watch Allen Iverson’s infamous/famous “practice” interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGDBR2L5kzI and to substitute the failed activity for the word “practice.” It puts everything in perspective. As in, “We’re talking about a 100 fly, we’re not talking about the real game.”

These races seem like they’re the most important thing in the world, but they’re just practice for the real game of life. Iverson was an inadvertent genius.

8 years ago

I don’t know how to counsel my swimmer who is discouraged since an inexperienced newcomer to our high school team walked on and beat my daughters times right away. I’ve resorted to talkibg about only concentrating on her own times and working to improve them and not compare to new girl. Any other suggestions?

Reply to  Laura
7 years ago

There will ALWAYS be another faster swimmer that can walk on at any time to your team.

Your daughter should focus on herself and her own goals. Also, view the teammate as a training *partner* and friend (!), not a competitor. This girl is new – reach out make a new friend! Again, she is your duaghters *training partner* and the two of them can push each other for success.

8 years ago

When I was young, it was just a quick wordless hug from my dad, which I was very lucky to have even when I was embarrassed, and my coach telling me it was OK, just go warm down, and that we were still going to McDonald’s and 31 Flavors after the meet. Then he’d just track me down later on when I was in a better mood to brainstorm with me about how to use it to improve the next time. Really simple and no-nonsense and it worked: My best swims most often came right after my worst ones.

8 years ago

I love this question! I am currently a junior in high school and it is said to be the most stressful year. I love swimming and hope to swim in college. I struggle to maintain a good practice schedule between competing in meets for both my school team, as well as club. Some days when I don’t have meets, I am left with no other option but to skip practice because I have an SAT prep class. Even though swimming is very important to me and I would love to swim in college, first I actually have to get into college. All of this has really been cutting into my practice time and it is beginning to show in my… Read more »

Geoff Wood
8 years ago

‘S**t’ happens, what are YOU going to differently next time?

8 years ago

I agree with the approach completely – The best thing you can do is to put the ball in their court and encourage a resilient response.
As we always hear, sport is mental – If young athletes can react positively to a bad performance and be proactive in determining how it sits in their mind, they have a headstart on the rest. We’ve seen it all too often, great athletes Implode at meets because of a bad swim on day 1.

Off-topic WR watch in Flanders, results are very obscure & slow coming out. Peaty 26.9 50 heat after top qual 2.14 in 200. He was 28.2 in Flanders heat last year (27.8 in final).

9 years ago

I agree completely.

9 years ago

Swimmers in my group, if they should end up crying after a race are instructed to go the warm down pool and calm down before we go over the race. If there isn’t one, they hit the showers. Emotions are raw and amplified right after a race and no rational thoughts or words come out of or are received by a teenage swimmer in that state. It also gives me time to prepare a response and calm down if need be. I can get fired up & irritated seeing crying after a poor race performance, it just rubs me the wrong way.

I’ve dealt with those situations with giving them two options after a bad race. They can either A.… Read more »

Reply to  coacherik
9 years ago

I know, it’s really annoying when people make up excuses. I’m not a swim coach, but I am a swimmer, and one person I know on my team is always making up excuses every time she does badly. If she does badly, it’s always something like, “my goggles had water in them” or “I was really tired before my race”. We all like good swims, and it’s disappointing when we don’t swim well, but no need to make up lame excuses.

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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