The 7 Curses of Being a Talented Swimmer

by Olivier Poirier-Leroy. This article originally appeared at You can join Olivier’s weekly motivational newsletter for swimmers by clicking here.

It’s too bad, she is a really talented swimmer…

What a waste of an amazing talent…

He’s so talented, no wonder he goes so fast…

If you have spent longer than ten minutes on deck at a swim meet you have heard a coach or parent say a variation of the above statements. The lamenting is surprisingly common, so much so that it cannot help but make you wonder why so many talented swimmers never achieve the trajectory that is expected of them.

Sure, laziness, apathy, and a lack of interest are common reasons for why swimmers don’t realize the potential they hold. But perhaps there is a little more to this.

The reality is that we don’t understand why some kids are gifted, while others are not. We like to think that we have the answers—play classical music while they are still in the womb, use high grade organic “brain fuel” baby food, hire the best coaches, and use the best facilities.

But in the argument between nature vs. nurture (a.k.a. the 10,000 hour rule), there is no clear winner for the time being. All great athletes are a mixture of both, just how much it balances out is hard to say.

The odd thing about talent is that when we heap the “you’re so talented” praise on an athlete, it tends to have the opposite effect of what we intend.

Here are 7 curses of being a talented athlete, as well as some research to back it all up:

Talent has high, often ridiculous, expectations. It expects to never screw up. It expects that things will go perfectly every time it wades out into the water.

Talent doesn’t like to ask for help. Talent expects to be able to do things on its own. After all, what is the point of being gifted if you need help or assistance?

Talent relies on itself. Talent feeds on praise, and when given enough of it expects it to simply be there whenever competition comes around. By leaning on their talent and avoiding things they can control, like their mental toughness, swimmers leave things up to fate (or rather, the competition).

Talent expects to be used. When you are recognized at being talented, the assumption immediately becomes that you have taken responsibility for this innate ability, and now you owe it to yourself (and others, it sometimes feels like) to see it through.

Talent isn’t earned. As a result, it can become to feel more like a burden. Something heaped upon an athlete who didn’t necessarily ask for it. The swimmer realizes that “talent” isn’t them, it isn’t something they requested, and the praise it receives has nothing to do with anything they have done. It’s the talent that did the hard work, the swimmer was just along for the ride.

Talent very quickly becomes expectation. “If only” they applied themselves in the pool he or she child would swim faster. With talent comes a series of expectations and bars that are supposed to be achieved. With talented athletes you start to hear the inevitable comparisons—“Oh, he’s the next Michael Phelps” or “She’s just as talented as Missy Franklin.”

Talent gets mixed up with self-identity. Our society rewards those who are impressive. And because the talented swimmer possesses something rare and admirable it is easy for them to sink into feeling as though they are the sum of these performances. They come to identify themselves as this talent—“I’m a fantastic swimmer and that is it.”

What the Research Says

Carol Dweck, known for her work with closed vs. open mindsets (something I will be getting into in future posts), studied a group of fifth graders in which the students took 3 different tests.

The second test was specifically made to be next to impossible so that each child failed. Afterwards half the students were praised for their effort, while half were praised for their intelligence.The students were then administered the third test.

The result?

Those who were praised for their effort performed 30% higher than the first test. More tellingly, those who were praised for their intelligence did 20% worse.

Outside of the fact that they performed worse, those who were marked as being innately intelligent also displayed less persistence and enjoyed the task less.

It’s not much of a stretch to imagine the same thing happening with a swimmer who is touted as being talented and gifted.

In Summary

Focus on the things the athlete can control.

Avoid praising athletes on their innate abilities (“Way to go, you’re tall!”) and instead focus on the things that they can influence, like their effort and commitment.

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HS junior
6 years ago

When I was in 6th-8th grade I really stifled worked hard and was a very average swimmer. Then end of 8th I had a huge break through dropping tens of seconds and becoming an above average swimmer.

Then I got to hs swimming and went from 1:04 going into the season to a 59 at districts and states. The problem was I did it at 5″11 and 130, no mornings and only going to about 5.5 practices a week. People quickly forgot I worked hard to get where I was and the team decided I’m a”talented” lazy swimmer. Now I feel like people are rooting against me.

Whenever I say how hard a practice we just did was people did… Read more »

Yabo Squandrant
Reply to  HS junior
6 years ago

What stroke

6 years ago

I think that study has a very good connection to swimming. From a practical standpoint, it makes no sense to praise things that can’t be controlled, like talent. I noticed a similar effect myself a few years ago when I told a swimmer that her underwaters looked good in a race, and subsequently saw her working her underwaters more in practice than I had ever seen. I complemented her on something she’d been working on, and from then on quality underwaters became a point of pride for her. Since then, I’ve made an effort in post-race talks to directly connect time drops at meets to the work done in practice.

And really, thinking in terms of preparing kids to be… Read more »

Lane Four
6 years ago

Thank God I didn’t have to worry about being labeled a “talented” swimmer.

6 years ago

Another angle here is the coach that fixates on ‘talent’ b/c they want to ride their back to further their own career. Thankfully, I guess, I was not one with a high level of talent, but I watched said coach do everything they could to control, hoard, and manipulate those talented swimmers and families to try and build their own career. I’d say that is another burden of talent. At my age now I’m glad I never had that level of talent – I still love swimming.

6 years ago

Got in that nice and subtle slam on Bama too. Nice job

Chareuk koomkrong
6 years ago

very well

7 years ago

This “talented” swimmer ended up a flaming burnout. “Talent” made me hate it. Every stinking second of it. But I had to do it because the team needed me. And my family expected greatness…. And, and, and….

It took years and a destroyed knee to get back in. To finally find my love of the water and the sheer bliss that comes from all that rhythmic breathing and a great practice.

BTW, swim kit makes for one messy bonfire.

7 years ago

Um. You ever trying living the alternative? Being a swimmer of rather ordinary or even below average physical talent? Those are the folks I respect – the ones that stuck it out, worked hard, and had their own personal triumphs, shared and appreciated only by family, coaches, and empathetic teammates. Those are the people that learned swimming’s lessons best.

Curses of being talented? Please. Get over yourself.

Reply to  GoPokes
7 years ago

You are only supporting his point, “talent isn’t earned.”

You aren’t the first to disparage the ‘merely talented’ while praising those with less apparent talent for the very fact that they seem to be less talented… do you think being treated that way feels more like a blessing or a curse?

Reply to  Dave
6 years ago

Not to mention the impossibility of determining what is talent and what is hard work.

Lots of this is genetic. Some people genetically respond to hard work, and have varying starting points also based on genetics. So those who start low and progress quickly are labelled hard working. Those who start high and struggle to improve are labelled talented but lazy and often run out of the sport.

Reply to  GoPokes
6 years ago

I’m not entirely sure where this came from… did you read the article? It’s not really about talented swimmers vs. hard-working swimmers, so I’m not sure why you responded in such an aggressive manner. It’s simply noting that, from a teaching/coaching perspective, it is more effective to praise things that the athlete controls, like hard work and attention to detail, rather than things they can’t, like talent.

Cynthia mae Curran
Reply to  GoPokes
6 years ago

Some of us were short and not skinny. I like the average talent swimmer myself.

Cynthia mae Curran
Reply to  GoPokes
6 years ago

Some of us were short and not skinny. I like the average talent swimmer myself.

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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