The Mental Strategy Caeleb Dressel Used to Win Five Olympic Gold Medals

The timing of it all made the comparisons so easy that they wrote themselves.

After the Rio Olympics in 2016, Michael Phelps, the GOAT, retired from the sport.

Best of all time.

Hands down.

The following year, at the 2017 World Aquatic Championships, Caeleb Dressel has his big international breakthrough.

Dressel had been a superstar during his collegiate career at the University of Florida, but that week in Budapest was his first big showing on the international stage. Dressel’s week includes winning seven gold medals, rattling world records and posting world textile bests in the 50m freestyle (21.15) and 100m butterfly (49.86).

The only other swimmer to that point to win seven gold medals at Worlds?

You know who.

It didn’t take much imagination for commentators to start saying, “Welp, here’s the next Michael Phelps!”

The heir apparent.

And so, expectations were running at a frothy boil for Caeleb Dressel leading into Tokyo. All eyes were on him to ascend the throne.

With three individual races and a bunch of relays, with prelims, semis, and finals, Dressel’s calendar was busier than the warm-up pool.

And how did he manage the hectic schedule and pressure of the Olympics?

By taking things one swim at a time.

Nine Days, Five Golds, and a Sheet of Paper

In the days following Dressel’s gold medal performances in Tokyo (five in all), he was asked repeatedly how he’d dealt with the pressure.

The expectations.

Not only his own, but those of everyone else, too.

Over the nine days of swimming competition in Tokyo, Dressel competed in nine sessions and raced 14 times.

To help keep perspective on the job at hand, he printed out a schedule for the meet and circled the events he was swimming.

At the bottom of the page, he wrote the number of swims he had during each session, and along the sides of this sheet of paper he scribbled out some simple reminders for himself.

Control what you can control. Progress not perfection. Give yourself a chance. Pressure is good.

Each day when he left the pool, he would cross out a big X on the session.

He’d also cross out the swim(s) he did that day.

Image via Instagram (@caelebdressel)

This simple act was one of the keys to his success that week in Tokyo.

“One thing that really helped during this meet, and I’ve done this before at other big meets,” Dressel told Good Morning America after the Olympics had wrapped up. “Every night I’d take my pen and cross out every session…. Before you knew it, I was quarter of the way done… Before you knew it, I was halfway done, and before you knew it, I had two days left. That helped a lot physically seeing how much I actually had left to do.”

After each swim, each session, he’d bust out a pen and cross out the session and the swim.



“For me, it’s taking it one race at a time.”

This strategy is more powerful than it looks.

And here’s why.

Keeps you mentally in place.

When we have a big task before us, whether it’s a massive test set at practice or a nine-day Olympic schedule, it’s easy to start time traveling with our thoughts.

When we aren’t present and in the moment, we open up the mesh bag of our past swims and future worries and start rooting around for things to overthink.

  • That week of training I missed over the holidays is going to cost me.
  • Last time I swam in this pool, I didn’t swim fast at all.
  • I don’t feel as fast as I did the last time I went a PB.
  • If I don’t go a personal best time tomorrow, this whole season will have been for nothing.
  • I still have three more days of competition, how am I going to have the energy for it all?

Simply crossing out the day’s activities won’t completely remove those pesky thoughts or make you immune to worrying about the future…

But it will help you get better at being present with your thoughts so that you can spend more time delivering your full effort and concentration on the Next Lap.

And less time stressing out about things that haven’t happened.

Provides visual feedback on your progress.

There are lots of better-than-average reasons to write out your swim workouts (Dressel does this as well, having kept a detailed logbook since he was in high school), and a biggie is seeing progress on paper.

Each day, when Dressel crossed out a swim or a session, it was like a progress bar for a download or an app installation, steadily marching to completion.

There’s a reason that smartphones, apps, websites, and screens use progress bars (or spinny wheels, rotating egg timers, etc)—because they help you better perceive the task to help you complete it.

After all, if you see that you are making progress, and if you can see the progress bar chugging along, you are going to keep going!

Helps you bounce back when things don’t go well.

We’ve all had a swim meet where things did not go well on day one.

Maybe we were overly wound up, too nervous, didn’t sleep enough, feeling overwhelmed, but whatever the case, we dove in and had a smellier-than-a-moldy-pull buoy swim on the first race of the meet.

Being able to properly process a disappointing performance and bounce back is one of the key things elite swimmers do spectacularly well.

They have a short memory, learn on the fly and move on.

The simple act of crossing out a session or a swim is a way to help you do this.

It reinforces that feeling of, “This session/swim is behind me, it’s time to move on.”

For swimmers who get stuck dwelling on the past, or who frequently allow one bad swim turn into a stretch of bad swims, this can be a good habit to use to help break the chain and close the chapter on a frustrating performance.

This is a habit that Dressel didn’t just start in competition—he does the same sort of thing each night with a journal, where he writes about the things he’s stressed about and the things going on in his life.

And just like with the crossing off of the events and swims, once he’s put pen to paper, it’s time to move forward.

“When I close the pages, the problems—good or bad—are over, I learn from it, and move on,” says Dressel.

Take it one lap at a time

Sometimes the hardest thing to do in the world in the water is to keep things simple.

To ignore the noise and focus on right now.

But swimming one race at a time…

One practice at a time…

One lap at a time…

Will give you the best possible chance at success.


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.


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2 years ago

I used this strategy while serving my country as a POW. The only way for me to survive the torture, starvation and loneliness.

Reply to  DJTrockstoYMCA
2 years ago

Now I use this strategy to combat the PTSD, political upheaval in the US and climate change.

2 years ago

Another “article” using an athlete’s name and likeness he didn’t pay for to advertise his product. Eye roll

Reply to  Eagleswim
1 year ago

Thanks for your comment but nobody asked.

2 years ago

Pretty sure caelebs first individual olympic race was the 100 freestyle in rio, not any races in tokyo.

Chineeese boy
2 years ago

I was a bit disappointed by Kyle finishing second but huge respect to this dude

2 years ago

Not sure if there’s a good place to post this. But Popovici’s instagram story is a screenshot of the top performers of the 200free, and him saying “the 1:42 club looks too lonely, may I’ll join soon, mark my words”. I’m liking the bravado.

Last edited 2 years ago by john26
Mr Piano
Reply to  john26
2 years ago

He’s certainly on a trajectory toward it

Steve Nolan
2 years ago

Once I got to the scribble about stress in the left margin I expected to see, “Fear is the mind-killer” as the next one.

2 years ago

Used this strategy going through chemo and radiation last year. It works.

Reply to  Billy
11 months ago

I’m sorry to hear that

2 years ago

Interesting that he had the 800 free relay shown as one of his swims. Wonder if we’ll ever get the full story on how the coaches chose the relay lineups.

Steve Nolan
Reply to  96Swim
2 years ago

Great catch! I don’t know if we ever get the full story – usually it’s pretty straightforward, “we felt like these swimmers gave us the best chance to win” – but I wish we’d get more for these choices especially. I’d really wanna know about the mixed medley thought process, and am sorta interested in the men’s 4×2. (I’m sure plenty of people would wanna know more about the women’s 4×1 free relay, too.)

Reply to  Steve Nolan
2 years ago

I heard the mixed medley was “gut feeling” by Durden and Meehan

Steve Nolan
Reply to  swimlikefishdrinklikefish
2 years ago

It couldn’t be the math, so it has to be something like that – swimmers looking better / worse at camp or something. I hope there is a rationale past “gut feeling” but I doubt we’d ever hear anything more than that.

Reply to  Steve Nolan
2 years ago

Seems to me like they were giving specific swimmers a medal and swim in the final rather than choosing the fastest team. So maybe there was lobbying by prominent swimmers and their coaches that should’ve been ignored.

How much can CD bench???
Reply to  96Swim
2 years ago

As mad as I too am about the 4×200, I think we all know what the coaches were thinking, Townley and Smith were automatic slots, no one here is questioning that. They took the fastest from prelims and they thought Zapple was the hot hand after his monster split in the 4×100. He was probably looking real good in camp too. Hard to argue with that logic, team USA had used similar logic many times before. They probably had Dressel slotted in only as an option if everyone got pianoed in prelims. My only complaint with this is that zapple looked off in the prelims of the 100 the previous night. There had to have at least been some discussion… Read more »

Reply to  How much can CD bench???
2 years ago

Hard to believe anyone in their right mind would think Zapple>Caeleb, especially after the swims on that session.

Reply to  How much can CD bench???
2 years ago

Apple had never had to do a double at Nationals or Worlds. Asking your first one to be in the Olympics with the 200 on the back end is a little crazy. We saw how Emma McKeon faired with her version of that too. Dressel is the one sprinter who’s done triples on shorter time frames and remained near his best in all 3 swims. All that and his training background with Troy made him the right call.

If you go out swinging with the best male swimmer on the planet then so be it.

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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