The Swimmer’s Guide to Conquering the Struggle

by Olivier Poirier-Leroy. Join 9,000+ swimmers and coaches who read his motivational newsletter last week by clicking here.

Progression. Improvement. Breakthrough. It’s what we invest the countless number of hours swimming back-and-forth for.

As swimmers, we aren’t really asking for much when we get up on the blocks. A second here, a few tenths there. Seems reasonable. Particularly within the context of the work we have put in in order to make that expectation realistic.

Long before we shave down and suit up, before the taper and the bright lights, and before the medals, records and the starter’s gun, there is…

The struggle.

It’s a constant companion over the course of our swimming journey. From age grouping (trademark!) to the Olympics, we all experience the grindy nature of the struggle.

The struggle is, as they say, quite real.

The foundation of improvement, whether it is having a slightly faster kick, dialing in the hand entry on your butterfly, or developing a back-end where you fall apart just a little bit less, are all found in the struggle.

After all…

  • The struggle is where your technique gets honed in.
  • The struggle is where your mental toughness and resilience are put to the test. Either hardened, or softened.
  • The struggle is where you lay the foundation—both physical and mental—for your competition performances.
  • The struggle is where you learn about yourself, where limitations are exploded, reset, and pushed further outwards.
  • The struggle foreshadows the big breakthrough. It’s where we find those small improvements, the personal milestones in practice.
  • The struggle is where the swimmer you become is chiseled and forged.
  • The struggle is where things don’t work, until they do.

Alrighty, well that sounds all great and wonderful, but where do we start? How do we become the kind of swimmer than doesn’t merely survive the struggle, but conquers it?

Here are a few of my favorite ways to do just that:

Expand your comfort bubble.

The thought of completely destroying your comfort bubble is paralyzing for most swimmers. It’s like asking a swimmer who has never done more than 50m butterfly to do a 1500 of it.

It’s not that it’s physically impossible, it’s impossible mentally for the swimmer to grasp. And so they never bother trying to expand their horizons, sticking within the borders of what they have done in the past.

Grow your comfort bubble by small increments—so small that they are impossible not to follow through with.

Yes, the big bubble moments seem like they would give you greater traction, but nothing beats the small, repetitive act of steadily expanding what you consider yourself capable of.

Don’t overthink it.

I had a coach that used to brag about how tough of a set we were going to get Saturday morning. It would come up over the course of the week a few times, and by the time Saturday morning rolled around, at least a handful of swimmers all experienced similar issues with their alarm clocks not properly functioning.

We tend to build things up so much in our head, to the point that it’s not even about whether or not our bodies can handle the work—it comes down to us not being psyched out.

Thinking about the tough work to come never makes it go by any easier. Show up and roll with the punches.

Bribe yourself.

Sure, swimming faster in itself should be enough of a reward. But all too often in the middle of hard training when in-practice improvement is negligible, rewarding yourself for doing the work can prove to be a valuable way to make sure you are still crushing the yards.

For each killer practice you put down reward yourself. For each week you have perfect attendance, reward yourself.

Pride yourself on your struggle-conquering abilities.

I have discussed identity-based goals and habits for swimmers before, and how it can be a powerful way to manipulate the way you view yourself and mentally trick yourself into swimming like the swimmer you want to be.

For instance, if you decide that, “I am going to be the swimmer that never gives up in practice” and you do it a few times, it starts to become an engrained behavior. Chances are good you have used this before in a negative context—“I am no good at kick sets” or “I suck at breaststroke.”

The effect of identity-based statements is that they direct the way you perform. If you tell yourself that you stink at kick sets, your effort will be less than awesome doing them moving forward.

If, on the other hand, you put together a couple positive identity-based statements, and stick with them, you will find that you can mold yourself into the swimmer that puts a whooping on the struggle.

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Mercedes S.
6 years ago

Thank you. Needed this pep talk.

7 years ago

Trying to compile a list for my kids of the fastest known 100 Yd kick times with a board. Anyone have any numbers?

Reply to  Pvk
7 years ago

I’m french so I’m not familiar with yards but I know that Amaury Leveaux (2008 silver medalist in the 50 free and gold medalist in the 2012 4×100 free relay) used to be under the minute in the 100m freestyle kick with a board.

That would be under 52 in yards.

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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