You’re a Mentally Tougher Swimmer Than You Realize

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


Typically we talk about elite swimmers in terms of talent and performance that borders on reverence.

She is so fast because she has such a good stroke. He’s so much more gifted than other swimmers. She must have really good genetics to be able to swim so fast.

But there is certainly more to the equation of high performance swimming than being tall and being talented. (Although having those two can almost seem like enough for some swimmers.)

Something that separates the equally gifted swimmers, and even helps propel those who aren’t as classically talented into the stratosphere of high achievement.

That little something-something is mental toughness.

After all…

  • Mentally tough swimmers are far more consistent in their training. They don’t allow moments of adversity knock them off track.
  • Mentally tough swimmers are ruthlessly disciplined on the choices they make in life. They implicitly understand to make time for the things that will propel them forward, while limiting and eliminating those that don’t.
  • Mentally tough swimmers love a challenge. They will bang it out with anyone, anytime.
  • Mentally tough swimmers do what needs to be done. They know that waiting to “feel like it” simply isn’t in the cards. They are willing to go to work with whatever they have at their disposal.
  • Mentally tough swimmers manage their expectations. Poorly devised expectations lead to surprises, disappointment and weakened morale.
  • Mentally tough swimmers are flexible and adaptable. They take the bumps in stride, as part of the process, and are willing to find new ways to find progress.

You see this mental toughness especially in moments of adversity, whether it is in training or competition.

Mentally tough swimmers simply find a way to show up even though the situation or conditions may not be ideal.

A common situation in both personal experience and of those that I swam with over the years was a belief that performance must suffer when we are faced with adversity (not just a Civil War era ship!) or unexpected circumstances.

That if you had a bad night of sleep, your swimming should be a little slower, a little less awesome in order to reflect the shoddy rest. Or that if you don’t get a full warm up before the big race and do your stretches exactly as prescribed that you won’t be able to swim to your capability.

What the Research Gots-to-Say

In order to test this out, and to see how closely an athlete’s perception of their ability matched up against their actual performances, the Australian Sports Institute applied a couple tests to a group of elite male water polo players—

  • The first was performing 8×50 for time. Results were measured against the player’s best time. The players had a 97.5% success rate in meeting their target times.
  • The second was done to measure accuracy. Each player swam up and down the length of the pool three times, shooting from a different position, with their accuracy measured. The players were 31.8% accurate in their shots.

A week later the same players were asked how they would think they would perform on the same tasks if they had been up for a full 24 hours. With their estimates submitted, the players were asked to stay up for a 24 hour period before performing the same tests at a 5:00am practice.

While conventional thinking among athletes is that adverse situations are more likely to detract from an optimal performance, the study found the opposite:

  • The 8×50’s for time was met with a 99.1 success rate, which improved on the 97.5 score from the first round.
  • The shooting accuracy improved from 31.8 to 34.8.

In other words, the athletes had “toughened up” and done what they had had to do to perform at a high level.

Were they tired, both mentally and physically? Without a doubt.

But the important takeaway is that they were still able to rise to the occasion and actually improve despite the less-than-optimal circumstances.

Post-study discussions with players and coaches showed that the players were not only more likely to believe they could push through tough circumstances, but that their mental outlook displayed more resilience in later competitions and tours.

In other words, the research supported what many of your coaches have already been telling you for years— you are far tougher and far more “ready” at any given point than you give yourself credit for!

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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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