How to build a competitive mindset in practice

There is no shortage of material, tips, and “hacks” for swimming faster.

Google “how to swim faster” and you are going to get over 66,000,000 results. (!!!)

Technique, dryland, sets—there is so much stuff out there that you are going to be neck-deep in tips faster than you can say, “Get out swim!”

Most of the traffic that comes to my blog is a variation on the “how-to” searches:

  • How to swim faster freestyle
  • How to improve your underwater dolphin kick
  • Swim workouts for distance swimmers
  • How to not swim like a potato

And so on.

But the thing that is missing from all of this information is quite literally half the thing you need to perform your best…

The mental half of your performance

Swimmers are on a merciless hunt for improvement in performance…

But usually only when it comes to the physical half of their swimming.

The other half, what’s happening under your cap and between the ears, is the missing part of most swimmer’s preparation.

After all, you can work your tail off for months on end at practice, you can buy the fanciest of fancy tech suits, but if you crumble under pressure and “choke,” all that hard work feels like it was for nothing.

Being confident, mentally tough, and mentally prepared on race day is a choice that is made ahead of time.

Yup, some swimmers definitely “have it” when it comes to racing with a killer instinct.

But even the greats work at making their mindset even stronger:

  • Michael Phelps did nightly visualization and relaxation exercises to help calm his mind and bullet-proof his preparation.
  • Katie Ledecky uses goal setting and visualization to know what her stroke should feel like at every part of her race.
  • Caeleb Dressel reflects on and evaluates his training and competition in great detail in his logbook, relentlessly seeking ways to get better.

So yes—a high-performance mindset isn’t something you are born with, it’s something you gotta work at!

Even for the fastest swimmers on the planet.

The ability to properly channel your energy on race day in the most productive way possible doesn’t need to be this big mystery.

Hoping to perform well on race day isn’t a strategy.

At least, not a strategy that will produce consistent results.

Forget the yo-yo and prepare mentally with the same gusto and commitment that you prepare physically.

The good news is that being mentally prepared doesn’t require a metric butt-ton of time and energy.

Crank up the pressure in training.

I know that swim practice is hard. All the meters and yards and threshold sets are not easy. No doubt about that.

But the mental toughness needed to crush a 7,000m distance practice isn’t the same as the mental toughness you need to conquer pressure on race day.

There are countless swimmers among us who thrive in the psychologically safe confines of practice, but crumble mentally on race day.

You know the swimmer…

They can put up near-PB’s at the end of a 50,000m week of training, but when fully rested and tapered, struggle to knock a tenth of a second off their best time.

This result is wildly infuriating and discouraging for the swimmer who works their tail off at practice.

(And let’s be honest, they deserve a better result than they are getting!)

Often the reason is that there is a serious mismatch in the amount of pressure they experience in training versus the pressure they experience in competition.

If this sounds like you, it’s time to get serious about asking yourself how much pressure you are experiencing in training.

How closely are you ratcheting up the intensity and pressure in practice so that the pressure and intensity of competition isn’t so performance-crushing?

Here are some simple ways you can turn up the pressure when there is no pressure:

  • Visualize the competition in the lane next to you. One of my all-time favorite swim practice mindset strategies is picturing my competitor in the lane next to me. Perpetually pushing me, always just slightly ahead, giving me a rabbit to chase during long sets and practices. Sometimes you will lose, sometimes you will win, but put in enough reps of this kind of visualization and your competitive instinct will sharpen in a big way.
  • Prepare for practices with meet warm-ups and meet “seriousness.” Have practice later today? Spend the rest of the day preparing for it the same way you will a meet session. Eat the same meals. Do the same dryland activation. Warm-up with the same precision and attention to detail. Swimmers often make the mistake of only getting serious about their preparation on race day. Approach some of your workouts each week with the same kind of detail and seriousness as you will on race day.
  • Build the habits you want in competition in practice. Turns, streamlines, starts—you shouldn’t have a practice mode and meet mode for these things. Attack all of your walls. Streamline like a champion every time you hurtle off the start or the wall. The less you have to think about these things on race day, the faster you will swim. Killer performances don’t come about because of the magic of taper or because of luck or because you think you are entitled to them. Build the race of your dreams each day at practice.
  • Practice performance cues in training. Performance cues are one of the absolute essentials for swimming at your best. They keep you from getting distracted, whether it’s internal distractions (worrying about the result, overthinking how you are feeling in the water) or external distractions (the expectations of others, how fast other swimmers perform). Build a set you want to use in competition (“Explode!” for the start; “Easy speed!” for the first half of your race, etc) and use them regularly in practice. Performance cues keep your mind clear and focused.

The performance you want in competition starts in practice.

And not just technique, or stroke rate, or even the pace you want to hold on race day.

But the mindset you have on race day is carved out in training.

Make the decision to train with a mindset of high-performance.

And this means more regularly bringing that competitive mindset to the pool with you on those dark early mornings, at the tail-end of a big week of training, and when you are feeling sluggish and tired halfway through the main set.

Thoughts?

How are you going to crank up the intensity in training so that you are ready for race day (when that happens again, obviously)?

Let me know,

Olivier

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