Mental Mistakes To Avoid

As a competitive swimmer, you're continuously taught two keys principles: First, you must have goals to be successful. Second, when you compete, you need to “race” your opponents in order to beat them!

Unfortunately, these two principles are frequently misunderstood and misused, and as a consequence, far too many swimmers limit themselves and end up struggling with repetitive performance problems. 

Let's take a closer look at each of these performance principles and how to successfully utilize them so that they enhance, rather than sabotage your swimming.


Your goals in this sport are absolutely crucial to your ultimate success as a swimmer. Your goals represent where you specifically want to go in this sport and what you really want to achieve. I talk about your goals in swimming as being your “Big Enough Why,” or your dream. It's the main reason that you swim. It's the reason that you are able to drag yourself out of a nice warm bed early in the morning to go and train. It's what helps pick you up after a tough meet or really disappointing setback. It's what helps you push harder in training when your body is loudly telling you to stop because you're too tired or hurting too much! Your Big Enough Why is the “high-test” fuel that keeps you moving fast towards turning your dreams into a reality! 

Regardless of what your Big Enough Why is, whether you swim just because you absolutely love the sport, want to get an Olympic Trials cut, are striving to beat another swimmer or earn a college scholarship, it is absolutely crucial that you learn to use your goals correctly.

Far too many swimmers misuse their goals by bringing them to meets with them. When you go to a big meet and your focus of concentration is on your goal, either before or during your swims, then you will set yourself up to fail. First off, taking your outcome goals with you when you race will make you incredibly nervous pre-race and that nervousness will tighten your muscles and make it impossible for you to swim to your abilities. Second, bringing your goals with you into your event will distract you from what I call a “fast focus.” 

What's a “fast focus?” It's what you concentrate on during your race that helps you go as fast as possible. Concentrating on the feel of your movement, both before and during your race is a “fast focus.” Specifically, this could mean focusing on the feeling of staying long, how much water you're pulling, your under-waters, feeling your hips up high in the water or your shoulders rolling. This “fast focus” varies per swimmer and depends upon the stroke you're swimming. You will always stay calm, have your confidence and swim fast when you focus on the feel of your movement! However, when you focus on your outcome goals, you're actually concentrating on your thinking and not feel, and this will always slow you down.

Remember, your goals are a motivational tool for training only and the main purpose of your “Big Enough Why” is to motivate you right now to do whatever is necessary to get you moving towards that dream of yours. In fact, you should only be using your goals in training to help you connect what you're doing right now with where you ultimately want to go in this sport! Therefore, whenever the going gets tough in training, you should be asking yourself, “how is what I'm doing right now going to help me get to that goal?” 


Since one of the primary reasons that you race is to beat other swimmers, it stands to reason that you would think about and focus on your opponents both before and during your races. Some swimmers do this by going online and looking up opponents' times, others regularly check out the heat sheet before their events to see how fast the competition is, perhaps designing their race strategy based on what they think they know about their opponent while many other swimmers look at and/or think about their opponents both before and especially during their races. 

As a result, far too many swimmers tend to overthink about who they're racing. This over-focus on your opponents will not only get you nervous, but will distract you from that "fast focus." If you are overthinking about who you're swimming against and where they are in the pool, then you will end up distracting yourself from that “fast focus” on the feel of your movement. As a result, you will go much slower than you're capable of and have even less chance of beating them.

So the right way to race other swimmers is to have a good 95% of your focus on the feel of your movement in the race and way in the background, the last 5% of your focus, you can have some peripheral awareness of where your opponent is at. The problem arises when swimmers make their opponents 40-50% or more of their pre- and during-race focus.

So your mental job as a swimmer, if you truly want to go fast when it counts the most, is to “stay in your own lane.” That is, you want to keep your focus on the feel of your movement throughout the entire race. Focusing on where an opponent is and how fast they may be going means that your concentration is on thinking, not feeling, and therefore you will likely end up swimming slower than you could have. 

So first, practice keeping your goals with you every day when you train and NOT bringing them into your meets with you. What this means for your racing is that you want your race focus in the NOW, and not in the FUTURE where your ultimate goals reside! Second, train yourself to stay focused on what you're doing in between your own two lane lines during your races and away from what your teammates or opponents are doing.

Correct these two common mental mistakes made by swimmers and you will be rewarded with more consistent, faster swims!