Dealing with Plateaus

Adam Depmore

Sooner or later it happens. An athlete will have a hard time improving their times. Their swimming will become "flat" and it may seem that no matter how hard they work, how much they want to improve, they are stuck at their times. It happens to everyone and no one. Even the greatest swimmers. Everyone remebers Michael Phelps for all the Gold medals he won, but people often forget that he didn't drop any time in any of his events for the last 7 years of his career. 

Here are our thoughts about Plateaus.

1. A swimmer is said to "plateau" when his or her times no longer continue to improve.  Younger age group swimmers (12 and unders) rarely plateau simply because they are growing rapidly and their increased strength generally results in faster times.  If a boy plateaus it generally happens in the late teens when most of his growth and strength gains have been made.  

If there is a typical "plateaued" swimmer it is a girl between the ages of 13 and 15. Girls grow and improve fast as 12 and unders. Oftentimes girls are faster than boys in the same age group.  But as girls physically mature, gain weight, and sometimes become more interested in activities other than competitive swimming their rate of improvement slows and may stop altogether.  

2.  It is important for swimmers to have a variety of events to work on when one or more events aren't improving.  Very often, changing the focus takes pressure off the swimmer to improve in their "best event" and after a time of redirected interest a swimmer can often come back and improve. It is a mistake for developing swimmers of any age to concentrate on one or two events. 

3.  Being the center of attention might seem to be an ideal arrangement for a swimmer to improve but often times it has the opposite effect.  When a swimmer receives extraordinary attention they are under subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) attention to perform well.  When they cannot perform well, which will happen from time to time with every swimmer, they fall under even greater pressure.  It is ok for a swimmer to fade into the workout group for a while and just be part of the crowd. In fact, we coaches love it when we see a swimmer at the tail end of a set. These swimmers are often more focused on "how well" they do a set as opposed to "how hard" they can push the set.

4.  Avoid the "grass is greener" syndrome.  It is common to hear of swimmers who make dramatic improvements over several years, then appear to stall, and jump to another club.  When a swimmer plateaus, communicate with the coach and take a careful look at the program before deciding to move to another club.  Often times there are factors beyond the immediate control of the coach and program that are contributing to stalled performance and might be resolved with good communication.  

5. Don't drink the Kool-Aid. Several big name programs (teams train together, programs don't) will require you to invest thousands of dollars into their program just so you can "feel" like you are part of the team. While these programs may seem successful on the surface, there is no doubt their athletes are just a number. For us, a team trains together at the same location with every athlete working with the same coaches sharing the same philosophy. This helps to build a stronger Coach-Athlete relationship and guarantees long term success.

In addition ask yourself "How did the child improve to this point in the first place?"  Perhaps this is the best program for the swimmer to be in.  The act itself of moving to a new club means, "Now that you're with this new team it is expected that you will again improve", thus adding additional pressure. Running from your problems only makes them stronger.

6. Don't let you goals be your limits. Sometimes we see goals as the highest point we can reach. Bruce Lee said it best "If you always put limit on everything you do, physical or anything else. It will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them."

How Can I Overcome a Swimming Plateau?

Annie Grevers wrote it best in an article she submitted an article to SwimmingWorld magazine in 2014.

1) Celebrate Little Victories
You dropped .01 in the 500 free? That’s worth celebrating. You helped your teammate have one of the best practices of their life? That’s worth celebrating. You had a bad swim, but did not let it ruin your meet? That’s worth celebrating. Swimming without appreciation for the hard work is misery. If you’re thinking, but a best time is not good enough, think again. I learned being discontent with a best time is one way to drain the joy out of our sport. Maybe you are coming back from an injury and you’re frustrated at how much strength you have lost. Start anew with everything, including expectations. One way to re-injure your self or jump on the fast track to burnout is to expect to be immediately on top of your game after a long break.

2) Find the Fun
Why did you start swimming? USA Swimming took a poll of why kids stay in swimming. The result? It’s fun. Sure, a few kids said they swim to stay in shape and win races, but the fun of it keeps most kids interested. What’s gotten in the way of swimming being fun? Getting your state cut or beating your current rival was probably not your incentive to take that initial plunge into the pool. The feeling of weightlessness is fun. The power you feel entering the water after a momentous dive is fun. The day you made a tiny tweak to a stroke and it made a huge difference. That was fun. Keep looking for the fun. Even if it means staying after practice to float on your back and feel the support of that friendly water we sometimes misconceive as a liquid enemy.

3) Take a break
Yes, you read that correctly. A break can mean a day, a week, a month or a year. We’ve all been in a mental rut. Sometimes we only deepen the rut by spending time with our thoughts underwater and thinking of all the reasons we hate swimming on that particular day. This unhealthy perspective can be remedied by stepping away from the underwater solitude for a while. Like a Magic Eye image (‘90s analogy, I know), sometimes we need to step away from our sport to see the beauty in it.

4) Ask for Coaching
The worst thing to do when you’re stumped and frustrated by swimming is try to swim by feel, and seek no outside input. Ask your coach to watch a specific part of your stroke that feels quirky. They love that! Your coaches have a lot of swimmers to watch, so it’s helpful to them if you pinpoint what you’re wanting critiqued. This will also communicate to your coach that you value his or her opinion and want to persevere through this drought of best times.

5) Patience
We grow at different rates. We age up at inopportune times. We get sick right before our big meets. All of these factors can be unwelcome guests when they interrupt the steady drops we came to know and love. Growing or falling ill can leave you in a funk. Did I ever actually know how to swim this stroke? Things get out of whack fast and it takes coaching, focus, and patience to turn your stroke back into something you recognize. If you streamline your thoughts productively while putting in the yards, your strokes can blossom into something stronger and more efficient than anything you had before this testing plateau. These stagnant periods in your swimming career will ultimately make you appreciate your impending success more than you ever would have. To quote A League of Their Own, “If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. It’s the hard that makes it great.”


Our team trains at a higher intensity than any other team. Prolonged training can take it's toll on your neurological systems which can cause the body to "crash". Reset your system by catching up on sleep.