Psychology- Building Mental Toughness

Psychology- Building Mental Toughness

You have come a long way. You understand how the Swimming Machine works, how it adapts, how to keep it healthy and fueled and you even know everything about the environment it functions in. But why? Why go to practice and hurt yourself? Why endure the anxiety of racing? Why suffer through the inevitable failure and why bother trying to bounce back and recover?

Because you have an “itch.” An itch to swim, race and be part of something bigger. I can’t tell you why you have that itch, it’s different for each swimmer, but if you have made it this far in the book, you definitely have it. The itch will fluctuate day to day, it will be tempted, it may even disappear for a while but learning where this itch comes from, how to keep it health and itchy may be the best thing you can do for your Swimming Machine.

The first step is to understand that the mental aspect of swimming exists and it can be trained like any other part of the body. Being aware and mindful of this part of the body that needs training is the first step in building mental toughness. That’s what this chapter is about, finding mental toughness in order to maximize our potential and helping others maximize theirs. Mental toughness is sometimes a vague and mysterious thing only “elite” athletes have, but none of that is true. Mental toughness is simply the ability to make yourself perform consistently at a high level in workout or meets. That takes motivation, confidence, self-control and control over your emotions.

For coaches, helping athletes achieve this mental toughness is really the only job you have. Swimmers know what needs to be done, but often they are not strong enough to do it by themselves. Your leadership (and those of the team) can build that inside others and it will have a spot in our chapter.

Only about half of success can be attributed to talent and opportunity, the rest comes from the mind and deliberate training. That’s why this may be the most important chapter in the whole book!

Tangent: This is going to be a long chapter, start practicing self-control by forcing yourself to get through it!

The Brain- Animal vs. Human

Just like muscles, heart, lungs, and hormones there is a physical cellular machine that is responsible for doing every job in the Swimming Machine, including all the aspects of mental toughness we are going to learn about. There are two important brain parts that we should know about: the limbic system and the frontal lobe. These two parts kind of have opposite functions and tend to fight each other which is a good thing because that is how the mind keeps balance (like hormones that have opposite effects).

The limbic system controls emotions, behavior, motivation and long-term memory. It has many little parts, like the hippocampus, that integrate like an electrical circuit board to regulate your mood and create memories. This is considered a more “ancient” and primordial part of the brain that is responsible for our animalistic instinct. Fear, anxiety, happiness and satisfaction are all created here when the limbic system sends out signals to affect your hormones and nerves in other parts of the body. For instance, when you are anxious before a race and have butterflies in your stomach, that’s the limbic system telling your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and get the body ready for a showdown.

The limbic system may be an old dog, but it can be taught new tricks. This circuit board receives information and reacts to it in a programmed way. Just like building a new motor pattern in the basal ganglia (as we learned in our Motor Learning chapter), practiced and controlled training of how you feel can alter the programming of the limbic system and redirect its reaction. For instance, feeling anxious before a race can be an “unpleasant” feeling, but if you redirect your thoughts to believing that anxiousness is just the body’s way of getting ready for a race, then anxiety is really something you want. In time, this redirection of thoughts and feelings will become imprinted onto the limbic system and become automatic, just like a learned swimming stroke because automatic with practice.

Tangent: The limbic system is where your sense of smell (olfaction) is processed. That is why smell triggers the most powerful memories.

So, which part of the brain is doing all this thought control that feeds into the limbic system? That would be the frontal lobe… literally the front third of your entire brain. This part of the brain is responsible for higher level thinking, planning, complex behavior, decision making and moderating your emotions. If the limbic system is the animal side of us, the frontal lobe is the human side.

Tangent: Zombies don’t have a frontal lobe. They are pure animal.

The frontal lobe makes decisions. It decides between right and wrong, chasing dreams or staying in bed, setting a tough goal or to “go through the motions.” It is the frontal lobe’s job to suppress emotional impulses that tend to drive us towards the thing that will satisfy us in the moment, but may be bad for us in the long run (like suppressing the urge to stay at home and watch TV instead of go to practice). The frontal lobe is the last part of the brain that fully develops as we grow up. You can see this in kids, they have a feeling (I want to chase a ball) and there is no frontal lobe to say “WAIT, STOP, THINK” which would have protected them from running into the street after a ball.

Tangent: The same behavior is seen in patients who have a damaged frontal lobe. The most famous case belongs to Phineas Gage, whose left frontal lobe was destroyed when a large iron rod was driven through his head by exploding dynamite 1848. Gage retained his normal memory, speech and motor skills, but his personality changed. He became irritable, quick-tempered, impatient and got into gambling and drinking. The change was so big, his friends said he “want not Gage” anymore.

Just like other parts of the brain, the frontal lobe can be trained! Practice, practice, practice can improve the frontal lobe’s grip and control over the limbic system. Getting a good education and forcing yourself to control your actions despite opposing urges will help build up this part of the brain and make it easier in the future to make good choices (eating an apple) and control emotions (moderating anxiety before a race).

It may be easy to fall into the trap that the frontal lobe and limbic system fight each other and that we should only feed the frontal lobe and suppress the limbic system (become Vulcan… for the Trekies). But this would be a mistake. Emotions is where we get our power! It’s our energy and we need it to push the Swimming Machine to the breaking point. The key is to keep it under tight control and direction through the frontal lobe. If you let emotions run wild then we will be run by them alone, and that includes the bad emotions. In a sport with more downs than ups, it is important to control emotions and not let them control you so you can maintain your long-term goals and not be lost to hopelessness. 

Tangent: In the past, to cure severe emotional disorders the connection between the frontal lobe and limbic system was surgically cut, a “pre-frontal lobectomy.” After the procedure, patients became passive and lacked all motivation. What a real zombie would look like.

Motivation- The Will to Do

The alarm goes off at 5:00 AM, and you JUMP out of bed excited to get to practice (ok… a little exaggerated). Why? What’s the motivation? More importantly, what IS motivation? Most animals on this planet need motivational feelings like hunger and thirst to make them get up and find the things that will satisfy them and keep them alive. So really, motivation is a search for satisfaction. When that satisfaction is achieved, the motivation (the itch) goes away. But we don’t want our motivation to go away! We want to be motivated all the time. For that, we need a goal that can’t be achieved, but must be continually strived for. This is called “self-actualization,” and it is at the top of a pyramid, specifically Dr. Maslow’s Pyramid.

Tangent: Expanded Maslow Pyramid has 8 levels… but 5 (slash 3) will be plenty for us.

Before we jump to the top of this pyramid, let’s try to understand the lower levels first. And because you are a swimmer, let’s put it in swimming terms, specifically the questions of: Why do I swim? Starting at the bottom of the pyramid, the Basic Needs, we can answer our question.

As you might expect, if you had to swim and race well just to earn dinner from your parents, that would be very motivating. You may think this doesn’t apply to any swimmer these days, but college swimmers attending school on a swimming scholarship or professional swimmers earning a paycheck based on racing appearances and performance will feel this type of motivation. They are swimming to fulfill a basic need. There is nothing wrong with using basic needs as a way to be motivated, but likely it will be short lived and once achieved (you guarantee your scholarship or dinner), the motivation quickly disappears. Time for level two.

Tangent: High achieving athletes are more likely to be motivated to achieve success rather than motivated to avoid failure.

Psychologic needs are more abstract and are more about achieving status and forming bonds with other swimmers (team). This is probably where most swimmers sit in their motivation to train and race. They want to swim because they want to win a race, earn a spot on the team or just make their coach/parents happy. Again, there is nothing wrong with this kind of motivation, but what happens when you lose a race? When you move towns and have to find another team? Or if your coach takes another job? Now you have two choices: you can lose your motivation and quit… or move to level three!

Being motivated by Self needs is the most powerful, long living and indestructible form of motivation a person can achieve. At the top of the pyramid, swimmers are now motivated by becoming the best swimmer they can be, to reach their maximum potential. Of course, reaching you maximum potential is vague and unattainable which is a great thing. A goal you can never reach is a goal you can always strive for. In addition, Self needs differ from the bottom of the pyramid in that the more you advance and achieve, the greater the motivation is to continue.

Maslow called people who were motivated by Self needs “self-actualized” people. These people are motivated by growing themselves, dedicated to improving the group (the team or human society), and who enjoy facing challenges. Maslow believed that in order to reach the top of the pyramid, you had to have a mostly complete bottom pyramid. For instance, you can be a self-actualized swimmer if you missing meals or don’t have friends. Those needs need to be met first, before you can move on to level three. And once at the top of the pyramid, the story is just beginning. Being motivated by Self needs is a continual process where the swimmer is always “becoming” and is never static. There is no “I reached the top and I’m happy forever.” It’s more of a “I can’t wait to keep climbing and to bring everyone I know along.”

A lot of study has gone into this concept of self-actualization that Dr. Maslow described in the 70s and it was found that people who really were self-actualized shared a number of similar traits (which can be translated into swimming terms):

Maslow’s Characteristics                   Swimmer’s Characteristics

They perceive reality efficiently and can tolerate uncertainty.

They are ok with whatever set coach writes on the board.

Accept themselves and others for what they are.

Accept their teammates no matter how “fast” they are.

Spontaneous in thought and action.

Belly flops.

Problem-centered (not self-centered).

Focusing on fixing stroke problems rather than having a “boo hoo me” attitude when things aren’t going right.

Unusual sense of humor.

Aka every swimmer in the world.

Able to look at life objectively.

Able to ignore emotions when needed and analyze what’s important in the moment.

Highly creative.

Looking for ways to improve their race strategy that is unique to them.

Resistant to enculturation, but not purposely unconventional.

Doesn’t follow the crowd, has their own thoughts and actions they think are right.

Concerned for the welfare of humanity.

Concerned for the welfare of the team.

Capable of deep appreciation of basic life-experience.

Enjoys a simple kick set.

Establish deep satisfying interpersonal relationships with a few people.

Best friends with the people in your lane.

Have a few peak experiences.

A few Ah Ha moments that changed your swimming or training.

Need for privacy.

No deck changes… ever.

Democratic attitudes.

Ok with doing what the team wants, even if it’s not what you want (for instance, team traveling somewhere you didn’t want to go).

Strong moral/ethical standards.

Only ONE dolphin kick on breastroke pullouts!


You probably recognize a few of these traits in yourself and in your teammates, but having all of them is a challenge and a goal. People who were considered to be self-actualized scored better in many aspects of well-being like life satisfaction, curiosity, self-acceptance, positive relationships, environmental mastery, personal growth, autonomy, and purpose in life.

Just because we know that we want to be self-actualized and what being self-actualized means, how do we get there? How do we climb the pyramid? How do we build our motivation to swim, train and race on something solid? Here is where a clever summary of decades of psychological research can help. Daniel Pink found that there are three things that help build motivation in a person: Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose.

While a lot of the actual research focuses on motivating employees in a corporation, the concepts work with everything from raking leaves to running for President. Let’s go through these three aspects of building motivation and lay out some concrete examples of how to implement them.

Mastery is the desire to continually improve. You have probably seen this as being a big motivator in young swimmers. Kids who are naturally good (masterful) at the breastroke for instance are highly motivated to train and race that stroke. That’s fine, but BUILDING mastery is what really drives people to become motivated, especially as they get older. Setting challenges that are hard but doable is key (daily sets). Using progression sets (below) can help objectively show mastery over the course of a season. Seeing yourself get better or helping your swimmers and teammates see themselves getting better is a great way to concretely build a personality of “always chasing achievement.”

Autonomy is wanting to have the freedom to control a piece of the story. Obviously, we all appreciate having freedom more than being micro-managed and directed at every turn (even though we sometimes need it). Large corporations like Google guarantee time during the week for each employee to work on whatever they want. From that, Google has produced a number of novel products that would otherwise have been lost. Giving swimmers structured time off during practice, letting them choose between multiple possible sets and occasionally race the way they want can all improve autonomy and make swimmers feel like they are swimming for themselves and not for anyone else. Letting swimmers have “choice” drill or stroke doesn’t count!

Purpose may be the most powerful of the three motivational building tools. People throughout history have spent and given their lives towards a purpose that was bigger than themselves. In every person (and swimmer) is a desire to be a part of something greater. That’s why Kings and monarchies were so popular back in the day! Building this culture of “team” requires consistent outlining of the goals of the TEAM and how we are all working together to achieve that goal (winning State for instance). Another great way to build purpose is to have the older swimmers regularly teach the younger ones. This makes practice bigger than just making yourself better, it’s now about leaving a legacy behind through an up-and-comer (kind of like having kids).

Tangent: Steve Jobs started his company because he wanted to “put a den in the universe.” The money was a back-burner idea. This is a common theme among entrepreneurs and is essential to become self-actualized.

Going back to things we all do on deck already; goal setting is a classic and effective way to build motivation as well. But there are a couple tricks and traps to be aware of. Goals should be specific, measurable, difficult but attainable, time-based, written down, and a combination of short-term and long-term goals. Little goals should feed in together to achieve larger goals and goals should focus on positive changes rather than getting rid of negative behavior: “I’m going to do three dolphin kicks off every wall” instead of “I’m going to stop breathing on my breakout.” The trap of goal setting is that we can sometimes become motivated by the goal instead of by the “process” to reach the goal, which is infinitely more powerful and important in maintaining motivation (more on the process later).

Lastly, in a section about motivation we have to bring up the “B” word: Burnout. Burnout is simply the loss of motivation. This can start as physical burnout (like we talked about in our Overtraining chapter) which leads to psychologic burnout or it can be emotional exhaustion where the frontal lobe and limbic system have lost their will to fight. Things that lead to increased burnout that are verified by science include: reduced sense of accomplishment. frequent reasons include perfectionism, boredom, injuries, excessive pressure, and overtraining, excessive demands from parents.

In a way, it comes back to the pyramid of needs. If a Basic or Psychological need is no longer being fulfilled by swimming (stopped winning races) then that need will be left unmet and the swimmer will look for alternative ways to fill it (quit swimming and join cross-country… yuck). Even Overtraining can be seen as a loss of a Basic need (loss of rest). The best way to prevent emotional burnout is to make swimmers aware of what’s happening to them and to guide them to a more self-actualized mindset where motivation cannot be taken away because of a bad race, season or year (of course, don’t over-train either, but that goes without saying… right?)

Of course, sometimes you just need to step up and endure it. That is where self-control and grit can be used to build success when motivation falters.

Self-Control and Grit- The Practice of “Overcoming”

A person can have a lot of motivation, but without a tenacity to work and the will to overcome temptation all the wanting in the world won’t get you that gold medal (or reaching your maximum potential as you ought to be motivated to do by now). Self-control and grit are two similar traits that have been shown to be more important than natural talent and economical opportunity at creating successful people in all aspects of life from school to the pool.

Self- control is the ability to control your attention, emotions and choices in the face of temptation. It is the short-term ability to choose what is best for you in the long run, rather than choose what would satisfy you in the moment (the ability to avoid instant gratification). This can apply to attending practice instead of watching TV or doing four dolphin kicks off every wall and being uncomfortable holding your breath instead of coming up right away.

Grit on the other hand is the ability to work towards a long-term goal consistently and with great effort despite setbacks and years of challenges. People who have grit have dedicated their lives (or a large part of it) towards achieving a goal that holds great significance for them (making an Olympic Trials cut). By definition, you cannot be gritty about everything in your life (video games, music, swimming). You have to eventually choose a few select passions. There are only so many hours in the day and if you truly want to be the best swimmer you can be, at some point you have to choose to be gritty about swimming. People who tend to bounce between sports, hobbies and even majors in college tend to have little grit. If you lack grit, it is a reflection that you lack a goal or a purpose. That takes us back to building purpose behind what you do. A powerful WHY is necessary before anyone can endure and HOW!

Tangent: Self- control and grit were recognized in the earliest days of psychology by Dr. Galton in 1869 who compared “self-denial” in the face of “hourly temptations” and “zeal,” which was “the capacity for hard labor.”

Grit and self-control are not the same, and you can definitely have one without the other. A person may have great self-control and never eat a cookie, but lacks any purpose or goal behind being healthy. On the other hand, a person can have a great desire to run a marathon (not you I’m sure), but lacks the daily discipline to stretch since it is not specifically in line with their goals (yeah… runners don’t stretch much either).

Tangent: When researching grit, scientists focused on people who won the National Spelling Bee or survived the “Beast Barracks” which is the first summer of training at West Point.

So, how do we build grit and self-control in our swimmers and ourselves in order to achieve more in the pool and get the most out of ourselves? When we have the definite answer, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, my guess is that like everything in this world, practice is always the answer. Self-control starts by overcoming small temptations. For instance, cutting out junk food. Start by limiting to one snack a day, then every other day, then once a week. Force yourself to go to practice. Set goals for attendance, not just swimming times. Just like building motivation with mastery, autonomy and purpose you can outline how you want to become more self-controlled (autonomy), why you want to (purpose) and measure how well you are doing (mastery).

Building grit is tougher and more painful. It requires failure. It is easy to stay on track towards reaching a decades long goal when everything is going just right. Grit, and practicing grit, shows itself in failure and in how you respond to it. Do you back down after failure or re-ignite your fire to overcome it? The starting point of building grit is to realize it is a “thing” to begin with and that you may have lost your motivation or had a setback, but this doesn’t have to change the CHOICE you make. Revisit what you are training and racing for and remember that the harder something is, the more worth it is in the end.

One known/up-coming way to improve these components of mental toughness is understand that the brain is not set and can be trained and that the nerves can re-wire and re-circuit themselves to create more self-control and grit. This is termed the Growth Mindset, and when it was taught to kids in school that their brains grow in response to challenges just like their muscles grow with training, they were much more likely to persevere in their challenges because they no longer believed that failure was a permanent condition!

Tangent: “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. The courage to carry on is all that counts!” – Winston Churchill

Many people like to pit motivation vs self-control/grit as to what is more important to attaining success and keeping people engaged in their pursuit of a goal. In reality, they are all important and play into and feed each other. Now, let’s take a look at a couple very specific feelings and mental challenges every athlete faces.

Anxiety- Turning Bad Feelings into Good Ones

You are about to walk out the door to work and suddenly feel anxious. You check your pockets and discover you forgot your keys! Or, you just sat down for a test that is going to determine your career opportunities for the rest of your life and the butterflies are flying. But instead of freaking out, you focus the energy and crush the test! That is what anxiety is for, it helps us take care of business. A lot of times we consider anxiety as a negative emotion. In reality, anxiety can be a very powerful way to energize yourself. The problem is that too much anxiety or anxiety at the wrong time can interfere with life and performance. For that reason, we need to have ways to regulate anxiety.

There are two parts to anxiety, the cognitive part (worrying thoughts) and the somatic part (the physical feelings like butterflies, sweating, dry mouth…). Before a race, swimmers try to get themselves “psyched up” which is a way for them to increase their anxiety and help them perform. Since getting psyched up isn’t perceived as a bad emotion, psychology tends to call this “arousal” (yes, poor choice of words from the scientists).

Tangent: “Be mindful of your thoughts, Anakin. They betray you.” – Obi-wan Kenobi

There is a BIG debate on how much arousal an athlete needs for optimal performance and there are about eight million theories to go along with the debate. There is the simple Drive theory which says anxiety is 100% positive and the more you have, the better you will perform.

There is the Inverted U theory which treats arousal like an upside-down bell curve and says there is an optimal amount of anxiety. Too much or too little will result in poorer performance.

There is the Zone of Optimal Functioning theory which states that for each athlete there is an optimal amount of arousal for that individual person.

There is the Reversal Theory which says the level of arousal is actually not important at all and that the only thing that matters is the athlete’s “interpretation” of the situation.

And of course, there is the combination theory that cognitive anxiety is always bad while somatic anxiety acts in an inverted U way. This is called Multi-Dimensional Anxiety Theory. The goal here is to stay mentally “cool” which getting your body as psyched up as possible.

When science has a lot of theories to explain one phenomenon, that usually means no one truly understands what is going on and the reality is likely a combination of all the theories at play. In essence, all the theories are true! Why not? Depending on the race, the athlete’s personality, the age of the swimmer, the time in the season… all the theories can be seen at play.

For races on the ends of the spectrum like the 50 and the mile, Drive arousal may be the most beneficial because you don’t want to hold back in a 50 and you want the anxiety to dull the pain in the mile. For in-between races like the 100s/200s that need some balance and pacing, the Inverted U model may work best to prevent going out too fast. For athletes that get very anxious about their times, practicing the Reversal theory may be best for them. No matter what theory you believe in, the most important thing to have is the ability to regulate your anxiety and arousal before AND after a race.

Most athletes that want to increase arousal before a race or big set in practice use music, moving around and visualization to regulate their mind and body. This is why you see a lot of elite athletes perform the same “rituals” prior to a race (like the famous Michael Phelps arm slaps). Try new things out and test what works for you throughout the season.

Decreasing anxiety is much more difficult and requires more practice. Remember that anxiety starts in the mind (anxious thoughts and feelings) and then spreads out to have a bodily reaction (sweating, dry mouth, tenseness). You can decrease anxiety by running the system backwards. Practice controlled breathing and muscle relaxation to help calm your mind and get back to an optimal arousal state.

Controlling anxiety in the moment is important, but our goals should be bigger. We don’t want to have to spend half a swim meet focusing on breathing or meditating in the corner. We want to make optimum arousal second nature and subconscious. An up and coming tool for doing this is called MAC.

The Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment theory is a very structured stepwise protocol to help athletes restructure their brain wiring and software to better handle stress and anxiety. It is a way to re-structure emotional responses when faced with upcoming events as well as how you respond to the outcomes of a race (good or bad). In real practice, MAC involves weekly meetings with specific goals and training to be practiced. For us, I think being aware that emotions and emotional responses can be regulated and adjusted long term and knowing that we need to practice this will be enough to help many of us take a big step forward in regulating our pre/post-race arousal.

The first step in MAC training is Mindfulness. Literally, it is the awareness of your emotions. Specifically, be aware that your emotions are not “you” and that they are just another part of the body like an arm or leg. If your emotions are not acting the way you want (like having bad technique in your fly), then be aware that something needs changing. It’s nothing personal, it just is.

The next step is Acceptance. Ok, so your emotions are all over the place, that’s like accepting that you cross over on your freestyle recovery or that you have a bad streamline. You can’t fix the problem if you are not willing to accept that there is a problem to begin with. This is different than mindfulness. Being mindful is a constant re-examination of your situation and emotions, whereas acceptance is the literal choice in your mind that you are not ok with where you are and that you want to get better.

Tangent: “The unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates MACing?

The final step is Commitment. You are aware that you get too upset after a bad race and you have accepted that this is not ok behavior for future performance and motivation so you want to change it. Figure out a game plan on how you are going to change the way you react. For instance, instead of losing your marbles after a bad race, sit down and focus on controlled breathing and identifying what went wrong in the race. Commit to this plan of action. Just like training, if you want to change your technique, you have to commit to focusing on what needs fixing and over time a new habit will form and your technique (and emotional reactions) will become automated and more perfect!

If you haven’t noticed yet, MAC is nothing new! Identify the problem, accept there is a problem, commit to fixing it. You have been doing this all your swimming career with your stroke technique and race strategy. Now, you are going to apply it to your emotions and mind as well!

Tangent: In Start Trek, the Vulcans (Spock) are an alien race that have built their society on fully controlling and suppressing their emotions. A few brave Vulcans purge all emotion through the ritual of Kolinahr… probably just a 7 week MAC session.

Confidence- Fake Practice it ‘till You Make it!

Probably the best defense against bad anxiety is confidence. We have all seen that one swimmer who walk on deck with all the swagger in the world. Where does it come from? Why are some people confident in their abilities and others are always doubtful of themselves? First off, let’s get a better idea of what confidence is.

Confidence (at least sports confidence) is the belief that your abilities are better than your competitor’s and that you can beat them because of that. Your competitor can be the person in the lane next to you, or it could be yourself or the clock or a time standard. Sports confidence comes in three flavors: confidence in your skills and training, confidence as a mental state and emotion, and resilience or bravery. All of these really play into each other and help build overall confidence.

Building skill confidence is easy, go to practice. The more you practice, the more you know and improve your abilities and the more confident you will be in them.

Being brave and building resiliency can also be practiced, but it doesn’t feel good. You have to put yourself out there and live outside the comfort zone. Go to a lane with an interval you have never done before, sign up for races you don’t know if you are ready for, try a race strategy that is new… all of these are examples of how you can build a resilient personality that accepts instead of fights change and unexpected challenges.

As for building emotional confidence, part of it will come from the other two confidence factors, but part of it will just have to be there. For example, a new medical student helping out in a surgery may be suddenly asked to stich up the incision site for the first time. Is it scary? Yeah. Is everyone in the room watching and waiting for you to take your sweet time fiddling with the instruments while wearing gloves slippery with blood? Yup. Is your job going to dictate whether this patient is going to heal right or have a giant scar for the rest of their lives? You betcha. Are you going to let everyone in the room know how you feel? No. No you are not. You’re going to fake it and do the job that’s in front of you. The butterflies may be trying to fly out of their cage and your hands may or may not be trembling but none of it matters because you are doing it and that is all that matters!

Tangent: Plato’s 4 virtues- Wisdom, Temperance, Justice, COURAGE!

Confidence in your team’s ability is called team confidence and can also have an impact on the individual’s performance. Research shows that teams that set more challenging goals as a group and bounced back from failure better (had good leadership, coming up) ended up performing better. This is why it is so important to build good culture on your team. The more confidence you can build in your teammate, the more it will return to you and help you perform well.

Let’s say you are already at the big meet and you are still struggling to feel confident for your next race. Is there a way that can help build confidence in the moment? Would this question be asked if there wasn’t? A couple of the best ways to build confidence in your own abilities is Imagery (visualization) and Self-talk (not self-help…  that’s different). The idea here is that what you do consciously is what controls the sub-conscious and transfers into the water and into your emotions.

Imagery or visualization of your race can physically activate the needed nerves involved in your brain. Imagining yourself racing the way you want to race can help your brain build a mental map of how to perform the actions you want it to. It also makes the goals seem attainable and therefore will help build confidence. Imagining yourself winning a race 30 seconds before you jump on the blocks is really a last-ditch effort. Ideally, imagery should be something you do daily at practice. At the very least, when you are doing all-out efforts from the blocks at practice you should be imagining how you want your stroke technique and race strategy to be so that you can maximize the way you practice.

Another powerful way to build confidence is self-talk. It’s kind of like cheering yourself on in your head. In reality, we all do this all the time. “Come on! One more 100, keep the tempo up!” By the research, it really does work by bombarding your sub-conscious ability with conscious desires. Some athletes like to use self-talk as a way to prevent burning out and remind themselves that they enjoy swimming and that their performance and hard work is “enough.” That’s fine, but I would challenge that if you are needing to constantly talk yourself into liking what you are doing that this may be a sign of an underlying problem. Go back to the MAC process and try to identify what’s missing: purpose, mastery, autonomy, grit, self-control, motivation? 

Remember that the voice in your head can go either way. It can build or break you through positive or negative thoughts “I’m gonna die on this 200 fly!” Control the voice like you control your grit, confidence, motivation and emotions. You need understand that the voice is never silent and will be with you forever, so you might as well have a friend inside your head instead of an enemy.

Leadership- Making Others Better

Why do you swim on a team with a coach in charge? Why not just go to the pool on your own and train? You’d have more freedom to go whenever you were ready to perform. You’ve been in the business long enough to know what workouts work for you and what don’t. You wouldn’t have to spend time doing sets you don’t like or practice strokes you won’t race. Your parents could save 100s of dollars a month. So, why?

You go to practice and train with teammates and endure the coach’s wrath because you don’t get better by doing great workouts or eating healthy or racing perfectly. You get better because someone pushes you to be that way. And we all need that someone, and not just in swimming. Your coach, team and even parents push you out of that comfort zone to achieve more. This is the essence of leadership, to make the people around you better. That’s why you go to practice with a group, for the leadership that pushes you to be better.

Tangent: “Leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way”

So, what is leadership? If you ask 10 people (experts even) you would get at least 12 responses. However, many would agree that at least a part of good leadership is getting the people you are leading to do better. For coaches in sports environment, their leadership comes down to setting the expectations higher than the athlete is comfortable and to motivate them to reach that high goal. How a leader goes about achieving those goals and motivating their group depends on the leader and the situation. Here are some common leadership types that exist.

So, which leader should you be on deck? As usual the answer is probably all of them (so #9, Situational). There are so many different groups in swimming with their own needs that it would be very useful to change your leadership style when dealing with different groups. Coach should be:

  • Autocratic with young age grouper
  • Laissez-faire/Democratic with older experienced swimmers
  • Transformational with young coaches
  • Charismatic at swim meets
  • Bureaucratic/Servant with parents

Many coaches who spend a lot of time being autocratic with their swimmers tend to be that way with their staff and parents and can cause more problems than it solves. It is important to be aware of how your leadership is taken and whether it is being effective. At the end of the day, you just want to be effective and it will be easier for you to change yourself to meet that goal, rather than trying to force others to fit your leadership style.

Another essential aspect of being a good leader is setting the appropriate goal for each individual swimmer and for the team as a whole. A common mistake coaches, parents and swimmers make is to focus on a result (going a best time, making a time standard, winning a meet…) rather than focusing on the process of reaching that goal. More importantly for a coach, developing the athlete’s character that feeds into the process should be the top priority. Remember leaders, you cannot be on the block and swim the race for your swimmers. At the end of the day, it is their character that will determine how much effort they put into their swimming, and out of that effort will come results.

A real-life example of this is the phrase “winning isn’t everything.” A lot of times this is used by the losing team to make them feel better, but if we truly believe that the process is more important than the result, then this phrase is equally important when you “win” as when you “lose.” Your reaction as a coach or swimmer when you lose or win should be exactly the same if you are really focused 100% on the process. What reaction is that? It’s the “how do I get better from where I am now?” reaction. Sound familiar? It’s the top of the Maslow Pyramid again! This is how self-actualized swimmers react, and it should be the goal of every leader and coach to help their swimmers build that kind of character.

Tangent: “Winning is not a result, winning is a process that is driven by character” -Brett Ledbetter

These leadership qualities don’t just apply to coaches, but to swimmers as well. Remember, the goal of leadership is to make the people around you better. If your teammates are better because of how you build them up, that will help the whole team. And as we mentioned earlier, teams that set higher goals and had better cohesion among each other tended to outperform other teams that were just about the individual instead of the team. That means every individual (you) on the good cultured team performed better. So, caring about your team is just another way to take care of your own swimming.

Oh, and parents… you have a leadership responsibility as well. Research shows that kiddo athletes appreciate their parents being supportive and involved in their sport, but athletes do not like to be given technical advice from their parents, especially if they are not experts in the sport themselves. In short, say “good job” and then shut up! It is the toughest type of leadership because you have to give up control to someone else, namely your own kid. On top of that, their coach is the one on deck with the athletes for hours a day and has a better understanding of what issues need to be prioritized and should have a long-term plan towards helping your kid athlete get better. Saying things like “you should have done this or that on the 3rd 50 of your 200” is not a good practice and only serves to undermine the leadership of others (the coach) and continue your kid’s dependence on you. Swimming is the one safe place they can go and be their own person and you should let them make mistakes in this environment so they can learn from them and avoid those mistakes as adults. Ok… stepping off of soap box now.

Tangent: The famous Freud considered delaying the gratification of ill-timed or inappropriate impulses (“to put up with a little unpleasure”) as the central developmental challenge of childhood.

Let’s start talking about how we can become better leaders. Like most things in life, some of it is genetic and a lot of it is learned and practiced. Charisma, personality, energy are all things that you are generally born with (or without). Learning to deal with people, manage groups effectively and even giving great speeches are talents that can be learned. You could sign up for leadership classes and take endless quizzes about what kind of leader you are… but really, the most effective way to become a better leader is practice. Public speaking is uncomfortable. It is easier to just write up a workout and watch, but you should challenge yourself to be more involved and active and inspire better performance. And after your attempt, make sure you revisit the event in your mind and analyze if it worked or what could be better. In essence, MAC it!

Tangent: Managers create followers. Leaders create leaders.

Here are some more concrete ways you can become a better leader:

  • Ask your swimmers, coaches and parents whether your leadership is effective! Ask for feedback. Not only will this give you direct advise on what is going well and what is not, but it will show that you CARE, that you care enough to put yourself out there and ask how you can be better for your team. Nothing will make you a better leader than by showing you want to be a better coach/swimmer/parent.
  • Help your team set goals, both individually and collectively as a team. This will help build a culture of chasing excellence and hard work. Make sure to make the team’s goal about effort related tasks (attendance, test sets, number of dolphins off each wall…) instead of an ego-oriented goal (winning State). This will build a culture based on self-actualization and working the process and these won’t break down after a loss, which is inevitable.
  • At swim meets, coach to center. If kids are happy after a race, focus their attention on what could have been better. If they are upset, focus on what went well and the process to work on the weakness instead. If a swimmer is angry after a poor performance, acknowledge that they care and refocus their attention on the long term instead of the moment. And if a kid shows they don’t care at all, get on their case! Demand something more. Now it’s ok to get a little angry and show it!

Great coaches focus more on the swimmer than their swimming. The swimming result and how athletes face winning and losing is just an outward expression of internal character. In order to create that character in others, you have to believe it yourself and sell it to those around you. The best companies and leaders sell a “Why” rather than a “What.” In short, it’s called the “I have a Dream” speech, not the “I have a Plan” speech.

Tangent: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy WHY you do.” – Simon Sinek.

Mental toughness is trainable. It may not be the focus of many of your workouts, but every set and race should in some way implement an aspect of mental toughness: motivation, confidence, self-control and emotional control. If you don’t focus on it, it won’t get better and you and your swimmers will inevitably falter in the face of failure if you don’t take the time to PRACTICE!


Karl Hamouche- Swim Smart founder
© 2017 Swim Smart, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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