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Simplifying Performance Psychology

When considering the complexities of performance, one of my goals is always to distill big, messy problems down to simple underlying principles. The hope being that these simple principles then imply straightforward and effective action.

One such topic is psychology, particularly racing and training psychology. In this realm, I feel most problems dissolve when swimmers have one thing.


Unfortunately, confidence is equally ethereal. Where does confidence come from?

Preparation. Specifically, effective preparation.

Confidence comes from knowing what you need to do and knowing that you can do it.

How do you know what you need to do? Figure it out in training by working through competition-relevant challenges.

How do you know you’ll be able to do it? By successfully overcoming competition-relevant challenges over and over again.

Every positive learning experience and every successful completion of a relevant task is a piece of evidence that builds confidence. Wayne Goldsmith has noted that some swimmers need more evidence than others. As such, some swimmers will need to experience lesser or greater amounts of success to believe in their preparation.

Effective training that prepares swimmers to accomplish their goals is the foundation for confidence. Confidence cannot exist without it.

However, even physically prepared can stumble in competition. How? Loss of attentional control.

ALL swimmers have doubt. There are countless stories of swimmers having meltdowns 5 minutes before Olympic finals, getting it together, and making it happen. The difference is swimmers who overcome these doubts are able to recognize their loss of focus, shift that focus, and get re-focused on what they can control.

Learning to control attention in contextually irrelevant situations (i.e. on a couch) is useless. It must be done in training, specifically hard training.

Coaches need to challenge swimmers and then guide them through the process of how to focus, recognize loss of focus, and re-focus on the tasks they are working to accomplish. Directing attention towards what can be controlled, is a HABIT and it is a habit that coaches must require swimmers to develop.

The best opportunity to teach these skills? When swimmers are struggling. This is when coaches can be most effective in helping swimmers establish the thought processes of attentional control and the ability to retain task specific focus, especially in hostile situations.

When do swimmers begin to believe in themselves? When they accomplish a task in training they didn’t think they could do. As coaches, we can facilitate that process by providing appropriate challenges and developing the skill of focus in practice.

When swimmers fail, talk about why and the ATTENTIONAL as well technical mistakes that were made. Make sure those mistakes are addressed next time around. When swimmers are successful, draw attention to what worked. Expand the challenge and reinforce those skills next time.

Confident swimmers are developed when they do what they need to do in training and competition, consistently and repeatedly. They know what they have to do and belief comes from actually doing it, not ‘believing’ they can do it.

Actionable Items for Coaches

  • Have an effective training program.

  • Confidence comes from success, so set swimmers up for success.

  • Continue to increase the challenge so that swimmers are successful in more and more difficult situations.

  • Make attentional control a conscious part of the training process.

  • Help swimmers learn to retain task-specific focus, especially when training gets hard and performance outcomes become less certain.

  • Repeat over and over.

While it might not be EASY to do this, the process is simple.

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