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On A Roll


Whether in training or racing, we’ve all seen the swimmer who can do no wrong, as well as the swimmer who can do no right.

They’ve got momentum, whether positive or negative. Unfortunately, it can be very hard to sustain that positive momentum. Conversely, it can be very hard to reverse negative momentum.

I believe that managing momentum, either in training or competition, is a fundamental skill of coaching. Learning to identify performance trends and understanding the nature of the appropriate interventions are the basis of momentum management.

Where does momentum come from?

Momentum, either positive or negative, is the accumulation of a series of events that move you in a particular direction. A series of successes? You’ll build positive momentum. A series of failures? You’ll build negative momentum. It is a snowball effect.

In the short term, momentum is a psychological phenomenon, while longer term changes are also the result of physiological changes.

Momentum can exist in multiple contexts. Different aspects of training may be moving forward while others are struggling. The same can be said with specific strokes. The goal should be to get everything rolling in the right direction at the same time. If you can do this, big swims are coming.


As the training environment is where the most control exists, this is where we need to start. Appropriately controlling challenges is the first step to getting everything moving in the direction you want.

To build momentum, you have to start small. Little victories start getting bigger and bigger. As coaches, we have to create the conditions for these victories to happen.

How we frame challenges, how we frame practices, and how we frame tasks, will ultimately determine how swimmers perceive success/failure. For this reason, we have to carefully think through how we present challenges, as well as the aftermath that comes from facing those challenges.

Key point. Success/failure is a perception. How coaches and swimmers frame experiences influences the process. This can get you through some hiccups, but it won’t correct gross mismanagement of the training process. If you keep putting a positive spin on a negative situation, trust will erode.

Creating Positive Momentum

The first task is to get the ball rolling.


Create meaningful tasks and challenges that swimmers can be successful with. Then slowly increase the challenge. The key skill is to be very in tune as to what constitutes an appropriate challenge for each individual on any given day.

Once you’ve got everything rolling, how do you keep it going? Ultimately, you have to continue to escalate the challenge to keep moving forward. At the same time, it gets harder and harder to keep moving forward.

This is the challenge and this is where I believe most coaches make mistakes, myself certainly included. After a big victory (however you define that), confidence is high and everyone wants to go for more.

What really needs to happen is to BACK OFF training.

This is the opposite of what every coach AND athlete wants to do.

Everyone gets cocky and greedy and they want to go for more. Going for more is likely to backfire and cause a small failure, especially as you approach a swimmer’s limits. Do this a couple times and what have you created? A negative cycle, and down you go.

The better approach is to go back to consistent, ‘ordinary’ training. This training is still hard! Then, when opportunities present themselves, and you feel confident that progress is possible, take a shot.

The key is to be keenly aware of how close you are getting to the limit. You want to get as close as possible without going over. Sometimes the only way to learn the limit is to exceed it. When you do, learn fast. Then, play it conservatively and you will be rewarded.

Reversing Negative Momentum

The biggest task we have to is to ‘stop the bleeding’. If a negative spiral is the result of exposure to a series of progressively more negative experiences, the first thing that needs to happen is to disengage from those negative experiences.

If a swimmer is experiencing failure, you need to stop putting in them situations where they’re going to fail. That is the key step. This may call for more or less dramatic change in the challenges presented, as well as how those challenges are framed.

Once you’ve stopped the bleeding, how do you reverse the process? Small victories.

This is a little trickier than starting fresh because you will likely have to explicitly lower expectations and consider meeting these lower expectations as ‘success’. This comes back to framing. You have to do anything and everything you can to create success and the impression of forward progress.

Lowering standards is okay if it allows you to further increase them later. When in doubt, it is better to lower expectations MORE than you think necessary. If you don’t create enough space for building momentum, change efforts will be unsuccessful and you’ll end up in the same spot.

Instead of trying to break a door down by slamming your shoulder into it, back up, get a running start and some momentum, and then blast through it. Going backwards can take you forwards, especially when going forwards isn’t working.

Competition Momentum

Competition momentum is tougher to directly control due to the reduced frequency. Secondly, most teams consist of heterogeneous ability levels; an ‘easy’ meet for your top-level swimmers may still be challenging competition for the rest of the team

What you can control is how you frame competition. If you can focus on manageable process goals early in the season, you can create confidence in racing, even if the times aren’t immediately reflective. As the season progresses, the process goals can become more and more challenging. By the end of the season, swimmers should know what they need to do in championship situations while having the confidence and evidence that they can do it.


There are psychological and physiological explanations for these realities. However, they’re not really relevant as they are consequences, not causes. As coaches, we control what happens in training and how competition is framed, so that’s where the focus must be. If you focus on establishing a cycle of success, the psychology and physiology will take care of itself.

It is really hard to control momentum at an individual level in a team setting. How can you create a system for making this happen? How can you skip the problem?

At their root, the processes of building positive momentum and reversing negative momentum are very similar.

  • It takes a lot of success to generate positive momentum and only a couple failures to create negative momentum. Some individuals are more or less resilient.

  • Success/failure is a perception. To some extent, we can modify reality by how we frame situations.

  • Start small and establish a habit of success.

  • Back off after big steps forward. Greed is not good.

  • Continue to put money in the bank with consistent, unexciting training.

  • Look for the opportunities to take a step forward, and do it.

  • Get out of negative cycles by re-framing or altering challenges.

  • Avoid failure, it’s going to happen despite your best efforts anyway!

  • Whenever possible, find a way to individualize the process in a team setting, especially as momentum builds.

Get rolling.

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