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Building 'Mental Toughness' Part I

Coaches like to describe swimmers as ‘mentally tough’. They certainly like to coach these swimmers. While most coaches will understand what it means when anther coach describes a swimmer as mentally tough, it’s a pretty vague description. I’d like to put a concrete definition on ‘mental toughness’.

The ability to do what needs to be done regardless of the circumstance.

This definition puts a premium on action. It’s quantifiable.

This definition also highlights the importance of context. Circumstance matters. In certain situations, some swimmers may be much more able to retain task-specific focus

There is a shift between the subjective description of ‘toughness’ to the objective description of being able to perform specific actions. With this shift, we can start to reverse engineer what needs to be done, thus developing a strategy for how to make it happen. Performance is about what is done, or not done, and our focus should remain there as it is the point of control.

A much better description of what coaches are really looking for is task-specific focus. It is the ability to retain focus on the immediate goal, and persist in the attempt to achieve it.

The Transferability of Task-Specific Focus

Developing mental toughness is simply a context-specific training task. It is about consistently doing what is required in a specific situation, regardless of the challenges that situation presents itself.

A mixed-martial arts fighter, someone most would describe as ‘tough’, would certainly be able to perform consistently in a fighting environment, staying cool under pressure. However, put them in a high-stakes negotiating environment and the situation suddenly changes. They are out of their element. The opposite is true when the hostage negotiator is thrown into a street fight.

This example simply illustrates the importance of context. Rather than expecting to develop mental toughness in our swimmers, we simply need to train them to manage the challenges presented by adversity experienced in training and competition. This allows for the development of a straight forward approach where outcomes dictate strategy.

Swimmers with good GENERAL task-specific focus will be able to learn to retain task-specific focus with novel skills and/or in novel circumstances faster than those who lack the general ability to focus. It is a skill that transfers. While the transfer is not immediate, it allows swimmers to learn to adapt to novel stressors quickly. They are ‘comfortable being uncomfortable’.

Task-specific focus is a habit. The more you do it, the more situations you do it in, the easier it is to access it, and the more transferable it becomes. However, swimmers still need to learn to focus in new situations. They still need to learn to execute the new skill at contextually appropriate intensity. They still need to learn the skill under physiological duress. They still need to learn the new skill with the pressure of competition.

So how to do we build task-specific focus and the ability to retain task-specific focus?

When viewed from the lens of ‘mental toughness’, there isn’t really an obvious place to start. What do we do? Do we meet with a psychologist? Do we perform ‘hard training’? It’s not clear.

What needs to be done? Swimmers will have to perform a specific skills or actions at a specific intensity with a specific amount of physiological stress while under the psychological stress of competition or evaluation. We have four stages that we need to progress through.

1. Execute a skill. Swimmers must first be able to execute the skill in question consistently and effectively. Until the swimmer can do so, there isn’t a whole lot of value in exposing them to a lot of intensity, fatigue, or pressure, unless it directly facilitates the learning process.

2. Execute a skill at intensity. Once the skill is stable and effective, it needs to be performed at the expected intensity or higher. Before a swimmer can perform under fatigue or under pressure, they need to be able to perform the appropriate skill at the required intensity. Preferably, they should be able to perform the skill at a higher intensity than required by competition to create a buffer, a concept that is discussed below.

3. Execute a skill tired. Once skills can be executed at the required intensity regardless of fatigue levels, swimmers need to be exposed to fatigue. In competition and in training, as fatigue is an inevitable outcome, we must expose swimmers to fatigue in a graded manner, ensuring that they are able to retain task-specific focus and execute their skills as much as possible. We want to work at the edge of their abilities, occasionally allowing for failure. Over time, their boundaries expand and they become ‘tougher’.

4. Execute a skill under pressure. While some swimmers can execute their skills and retain their focus under high speed and high fatigue, they may lose the ability to focus once the outcomes become more significant. They struggle to execute when the importance of their event becomes large. For instance, it’s one thing to perform at a regional meet where there are future opportunities. Most swimmers only get one shot at the Olympics.

As with exposure to fatigue, it is about training. Swimmers must be gradually exposed to greater amounts of pressure, always working through the process of how to retain focus and execute their skills. The focus is on specific strategies to overcome specific problems. It is about how to do what is required regardless of the circumstance.

5. Create buffers. The larger the gap between what a swimmer is required to do and what they can do consistently, the more likely they are to consistently perform as expected. From an intensity perspective, if swimmers can execute their skills at 2 m/s, and only races at 1.7 m/s, they have a larger buffer than the swimmer who can only achieve 1.9 m/s. There is a greater likelihood that the first swimmer will ‘act tough’ because the task is less challenging.

The same concept applies to execution under fatigue and pressure. It is the global picture of these buffers that determines how often swimmers will ‘act tough’. The smallest buffer is the potential breaking point that can compromise performance as the required performances go up.

Getting It Done

Having outlined the different skills that are required in the process of developing task-specific focus, we’ll take a look at the general strategies that develop these skills at each stage. While it’s relatively simple, it’s not always easy. The challenge is in the detail of appropriate training tasks, as well as the critical communication between swimmer and coach that can help to facilitate the learning process.

Within each stage, there may be different strategies that are required to effectively retain task-specific focus. Psychologist or other experts may be of value for solving SPECIFIC problems that arise. When a swimmer is repeatedly struggling with a specific situation in training, and the coach and swimmer can’t figure it out, a psychologist or other domain-specific expert can be useful in providing solutions, provided those solutions are presented and executed in the specifically problematic areas.

The process of learning to retain task-specific focus mirrors the training process, as outlined in Easy as 123. It is an extension of the technical, physical, psychological, and tactical learning process where all elements are learned simultaneously and organically.

When performed correctly, all performance requirements should be developed in concert, without devoting specific time to address issues in isolation.

When reflecting on the ideas laid out in Easy as 123, you can see how that process aligns with the process of developing task-specific focus. In both situations, we need to start at the beginning meeting swimmers where they are, while moving towards the goals they have selected.

Throughout this process, it’s important to expect and welcome failure. However, failure needs to be managed and appropriate. This is where learning happens. At the same time, colossal and frequent failure is not going to facilitate much of anything. Coaches must select and implement tasks that are on the edge of ability, promoting success while appreciating that any challenge will be associated with some degree of failure.

Execute a skill. At this point of the process, it’s about learning a skill, and the ability to focus through the challenges of that process. To learn a skill, it requires focus. While there will be little challenge from a physiological or psychological standpoint, swimmers need to stay engaged in learning.

The swimmer is learning to focus on the learning process. They’re learning how to focus in an exploratory fashion. They are bumping up against the frustration of being unable to perform a skill in the way they would like. They are struggling through this adversity, yet learning to persevere, be persistent and retain their focus.

The strategies for accomplishing this task have been laid out in various articles on this website. Simply click on the ‘skill acquisition tag’ in the articles section. In general, successful approaches rely on the following strategies-

Execute a skill at intensity. Having demonstrated sufficient competence to perform the desired skills, it’s time to crank up the speed. It’s important to ensure that the selected speeds are appropriate. The range of intensities employed should be challenging, yet allow for success a majority of the time. Errors are fine; blindly flailing away is less appropriate. To help with learning and the ability to maintain focus while pushing intensity, training distances should be short enough, recovery should be long enough, and volumes should be low enough to maintain the relative absence of fatigue.

There will be plenty of opportunity to get fatigue at other points in the training process, as well as during other training sessions. When it comes to speed, you have to do it once before you can do it twice. You can’t sustain what you can’t produce.

When developing the ability to execute skills at the required intensity, it makes sense to push the intensity limits beyond what would be faced in competition. If swimmers can focus and execute their skills at faster speeds, they will have a buffer. The greater the gap between what is possible and what is required, the more likely that swimmers will ‘be tough’, retain their focus, and get it done.

Execute a skill tired. When swimmers race, they are pushing their physiological limits. Fatigue is an inevitable part of this process, and fatigue is uncomfortable. In the context of this discussion, fatigue is distracting. Not only is it physically challenging to maintain skills while fatigued as our body simply doesn’t ‘work’ as well, it is mentally difficult to maintain focus.

This area is our traditional training where the focus is on developing physiological capacities. To be successful in developing task specific-focus in situations of fatigue, we can and should use these same methods. However, there must be a large focus on retaining focus on the task at hand and executing skills. This is how swimmers become ‘mentally tough’ in challenging race situations. They learn how to do what they have to do, regardless of the situation.

What’s important is to scale the demands of the training not to what can be physically completed, but what can be completed while maintaining focus on the tasks at hand and executing the desired skills. If the physiological demands are consistently too high, swimmers are simply being trained to lose focus and stop executing their skills as soon as it gets challenging. This is the OPPOSITE of what you want. Observe the training, watching carefully, and adjust accordingly.

As with retaining focus while training intensity, it makes sense to create a psychological buffer in the context of executing skills under fatigue. If swimmers are accustomed to retaining task-specific focus in situations that are more demanding than racing situations, the relative challenge of the racing context is lowered. It becomes more familiar, and thus less stressful. This increases the chances of retaining focus, and finding a way to get the task accomplished. While exposure to these situations should be limited, a very small frequency stimulus can make a major impact.


At this point, swimmers have hopefully developed resilience towards physical stress. They’ve developed the ability to stay focused under physical pressure as a consequence of the physical development process. They’ve learned how to do what needs to get done when they are physically challenged. This process is a straightforward consequence of an intentioned technical development and physical training program. If coaches are executing these aspects of the program well, task-specific focus should develop organically.

The above approaches simply look like good training, rather than a psychology intervention. That’s because good training should develop sound psychology. When it comes to performing under psychological pressure, it requires a different approach. We’ll discuss those strategies in part II.

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