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Building 'Mental Toughness' Part III

Improving ‘mental toughness’ is critical to providing swimmers with the best opportunity to perform to their potential in training in competition. In part I, we defined ‘mental toughness’ as-

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

We also explored how coaches can design training to help swimmers learn how to focus on the right actions, and execute those actions under increasing physical pressure.

In part II, we took a look at how coaches’ behaviors can influence the psychological pressure swimmers feel, and what coaches can do to ensure they’re creating the best environment possible for swimmers to thrive.

In this article will take a look at the thought processes coaches can help swimmers learn to enable them to better manage the stress of competition, as well as how to tie all of these strategies together.

The Skills

Swimmers need to learn how to focus on what matters, and learn to relax when they start to lose focus. It’s simple and it can be reinforced every day in practice. A final skill is the ability to SEE the championship environment. As we are comfortable with the familiar, the more familiarity we can create, the more comfortable swimmers will be, and the less pressure they will feel.

Focus on controlling what can be controlled. The bigger the focus on outcomes, the less likely it is the results are going to be positive. Outcomes are simply out of swimmers’ control. The more the focus is on the result, and the more the result is the topic of conversation, the more this can unnecessarily create pressure. Once the goal has been set, it creates a target around which the required actions can be developed. It is those actions that need to be the focus.

By focusing on what swimmers can control and the daily steps that need to be taken to accomplish goals, swimmers are empowered. A large part of pressure is uncertainty. When swimmers have a concrete set of actions to perform, and they are confident in the efficacy of those actions, it can be incredibly comforting. It helps create certainty in a very uncertain environment. This all reduces pressure.

Coaches can direct swimmers’ attention to what matters and what they control. By consistently refocusing attention, we can train swimmers to learn to focus their attention on what matters naturally. It becomes a habit, and the quality of habits determines outcomes.

Teach them how to relax. If swimmers are aware that they are getting too wound up, it’s critical that they have the tools to manage this tension. Whether it’s breathing techniques or something else, coaches or other experts can help swimmers learn some quick tools to relax when they are getting stressed. These strategies need to be practiced during training sessions, particularly in prior to repetitions of maximal or near maximal effort swims. Make it a habit to get physiology under control before racing.

Have them visualize the environment. The more swimmers can be comfortable in the actual competition environment, the greater the opportunity to perform successfully. Depending on where the competition is, there are several options. The more familiar the environment, the more comfortable the entire experience is. Have a visual expectation can make a big difference.

Visit. If possible, visit the competition site. If it’s relatively local, GO! If you can arrange to have a prior competition at the championship site, do so. Just being there can make the next visit that much less stressful. Walk through the hallways, walk through the locker rooms, walk through the deck, swim in the pool. Have swimmers immerse themselves in the entirety of the venue as much as possible.

Get video. If you can’t get there, find video of the facility. It could be promotional video from the institution, it could be race video from prior competitions, it can be anything. If you can’t find video, find pictures. Again, the idea is to create familiarity as much as possible. Having images will be useful for the stage

Visualize the situation. Once swimmers have an image of the competitive environment, consistently visualizing their experience through that environment will help to create familiarity. The ability to cope with challenging situations is directly related to having prior experiences in those situations. If we can’t have actual experiences, we can create artificial ones. If swimmers visualize warming up, preparing for races, and executing races in the actual competitive environment, familiarity can be created. While it might not be quite as good as the real thing, it’s infinitely better than doing nothing.

The Final Piece

THEN create pressure in practice. Once we have a supportive environment and swimmers have developed some skills to manage pressure, swimmers need to be put in situations where they need to perform. Artificially create pressure in competition. Give them once chance. Put performance under pressure. Create consequences for performance. Coaches can get creative here. Whether it’s random swims in the middle of practice, match races, or anything else, try to create situations where performance is required and the result matters. Over time, swimmers become used to the pressure and they learn to perform when it matters.

By placing swimmers in situations where they have to perform, swimmers AND coaches can learn how to navigate these situations. Swimmers can practice their relaxation skills and their ability to control what they can control. They can also practice visualizing their championship environment WHILE racing in practice.

From a coach’s perspective, we can help swimmers focus on what they can control, they can create a safe environment, make it important, but not a great deal, and keep people happy. Coaches have to practice their ability to regulate their emotions and focus on creating the best environment for swimmers to perform.

As with all other tasks, the pressure has to be appropriate. Too much can be crippling, whereas insufficient pressure is simply ineffective.


There are some swimmers, and they are RARE, that perform better and better the more the pressure increases. These individuals require a different approach. In some ways, you want to do the opposite of everything I outlined above. However, if you have one of these swimmers, you will KNOW it. Even in this case, you need to be very careful and know your swimmer really well before deciding to turn the pressure up. If you go over, even the best gamers will crack if the perceived pressure and challenge exceeds what they believe they can accomplish.

Integration. These phases do NOT need to exist in isolation, or be performed in a sequential manner. They can and should be performed in a concurrent manner. Improvements in one area can facilitate improvements in other areas provided coaches are providing appropriate challenges that respect each swimmer’s ability retain their focus and execute their skills effectively. At the same time, working creating situations with high levels of psychological pressure doesn’t make much sense if swimmers can even perform the right skills.

As with everything, it is a balance that must be managed, and this requires skill on behalf of coaches. We’re learning as well.

Working the Process

Within each stage, there may be different strategies that are required to effectively retain task-specific focus. For some of these problems, coaches may have effective strategies they can help swimmers use to solve issues with losing focus. However, in some situations, swimmers may still struggle to retain focus. If it is a sustained problem, coaches may need help. Psychologist or other experts may be of value for solving SPECIFIC problems.

There is more to improving task-specific focus than just giving swimmers hard practices. They needed to be COACHED through each stage. It requires encouragement, positivity, reinforcement, accountability. At each stage, we need to help swimmers through the process.

The process of developing the retention task-specific focus will vary dependent on the context. Simply persisting through the struggle of learning a new skill can be challenging for some. In some situations, skills are easy to learn, but hard to perform at speed. For other skills, the physiological stress is the predominant challenge. In many situations, it is the psychological stress of competition that becomes the biggest challenge.

The manner in which we approach each segment is different as well. There are different strategies to help swimmers while learning skills as opposed to executing them during fatigue. In general, the former requires more patience and calm, whereas the latter requires more urgency and energy.

It is all about continued EXPOSURE. The more swimmers are exposed to challenging situations, the more comfortable they become in those situations. As coaches, we have to understand that the exposure is important, and it takes time to learn. It’s okay for swimmers to fail, especially early in the process. This also allows coaches to work on their skills on staying calm, creating a safe environment, and managing expectations. With the knowledge that swimmers have time to learn, we can learn to be patient which reinforces our behaviors in championships situations.


Hopefully, you can see the interplay between skill development, physiological development, and the development of task-specific focus, which ultimately leads to what coaches and swimmers want, the ability to what needs to be done when it needs to be done regardless of the situation. All three components are being developed at the same time, whether we devote attention to them or not. The quality of that development will depend on the quality of our attention.

‘Mental toughness’ is a skill. As with any skill, it can be trained. Once we define what it really is in terms of actions, we can go about training to perform those actions. All it takes is some planning, some coaching, and some patience.

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