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A Finishing Touch

Gary Hall Junior and Anthony Ervin both won two Olympic Gold Medals by a combined 2/100th of a second. They tied each other for their first one, and they both won a second by 1/100th. Clearly, these two gentlemen knew how to win races when it mattered most. They both knew so much about winning that they couldn’t find a way to beat each other!

It’s not a surprise that the same swimmers tend to win races at major competitions, even if they haven’t been performing particularly well in the preceding months, or even in the preliminary rounds. Winners simply know how to close races and they know how to get their hand on the wall.

While we tend to label these individuals as ‘gamers’ or label them as an anomaly, I’m not sure that’s the case. Winning is a skill, and as with all skills, it can be learned. To do so, swimmers must be presented with the opportunity to learn the skill of winning, as well as all of the subskill that make winning possible.

When swimmers practice situations where the focus is on WINNING, and less about times, they’ll learn the strategies that result in winning. Whether it’s nuances of technique, how to direct attention, how distribute effort, how to tolerate discomfort, or something else, swimmers learn what works when they’re required to win.

Of course, this is not to dismiss the importance of fitness. Fitness clearly matters. Fitness is what gives you a chance. You have to be fit enough to have a shot. However, more fitness isn’t necessarily going to make you a winner. That’s a skill that can be developed.

Let’s explore how.

Give a maximal effort. If a swimmer can’t mobilize a full effort, they’re going to be at a disadvantage compared to someone who can. Swimmers need to learn how to get it going. We’re not worried about the specifics of technique, times, or anything other than an honest assessment of maximal effort.

Swimmer can push off for an unspecified duration and unspecified distance. The goal is simply to achieve a maximal effective effort. It’s about full commitment. There is no focus on performance, or fatigue, or anything other than exploring their limits, and figuring out what’s possible. The more swimmers are able to reach their limits, and comfortable being there, the more likely they’ll be able to find a way to win.

(While the focus isn’t on technique, swimmers should focus on a maximal effort that’s within themselves. Thrashing isn’t the point.)

Sustain a maximal effort. Once swimmers can achieve a maximal effort, they need to learn how to sustain that effort. The longer they can hold it, the more of an advantage they have during the business portion of a race when it starts to get messy. It’s a skill, and it needs to be practiced.

The goal should be to sustain a maximal effort until they can’t continue to sustain an effective effort (fatigue prevents them from holding speed), or they can’t stand the pain anymore (their brain makes them stop). Importantly they need to learn to differentiate the two. Ideally, they’d get to the point where they are comfortable enough in the situation that only the physical limits of the body prevent a swimmer from creating and sustaining an effort.

Swimmers will only get to that point if they are given opportunities to explore their limits without the pressure of performance. Importantly, accessing this skill is exactly what’s required in competition. In a close race, the individual capable of taking it to the edge, and staying there, is going to have a distinct advantage.

Hold swimmers off. Have swimmers perform repetitions where they have to beat faster swimmers that are chasing them. For instance, a swimmer could be given a 2 second advantage for a 100m swim when racing against a swimmer that is approximately 2 seconds faster over 100m. Any situation can be created, using short, speed-based contexts or longer, distance-oriented situations.

When creating these situations, swimmers don’t need to be swimming the same strokes and training equipment can be used to create appropriate challenges, too. Swimmers could also perform fast repetitions against other swimmers who are considerably less fatigued.

Any situation is possible and useful, provided swimmers are tasked with holding off fast-charging swimmers. It’s a skill, and the more practice swimmers have, the better they’ll get at it.

Run down swimmers. The opposite situation is where swimmers are required to run down swimmers that are ahead of them. Swimmers may find themselves in situations where they need to close a gap at the end of a race, either in a relay or individual event. Put them in situations where they have to do so.

These situations can be extreme, such as a 10 seconds deficit over 100m, or quite small, such as a 1 second deficit over 200m. They’re all useful and help swimmers learn to become comfortable in compromised situations. Over time, they’ll learn they can find a way to win.

Race when there is nothing left. In most cases, swimmers don’t make it to the final portion of a race feeling wonderful. Usually, it’s the opposite. It’s been said that it’s only when the competitors are totally exhausted that the race actually starts. If that’s the case, then we better prepare swimmers for learning how to compete when the race starts.

The way we’re going to do that is to create situations where they get really tired, and THEN require them to race. When they can find solutions regardless of the situation and they can find a way to race when they think they have nothing left, they’ll go into races knowing they’re ready for what’s to come. That type of confidence, backed up by the skill to execute, is simply invaluable.

Find a way. Put swimmers in challenging situations, physically, technically, and emotionally. Present them with a goal, and not a solution. Ask them to figure it out. The more often swimmers are able to successfully find solutions to performance challenges, the more likely it is that they’ll believe they overcome the challenges racing presents, and the more likely it is they’ll actually do it. More here.

Take away their legs, then make them race. Take away their arms, then make them race. Take away their air, then make them race. There are lots of options, and they’re all useful. The more situations swimmers are prepared for, the more likely they will be to handle what any race might present to them.

Win AND Go Home. Perform any of the above activities under pressure and with consequences. Have various races and create consequences for performance. Winners get rewarded (practice is over!) and losers don’t. The more swimmers learn to race and compete with something on the line, even if inconsequential, the more likely they’ll be to learn how to execute when everything is on the line. Doing it in practice is the first step. Prepare for it.

Any of these situations can be manipulated to target the physiological adaptations that you feel are appropriate. By pre-loading, you can create the training stress needed for long-term physical development, and then stack on racing elements at the end. Further, training for just about any aspect of performance can be manipulated to include a racing element, particularly those that are of higher intensity. Incorporating racing elements shouldn’t compromise a training plan; it should enhance it.

Any of these ideas can be incorporated into any training plan. Whenever a set is being designed, it’s a matter of considering how racing can be integrated within the parameters that you’re looking to target. The development of winning skills can be included in any set looking to expand physical abilities, although that’s not necessarily required. All that needs to happen is consistent exposure to situations where winning is required.


Technical skill and physical conditioning are both important. If either is lacking, swimmers are going to be at a significant disadvantage. However, swimming competitions are not a measure of fitness or skill. They are RACES. If swimmers expect to win races, they must learn the skill of racing, and the skill of winning.

While some individuals have a terrific racing mentality, many do not. Rather than accepting that most swimmers don’t have that killer instinct, let’s help them learn it. If we expect swimmers to learn how to win close races, particularly when it matters most, they need to be given the opportunity to learn how to do so.

Racing is a lot more fun than ‘training’ and the more racing that can be done in training, the happier and faster swimmers are going to be. Winning is not a matter of luck. It’s a skill and all skills can be learned. It’s up to coaches to put swimmers in situations where they can learn to win.


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