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Coaching Belief

‘Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.’

-Henry Ford

Clearly, this is no less true in swimming. Swimmers don’t swim fast by chance. They swim fast when they BELIEVE they’re going to swim fast. I imagine most have had experiences where they KNEW they were going to be successful, or they’ve coached individuals that have KNOWN they were going to successful.

We often reference these experiences with some sort of mysticism, assuming they’re special or fleeting. The problem becomes that this implies there is little that can be done to reproduce these experiences. We’re left with hope, which is the not the best strategy for success.

However, belief arises from the expectation that the present challenge can be accomplished with the skills possessed. The assessment of the skills possessed comes from past experiences, either in competition or in training. It is the latter that I feel is our leverage point towards creating a greater, more consistent belief in one’s abilities, and thus faster swimming in competition.

I would argue that the reason these experiences are so inconsistent is that we simply don’t design training to affect these outcomes. We focus almost exclusively on the physiological impacts of our training, with little consideration to the other outcomes that training facilitates. By deliberately designing training to enhance swimmers’ self-belief, we can develop swimmers that not only physically prepared, but believe in themselves and expect to be successful.

Set Them Up for Success. The simplest way to build confidence is to set swimmers up for success rather than failure. That really tough workout that they struggled with might have been a great physiological stimulus, but the swimmer perceives it as a failure. Even if there was a positive physiological effect, the psychological effect can be devasting, particularly if it is repeated. If swimmers are physically ready but don’t believe they’re ready, it almost doesn’t matter. If they keep failing, they’re not going to believe.

Belief comes from success in progressively challenging situations. Design practices that provide challenge to swimmers, yet result in perceived success. Their perception is almost as important as the reality, so we need to give them the chance to complete training sessions they perceive as successful.

This isn’t to say that failure is always bad. However, the nature of the sport ensures that failure will happen. This is particularly true when pursuing meaningful successes. These inherently involve challenge, and with challenge comes failure. By actively working to promote successes, you’ll work to balance the failures will experience any way. When doing the opposite, failures tend to mount in an unproductive manner. Occasional failures are fine and even useful. Repeated failures are an issue. Tip the balance.

Confidence and belief come from succeeded in challenging situations. Create situations that challenge swimmers, yet provide a high likelihood of success. If swimmers are consistently struggling and failing, CHANGE what’s being asked of them, rather than waiting for performances to turn around. They usually don’t.

Keep the Answers. If everything is handed to swimmers, they stop looking for solutions. They wait to be told. When swimmers race, they need to BELIEVE that they have the skills and the abilities to solve the problems that racing presents. Belief is bolstered by not only developing those skills. It’s bolstered when swimmers play an active role in learned those skills on their own. Not only do they have the answers, they know that they helped to discover them on their own.

This isn’t to say that you ignore struggling swimmers, just that you provide enough to get them get them progressing again. Even then, give them just enough of a hint, to get moving in the right direction again. At first, this can be a challenge as many swimmers are pretty externally dependent, which is a sign that this is exactly what they need. They’ll adjust.

You are a coach for a reason. However, it can be productive to resist providing the answers. Coach swimmers to learn to find the answers themselves. Is any skills that’s worth coaching more than that?

Help Them Learn the Tools. What does success racing require? Do swimmers know how to execute those skills? Do they believe they know how to execute those skills? Are they given the opportunities to learn these tools?

Racing is a test. Swimmers are a lot more confident when they know the answers to the test. Fortunately, we all know what questions the test is going to ask. Are we giving them the best opportunities to get the questions right, or are we spending too much time with less productive activities? Swimming 20,000 meters is not going to provide the same confidence as KNOWING you have all the answers to the test.

If time is not regularly spent giving swimmers the opportunity to learn the skills critical to racing, they’re going to be at a disadvantage. As importantly, they’re going to KNOW they’re at a disadvantage. That’s going to impact their belief.

When swimmers make comments such as ‘I don’t feel like we work on XXX enough,’ that’s a sign that they feel unprepared for a question they know they’re going to be asked. It means they don’t have belief. If our goal is to prepare swimmers for competition, we need to give them the opportunity to learn the skills they need to race. Not only will doing so directly enhance those skills and performance, it will indirectly enhance performers as it will enhance their belief.

Progress on as Many Fronts as Possible. Of course, we can’t necessarily control whether swimmers will be successful in any one activity, nor can we control adaptation as much as we’d like to believe we can. As a solution, give swimmers as many different opportunities to succeed as possible. If their butterfly isn’t really clicking, perhaps their backstroke is and they’re improving in their pull-ups.

The more opportunities there are, the greater the chance something will be going well. That can be challenging when there are only 1 or 2 sources belief. Belief will become more fragile.

Belief doesn’t necessarily stem from a single source. It’s the accumulation and aggregation of several different areas. Work to ensure that belief is supported on many fronts.

Give them Evidence. Wayne Goldsmith has described how some individuals need more ‘evidence’ to enhance their self-belief. One of the most important goals in training is providing positive evidence. When designing sets, considering what type of evidence you will be providing each swimmer should be a critical step in the process. Every set will provide some type of evidence, whether intended or not. It’s up to you to determine if that evidence will be positive or negative, so be intentional.

This should a primary consideration when designing sets. It’s similar to setting individuals up for success, in that successful experiences serve as evidence. In this case, it’s important to make that evidence transparent. It’s one thing to have a successful experience, it’s another to have the significance of that success be crystal clear.

Autonomy. Provide choices. Even irrelevant choices. It enhances performance and provides a sense of control. Further, swimmers will contribute any success that they have to their choice. This will enhance their belief not only because of the improved performance

Expectancies. Positive expectancies have been shown to enhance performance. When individuals expect to be successful, they perform better. It then makes sense to use all of the strategies above to enhance the expectation of success. This expectation leads to more success, which leads to higher expectations, and so on. When swimmers expect to be successful in practice, and are, they’ll expect to be successful in competition. All of the strategies above serve to increase the expectation of success in complementary ways. Use them.


In many cases, physiology is the only consideration for planning and designing training. There is little consideration to technical advancement, and even less consideration for psychological development. Belief is a critical aspect of performance, and belief will be developed largely through experiences in training. What we do affects what we believe.

Self-confidence and self-belief don’t magically appear. While some individuals do have a seemingly strong sense of belief, it’s likely that they simply require little evidence of their abilities. Unfortunately, that is a rare individual. For the rest, they need the evidence that comes from consistently successful experiences. Fortunately, with intent and consideration, coaches can positively influence self-belief through their interactions and how they design practices.

Instead of simply designing sets with training outcomes in mind, consider other impacts of training. After each practice, swimmers will either believe in themselves and their abilities to a greater degree or they won’t. By incorporating some of the strategies listed above, coaches can enhance their swimmers’ belief while simultaneously accomplish all of their other objectives. Once you see the impact, you’ll start to believe as well.


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