“90% of the game is half mental” -Yogi Berra, famous Yankees catcher and manager


This is the third installment on a series of four articles about mental training. It addresses a general guideline to individual mental preparation and the first phase of the mental program.

As Ye Believe, So Shall Ye Swim

I look at physical training as part of mental preparation— not just the other way around. What swimmers believe about themselves is manifested in how they train. Their belief system is at the core of their decisions about technique, nutrition, pain tolerance, etc. Part of that belief comes from those around the athlete, specifically their team, parents, coaches, etc. In our program we share a great number of stories throughout the year about past successes in several areas of endeavor. There are legends of amazing time drops, levels of commitment, physical prowess, and complete turnarounds of character. These clearly help to galvanize the current swimmers’ beliefs as to what lies ahead in their futures.

But most of one’s beliefs are internal. And it is at this level that changes must be made to move the swimmer to the next level. Complicating the situation is the converse of what was stated above: how they train changes how they see themselves. One’s mental state affects training, which in turn affects one’s mental state. Accordingly, emotions play a vital role as to whether this spiral is upward or downward.

Beliefs are strongly bound to emotions. Positive emotions promote courage, self-actualization, confidence, etc. In his excellent book The New Toughness Training for Sports (1994), James E. Loehr states, “Emotions respond much as muscles do. The ones you stimulate the most become the strongest and most accessible.” This concept has recently been confirmed in studies on neuroplasticity where the brain develops new neurons/neuropathways to handle new stimuli. Thus, the more one manifests positive emotions, the more the brain chemistry is restructured to accommodate the new demands. Loehr insists, “the link between emotions and muscles runs both ways.” Muscle performance affects emotion as much as emotion affects muscle performance. Regardless of one’s “real” emotional state, acting “as if” changes the neurochemistry. Actors know that just simulating a smile changes blood chemistry. If they a playing a scene that requires a certain emotion, one technique is to consciously configure the muscles of the body and face to conform with that emotion. Research confirms that simply changing body posture and facial expression can eliminate feelings of helplessness, fear, and despair. Swimmers can be taught to use their body language to produce performanceenhancing emotions and reduce the effects of negative fear-producing emotions.

Anxiety is the emotional response to a perceived threat. At lower levels, anxiety produces chemical responses that result in aggression, increased focus, and higher-than-normal levels of energy. These responses are part of our genetic heritage. The key of the mental program is to teach control of the levels of anxiety so that they do not become debilitating either through feelings of hopelessness and fear or through loss of focus. In his book Get Out of Your Own Way, Neuroscientist Robert Cooper suggests, “you have to consciously apply your frontal lobes to help you.” Loehr talks about becoming conscious of one’s ideal performance state, which he calls IPS. This is the emotional arousal state when one feels challenged but not overwhelmed. As coaches, we have all seen performances when the athlete is not “fired up” enough and performs poorly. We have also witnessed performances when athletes are “too pumped” and fail to do the little things that maximize potential. They go out too fast, forget about technique, miss the turn, or otherwise “choke” at the moment of highest pressure. Talent and skill cannot overcome high levels of anxiety. Negative emotions will always short-circuit physical ability. Not all swimmers have the same ideal arousal levels. Some will perform better at a 4 on a one-to-ten scale of anxiety; others may need to be at an eight to achieve their best performance. Whatever the level, the purpose of mental training is to help athletes get into their own ideal performance state, especially at their championship meets.

Periodization of mental work.

Just as I divide the season into physiological macro cycles, I also divide the season into three basic mental phases.

Phase 1 (usually lasting about 3 weeks) introduces goal setting, and other basic mental concepts. We also emphasize team concepts especially the team theme and book and sets the tone as explained earlier in this series. We also employ a questionnaire to examine and establish psychological profiles. 

During phase 2 (about 8 weeks) we introduce relaxation drills and generic visualization drills. Mental sessions emphasize keeping fresh and motivated, coping with disappointment, and what Dr. Alan Goldberg refers to as “slump busting.” We also focus on specific racing strategies that quiet the mind and reduce distractions. Finally, we use feedback loops to adjust the mental program and goals.

In the last 3 weeks we move on to phase 3. At this point, the program is all about refining what we have learned from both our successes and our failures. Race visualization becomes increasingly more specific as we try to build excitement to a crescendo and tie everything together at our championship meet. 

Individual Goals

Faith (vision) may not literally move mountains, but no excavation can begin or be successful without it. Goals are a great source of motivation when you make them. I don’t just like to look at the end-of-season goals, but the enablers along the way. These might include times on certain sets or meet swims. Before doing goal setting, we give them a reference sheet. They need to know last year’s best times both shaved and unshaved, the varsity letter cut (85% of state cut) as well as 90 % and 95% of the state cut, the all time top 15, the school record and league record, the top (16-8-1) in league, the top (16-8-1) in the state, All-American, etc. Our reference sheets are loaded with motivational sayings, and we talk at length about realistic (acceptable) goals vs. possibilities. The English poet Alexander Pope sarcastically quipped, “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” We want them to reach for a higher plane, but we do not want them to become obsessed with goals to the point of adding excessive anxiety.

While we sometimes use their goals as a source of motivation (especially on broken racepace swims), we try to keep them simmering on the back burner, more as a general guideline than the end-all of life itself. Nor are their goals locked in at the beginning of the season. Some hit their goals in the middle of the season, while others find their desires don’t quite match up with their talents or their level of commitment. Revision is necessary, just as the adjustments in steering keep you from going off the road. The problem with goals is not being derailed by every mosquito’s wing that lands on the railroad track. Failure is sometimes more instructional than success. Read Pat Conroy’s My Losing Season if you doubt this concept. Too much failure, however, can have a debilitating effect on motivation and ultimately training. The trick is to The key of the mental program is to teach control of the levels of anxiety so that they do not become debilitating either through feelings of hopelessness and fear or through loss of focus. keep goals from becoming an overwhelming source of worry that results in angst.

Positive feedback loop

Part of mental training, especially early in the season, occurs in the water. As the athletes are “getting into shape,” whether you’re using the terminology of Jon Urbancek, Hytech/USA Swimming, or Segei Beliaev, the energy systems should be making a right shift if adaptation is taking place. Benchmark sets should show increasing levels of excellence, hence producing in the swimmers increasing levels of confidence. We want to encourage what, in his book Inner Tennis, Timothy Gallwey calls the “Ah, ha” experience and limit the “Uh, oh” experience. The “Ah, ha’s” reflect the growth choice, positive outflow, and increased levels of understanding. If I discover a better feel in the water as a result of improved technique, my brain is actively engaged in determining my own destiny. If my efficiency number (stroke count added to time) is getting smaller, I must be doing something better than I was before. I can quantitatively measure progress with better times, better heart rates for the same time, etc. and find delight in the future. The “oh, oh’s” on the other hand center on the fear choice, negative flow, and boredom. When the water work lacks mental engagement, most swimmers will respond with “Oh, oh! Another hard, boring repeat,” or “more pain,no gain!”

Preliminary Concepts

Doing tough physical sets gives the mind confidence against tough competition. However, not everyone comes into practice with this ability. While there can be a genetic predisposition toward toughness, more importantly it can be taught. But that takes a willingness to practice toughness. Loehr defines toughness as “the ability to handle stress—physical, mental, and emotional—so that you‘ll be a more effective competitor.” It “is the ability to consistently access empowering emotions during competition.” He employs a 17 point program to improve toughness.1 Most of his points involve changing one’s consciousness by using imagination and visualization. Napoleon once said, “Imagination rules the world.” We must begin with an awareness of the mental elements we want to cultivate and then practice them. Careful observation of weaknesses as well as strengths leads to growth. Imitating championship behaviors leads to an assimilation of those qualities, so we begin by making our swimmers conscious of what makes competitors tough.

A paradox exists, however, because in the end, we don’t want them to be overly conscious during a race. In his book Inner Tennis Gallwey talks about the conscious self, which he calls Self-1. This self essentially originates in the left hemisphere that analyzes and prescribes correction, and thus is very judgmental. Subject to fear, self-doubt and lapses in concentration, Self 1, with good intention, actually gets in the way of maximal effort. It is with what Gallwey calls Self 2 that we want our athletes to compete. Located more in the right hemisphere that processes with images and synthesizes information, and is thus more passive, Self 2 allows the body to do what it has been programmed to do. Self 1 does not trust the unconscious, automatic self 2 to do the job and creates the tension of overeffort. It screams at the body to follow its commands, makes the body self-conscious, and causes the dreaded “paralysis by analysis” syndrome. The concept originates in Taoism and is known as “Wu Wei” which literally means “without doing.” It suggests that the stone will always find the fastest path to the bottom without effort simply by being itself. Once the body has assimilated all that can be learned in one season, in the championship races it is time to let go of the limits of consciousness and While we sometimes use their goals as a source of motivation (especially on broken race-pace swims), we try to keep them simmering on the back burner, more as a general guideline than the end-all of life itself. let the body do what it knows how to do, what it has trained itself to do. If you want great swims in the end, you have to start with this concept from week one: you have to consciously train to have the conscious give up control to the subconscious. As Boomer says, “You have to create the conditions for speed, and then get out of the way.”


I find that questionnaires are an essential tool in developing the information and feedback I need to construct a mental program. Generally, I don’t think they are ready to handle goal setting and other focus issues right away, so I don’t hand this out until 2 or 3 weeks of training. The questions should not just be the typical busy work found in so many classrooms. Each question must ask the overall question: What do you, as the coach, need to know? In questionnaire #1, I break it down into physical goals (times, splits, technique goals, strength goals, etc.), emotional goals (what motivates them), and mental goals. I also want to know their anxiety levels. Some questions used in the physical goal section include: How they feel about themselves in terms of self-direction, flexibility, technique, strength, overall condition, etc.; their principal strengths and principal weaknesses in each stroke and a list of the drills used to correct these flaws. Questions on the mental side include: How well do you perform under pressure? How do you handle uncontrollables (a term picked up from Alan Goldberg handouts)? What kind of self-talk do you normally employ at meets? at practice? How do you reframe setbacks? How flexible are you in your response if things aren’t exactly perfect? How do you handle fear? What distracts you from focusing on the task at hand? How do you regain your focus? What do you think should be your goals for increased mental toughness? In another section about “looking at the process,” questions like these appear. What things have you done or are you now doing that will help you reach your goals in all three areas? What things have been less than positive in the last few weeks? Do these problems still need to be addressed? If so, in what ways can you see improvement? Do you like the book so far? Can you see how its concepts apply to our sport? What positive things would you like to see over the next three weeks—from yourself, from the team, from the staff? Below is a chart used to assess an earlier handout (with my explanations in parenthesis).

In week #1 I talked about some coach/ swimmer principles. Rate both the coaches, yourself, and the team on each principle with a 1 being almost non-existent and a 10 being greatly in evidence

Coach/Swimmer Principles

1. FUN!!!(Are practices lively and full of smiles?)

2. person first, technique second (Kind of a Karate Kid concept—that technique must start with character)

3. Zen 7, Ken 3 (mental training [zen] is more important than physical training [ken— Japanese for sword)

4. Growth choice (Do workouts have creativity and allow you to learn and grow?)

5. Awareness and tolerance (Are we aware of and do we tolerate differences in our teammates?)

6. Industry (Do we have the work ethic necessary to reach our goals?)

7. Taking responsibility (Do we just obey orders, or are we actively involved in creating our own destiny?)

8. Fairness (Do we treat people on this team fairly? Note this does not necessarily mean equally.)

9. Communication (Are we actively listening as well as relating those issues of concern or importance?)

10. Sincerity and humor (Are we trying to maintain seriousness of purpose while still adding a smile to others?)

11. Integrity (Are we people that everyone around us would be proud to know?)

The answers reveal a great deal information without the cost of a lot of valuable time. The questionnaires are given as “homework” and are returned the next day under threat of torture. The last part of this article will focus on phases 2 and 3, specifically on relaxation and visualization. The following comes from James E. Loehr,Ed.D., The New Toughness Training for Sports (1994) 160-61. While generally selfexplanatory, for a more detailed explanation of each of these concepts, I suggest you read the book. It is extremely worthwhile reading for all coaches in all sports.

1. Change your thinking to change the way you feel.

2. Change the picture if you don’t like the feeling.

3. Take full responsibility for what and how you think.

4. Practice positive thinking constantly.

5. Never think or say “I can’t”; never think or say “I hate.”

6. Think empowering thoughts.

7. Think humorously to break up negative emotions.

8. Think more energetically.

9. Learn to keep a here-and-now focus during competition.

10. During critical moments of execution, focus your attention outside yourself.

11. Practice strategic visualization constantly.

12. Be more disciplined in the way you think about your mistakes.

13. Be clear why it’s important to fight. Before the battle begins, make the commitment.

14. Use adversity to get stronger.

15. Constantly remind yourself to love the battle.

16. Use positive brainwashing to break negative mental habits.

17. Focus on “Just for today.”


Login with your NISCA number (##-####)

Remember Me

Passwords CAN NOT contain the following characters: & *

NISCA Has a Podcast!

NISCA has a podcast, called Between the Lane Lines. Check out the first episode here, and click the subscribe button to get new ones as they come out! You can find it here.