3 Ways to Become a More Resilient Swimmer

Everyone fails. Everyone makes mistakes. But, top athletes fail quickly.

One of the qualities of elite swimmers is resilience: the ability to handle mistakes and setbacks with composure. When resilient athletes fail, they learn something, let it go, and get back to work.

It may seem like some people are born with the superior ability to bounce back and remain calm. That’s not the case. Resilience is a muscle that can be built and strengthened. It’s a quality everyone has access to.  The key is being able to learn from both successes and failures, move forward, and remain present.




1.  Legalize success and failure, and have a plan for each

In 2008, Michael Phelps’ goggles filled up with water in the 400 IM Olympic Finals. He had prepared for the possibility that his goggles could fail him during a big race. He knew exactly what to do. He was able to quickly shift to plan B: count strokes.

Instead of blaming his goggles for a failure, he just shifted to plan B.

Know that setbacks happen and have a plan for all scenarios.

 2. Let reactions happen

When setbacks happen at a meet, allow time to process, then time to let it go.  One of my favorite techniques is a mistake routine:

Mistake routine example:

  • Use the warm-down pool to feel frustrated, angry, disappointed, you name it, let the negative thoughts & emotions fly.
  • Give yourself a set amount of laps to really get upset. Then at the end of the final lap, let it go.
  • When you get out of the warm-up pool, leave the disappointment in the water. Move on and get ready for the next event.

When you succeed, the same thing goes:

  • Give yourself a set amount of laps in the warm-down pool to celebrate, feel ecstatic, be proud. Then let it go.
  • Move on and get ready for the next event.

 3. Reflect on successes and failures

Take 5 minutes after each race to go over your performance. This will increase your awareness. The more aware you are, the more present you can be, the more available to tap into peak performance.

Reflecting allows the good to come up too, which takes focus off the purely negative parts of a race or a meet. By implementing a reflection practice into your training regimen, you can actually re-wire your brain for resilience.

After each race/meet/practice, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What went well?
  2. What could have gone better?
  3. What did you learn?

Focus on the positives first

It may be hard to find successes, especially after a “bad” race. The more you do it, the more you realize there are positives in every single lap. No matter what, you can always find something you did well. Re-wiring your brain to spot successes builds confidence and mental toughness

We’re hardwired for negativity

Athletes who have a tendency to focus on negatives have a hard time bouncing back. The problem is that most humans are like problem-seeking missiles. The species survived because we are hardwired to pay attention to threats and weak points. We must see our weaknesses to keep us safe.

Things that go well are easily overlooked when there is room for improvement. Most athletes, unfortunately, get so wrapped up in the negatives that it eats away at confidence and the ability to keep things in perspective.

Learn from mistakes, but don’t dwell on them

The point of looking at mistakes is to learn something you can take action on. If you see room for improvement, decide to take action immediately to improve it.

  • Example: if you notice your turns were weak, make a diligent effort to work on your turns at your next practice.



When you’re allowed to fail, you don’t have to fear it. Be prepared with a plan B. Allow yourself to get upset… in a productive way. Process your reaction, then get back to the task at hand. Reflect after each performance to learn all you can from it.

With these three strategies in place, resilience will build, allowing you to fail quickly, and continue to grow as an athlete and a human.