yellOn the day I was born, the nurses all gathered ’round And they gazed in wide wonder, at the joy they had found The head nurse spoke up, and she said leave this one alone She could tell right away, that I was bad to the bone Bad to the bone Bad to the bone

(George Thorogood)


In this old classic rock and roll song, George Thorogood is telling the world he is “bad to the bone” – that he is tough, rough, mean and nasty and you had better not get in his way.

A lot of people think that mental toughness in swimming is a bit like this: being mentally tough means being rough, tough, mean, angry, rude, crude, nasty and that you enjoy bashing, bullying and belittling your opposition.

Guess what….real mental toughness is the exact opposite!


Mental toughness…the old way: training the body to train the mind.

The old way of developing mental toughness was simple.

Swimmers trained and trained and trained…then trained some more.

In the process, they became fitter, stronger and physically “tougher” than their opposition and being physically tougher it was believed they would also be mentally tougher.

We trained the body to train the mind. It didn’t really matter if technique fell apart, or if breathing was uncontrolled or skills like turns were sloppy: just work and work and work until you were physically capable of anything.

There were two fundamental flaws in this approach:

  1. Not all swimmers were capable of completing huge volumes of training and in many cases the long, hard training programs induced illness and injury
  2. It assumed that mental toughness would flow from having the confidence of having completed a long, hard, physical preparation.

Mental toughness…the new way: training the mind to train the body.

The biggest breakthrough in our understanding of mental toughness has come from the realisation that the mind is the master of the body.

Research into the mind-body interaction has consistently demonstrated what many swimmers and coaches have suspected: what the mind believes…the body can achieve.

We also know that with the right mental skills training, the mind is capable of amazing things and can drive the body to achieve swimming performances that cannot be explained by the mechanics of blood, heart, lungs and muscle alone.

In addition, our old thinking on swimming as a sport was that it was a physiology driven activity, i.e. the person who was physically best prepared would win.

We now know that success in swimming comes from the integration of three critical aspects of sports performance:

  • Physiology: physical factors like muscle, blood, lungs, heart, tendons etc.
  • Biomechanics: technical factors like stroke technique, stroke length, stroke rate and skills like dives, starts, turns and finishes
  • Psychology: mental factors like self-belief, concentration, focusing, imagery and relaxation.

In practical terms, this integrated model of swimming performance looks like this:

Thinking differently means swimming differently.

Actions don’t happen by themselves.

They start with thoughts. Thoughts become words – (even words you say to yourself). And those words become actions.

Swimming differently means thinking differently.

For example: A swimmer is in the middle of a really hard, challenging training set. She thinks, “Man this is really tough. But I will push harder and fight harder and get through this”.

With all we now know about mental toughness and how the mind and body work together in pain, pressure and fatigue situations, more effective thinking could be: “Focus on breathing and staying long and loose and relaxed in the water. Focus on each stroke. Feel my hand enter the water and begin to pull. Notice the feeling of pressure on my fingers and hand as I accelerate my arm through the water. Feel the bubbles stream from my nose and mouth as I breathe out”.

We used to talk about mental toughness in terms of “fight” – now it is all about flow.

We thought it was all about being brave – now we encourage breathing.

We believed the secret to mental toughness was to get tougher – now we know it about relaxation: the faster you want to go, the more relaxed you have to be.

Swimming Situation Mentally Tough Behaviours: The OLD Way…. Mentally Tough Behaviours:The NEW Way….
Training in the Pool Do as much training as you possibly could believing that the more training you do, the fitter you got and the tougher you became. Execute everything you do with a focus on relaxation, excellence and maintaining perfect technique and skills under pain, fatigue and pressure situations.
Training in the Gym Push and drive yourself as long and as hard as possible and do as many repeats as you can. Integrate your mind and body in all dry-land training activities and focus on staying relaxed and composed, while maintaining great technique in pain, pressure and fatigue situations.
Before Racing Jump up and down, make noise and try to psyche out your opposition by showing “bravery”, “courage” and “intimidation”. Adopt some “mindfulness” techniques like slow, deep, breathing and allowing thoughts, emotions and feelings to flow in and out of you without reacting to them or judging them.
During the Race As the race goes longer and things get tougher, grit your teeth, work harder and fight hard to the wall. As the race goes longer and things get tougher, focus on breathing, relaxation and maintaining excellence in stroke technique and skills without effort or conscious thought.

Table 1: Mental toughness in swimming: comparing the old way of thinking about mental toughness with some new ideas and better ways of learning how to be mentally tough.

A new direction for mental toughness and swimming: Swimming and Mindfulness:

Mindfulness is a relatively “new” technique in swimming performance psychology. (It has only been around for 2-3 thousand years in the practice of meditation).  It has been described as bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis.

Increasingly mental skills practitioners and coaches are looking at mindfulness as a technique to help swimmers manage their mind around training and competition.

Mindfulness can be learnt relatively quickly and once practiced can help swimmers deal with the “moment to moment” challenges they face when training hard and racing fast.



  1. Being mentally tough has nothing to do with anger, being mean, feeling nasty or fighting: it’s keeping calm, composed and in control when things get hard;
  2. Anyone can be mentally tough when it doesn’t matter. Being mentally tough in the first three repeats of a 20 x 100 metres training set doesn’t really take a lot of doing. Being mentally tough by maintaining great technique, skills and breathing control when doing the final three repeats – and even asking the coach for one or two additional repeats….now that’s mentally tough;
  3. Don’t confuse physical toughness with mental toughness (although they are related). Just training hard physically is not enough! You need to integrate MIND AND BODY in training and practice so that your ability to stay relaxed and maintain technical excellence in pain, pressure and fatigue conditions is enhanced;
  4. Mental toughness is a skill and like any swimming skill, it needs to be practiced every session, every workout, every day;
  5. Mindfulness is an exciting new direction in mental skills training for competitive swimmers and is potentially the greatest leap forward in our ability to enhance mental toughness since George Thorogood’s immortal words!

Wayne Goldsmith