Mental Toughness in Sports: The Struggle Is Real

ella eastin, stanford, ncaa swimming championships

Mental Toughness in Sports: The Struggle Is Real

Swimmers train like monsters. The hours per week certainly add up, not just in the pool but in the weight room, doing dryland exercises, relentlessly chucking a medicine ball around the pool deck until our shoulders give out. We’ve got the physical training down, trust me. But mental health is a crucial component of the sport, arguably the most important, and it isn’t talked about enough. You can train all you want, but when it’s finally your moment, where it’s just you and the lane you’ve been given, the opportunity that you earned to perform, none of it matters if your mind isn’t in the right place. And God, it is hard to get your mind in the right place.

The hypothetical failures, the “What If’s,” the voice in the back of your mind taunting you with ideas that you aren’t good enough. We’ve all been there. It’s a mutual experience among the entire swimming community, and yet, it’s still enough to sabotage everything that we’ve worked for. It’s the invisible monster that has robbed so many swimmers of achieving their dreams.

As scary as it sounds, we’re all in this together. There are ways to adapt. Mental toughness is not easily attained, but it’s within grasp for all of us. Here’s a few components of mental toughness and routes you can take to make them your own.


If you believe you can do it, you’re right. If you don’t believe you can do it, you’re also right. It’s as simple as that.

Fake it ’til you make it. Even if your self confidence is literally in a ditch, you better get behind that block and pretend like it isn’t. If you keep pretending every single day, then pretty soon you won’t have to pretend anymore. It will come naturally, and it will be the best feeling in the world.

Every time your brain creates a negative thought about yourself, pair it with a positive one. If you think to yourself, I can’t do it, pair it immediately with, Yes I can. If you think to yourself, I am going to fail, pair it immediately with, I am going to succeed. It seems silly, but similar to the first method, eventually it will become a habit and healthy habits create winners.

If you ever find yourself doubting your abilities, just think about how far you’ve come. You’ve practiced relentlessly, you’ve put in the work, you’ve done the hard part. Now get up there and let your actions do the talking.

And if all else fails, pretend you’re a superhero. Posture is everything when it comes to self confidence. Stand up straight, put your hands on your hips, tilt your chin up, and feel the pose. According to Thrive Global, the superhero pose is all about science. Standing in this position can literally change the chemistry of your brain by altering the body’s hormone production. Testosterone, also known as the power hormone, is responsible for elevating self-esteem and boosting your confidence. Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone, which automatically goes down in the superhero power pose. Unleash your inner superman!


An athlete with a good sense of control is able to handle their emotions in times of intense stress. This means having a good sense of who you are, what you can achieve, and how to achieve it.

Visualization exercises are good for attaining control in sports. You know what you’re capable of, so visualize it. Picture which lane you’re in, how the block looks, how it feels to step onto it. Imagine the buzzer blaring into the air, and imagine how it feels to dive into the water knowing that you’re about to do something great. Visualize every little detail of your race from start to finish. And then, visualize how it feels to win. Doing this regularly will prepare your mind for the real thing, contributing to the amount of control you will have over your mind on game day.

Meditation is another healthy practice to gain control. It soothes the brain, releasing it from anxious or stressful thoughts. Giving yourself just 10 minutes every day to work on your mental health will greatly benefit you throughout the day. Making it a habit and devoting a slice of your day to bettering your brain will improve your ability to control your thoughts more than you think.


When all else fails, show up. Just show up. Your alarm goes off, and the very last thing you want to do is get out of your cozy bed to jump into an ice cold pool. We get it, we’ve all been there. It’s the oldest story in the book. But one of the most important factors of mental toughness is resiliency, and this means fully committing yourself to the sport no matter how you feel.

The clock doesn’t care if you don’t feel like it. The clock doesn’t care if you’re tired. The clock doesn’t care if you really want a day off. The clock will give you what you want if you stay committed. It will agree with you once you decide that you want it badly enough. Mental toughness is rewarded to those who dive into this crazy, beautiful world of swimming with their whole hearts. If your heart isn’t in it, then your brain won’t be either.

Commitment is the first step. Once you decide that you’re committed to bettering yourself, in and out of the water, a strong mind graciously comes with that. All you’ve got to do, my friend, is dive right in.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

Notify of

Welcome to our community. We invite you to join our discussion. Our community guidelines are simple: be respectful and constructive, keep on topic, and support your fellow commenters. Commenting signifies that you agree to our Terms of Use

1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 years ago

Relevant ! Especially after watching Simone Biles struggle.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x