Swimming Mind


By Wayne Goldsmith.

It is now the era of Swimming Mind.

The past 100 years have been largely been the era of the swimming body – with coaches, swimmers, sports scientists and researchers all strongly focused on swimming physiology and the development of the physical and technical aspects of swimming performance.

However – is it likely we’ll discover much more about VO2 max?

Unlikely – it’s been studied and re-studied over and over in labs and research centres all over the world for the past 50 years.


No one’s even sure what it does any more and if you talk to most high performance coaches they rarely – if ever – do lactate tests as part of their performance monitoring program.

Heart rate? Seriously?

This wonderful organ has been written about, sung about, studied, dissected, reviewed, revised and researched more than any other part of the human body going back to Roman and Greek times but is it likely to reveal any more clues on how to swim faster? No. It’s pretty rare to even see heart rate monitors on the decks of high performance swimming programs any more.

We’ve discovered about all there is to know about the swimming body: it’s now about the swimming mind.

It is now the brain and the mind’s turn to take centre stage in the sport: to stand up on lane 4 and to show just how important the development of a swimming mind is to achieving peak personal performance.

Why has it all been about the Swimming Body?

Why has it all been about the swimming body?

Simple when you think about it.

Because you can see, feel and measure the various physiological functions of the body.

You can measure VO2 max, lactate and heart rate. You can see the monitors and dials move and shift and you can see them spit out numbers.

You can take blood and check out oxygen transport mechanisms, immune system function, iron levels and many other relatively simple to measure blood elements.

You can measure speed, strength, endurance, power, flexibility, balance, co-ordination, agility and mobility.

The body has been the centre of our attention in the pursuit of breakthroughs in human performance for a long, long time.

But how to do measure focus?

How do you count concentration?

What’s a good relaxation score?

What’s a high level of mindfulness look like and how do you measure it?

The reason the sport has been obsessed with the swimming body is that our knowledge, measurement techniques and understanding of the human body has steadily improved over the past 100 years.

But we’re only really just now starting to look seriously at the swimming mind: its development, its monitoring, its management and its measurement.


It’s now a mind game – Swimming Mind Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The Swimming Mind and Coaching.

Swimming coaches will spend a lot of time, energy and effort creating their swimming development philosophy and system. For the most part, their swimmer development system will be based around physiology (and to a lessor degree biomechanics), i.e. physical training, stroke technique and swimming skills.

Yet – talk to a high performance coach and they’ll quickly tell you, “swimming’s 90% mental”, “it’s all in the head”, “the best swimmers are the ones who win the mental race”.

This type of coaching-talk is commonplace, yet, rarely will you see the systematic, long term development of mental skills featured prominently in the coaching programs of swimming coaches alongside freestyle technique, starting skills and aerobic base training.

  • IF coaches believe that it is important for swimmers to develop a broad range of mental skills and
  • IF coaches feel that the swimming mind is critical to achieve optimal performance levels and
  • IF coaches know that the development of emotional management abilities is essential…

then obviously including an integrated. systematic, holistic approach to swimming psychology is a vital ingredient for every swimming program.


The Swimming Mind – How to Develop One.

Whilst this is a complex issue, here’s a possible solution to the challenge of developing the swimming mind over the lifetime of a competitive swimmer:

Age range (+/-2 years)Mental skills development focus areasRationaleCoaching activities to develop the mental skills
Birth - 5 yearsConfidence and RelaxationLays the foundations for life-long learning in water.
Help eliminate fears and apprehension around water.
Learn to swim activities
Playing games in the water with fun and enjoyment.
Positive re-enforcement and support in and around water through quality teaching and good parenting.
6 years - 12 yearsSelf-belief, Confidence, Relaxation.Lays the foundations for the young swimmers to build real confidence for their competitive stages and ages.
Continued emphasis on relaxation facilitates better learning.
Quality coaching practices.
Positive re-enforcement and support from coaches and parents.
Progressive development of swimming skills and abilities of increasing complexity and difficulty.
13 years - 17 yearsFocus, Concentration, Commitment, Relaxation, Resilience, Mindfulness, Courage.Building the mental skills, character and values necessary for competitive swimming success.Quality coaching practices.
Simulated race experiences in training.
Guided learning and personal development through training and competition experiences.
Learning and development activities with peer group.
18 years onwardsCourage, Commitment, Mindfulness, Visualization, Relaxation, Performance Under Pressure (PUP) and T.U.F. Training (Technique Under Fatigue), Mental Toughness.The application of a broad range of mental skills in training and competition to achieve peak performance. Quality coaching practices.
Athletes learn through problem solving and through active learning partnerships with their coach and team mates.
Athletes deliberately and purposefully seek challenging activities to facilitate learning.



  1. Starting out in swimming coaching or sports science? Want some free advice? Study the swimming mind first and foremost. Studying physiology is important – and all coaches should be encouraged to learn and understand the fundamental aspects of swimming physiology but look seriously at psychology and mental skills development right from the commencement of your study program.
  2. In the same way you seek to systematically develop a swimmer’s physical skills and physiological capacities over time, introduce mental skills and emotional management skills with very young swimmers – then also develop these over time.
  3. Swimmers realise their peak performance potential through the optimal development of both mind and body. Develop training programs and coaching systems which continuously develop both the swimming mind and the swimming body throughout the swimmer’s career.


Wayne Goldsmith