Swimming Stress: Stop Worrying – Keep Swimming

Swimming Stress can be a friend or a foe...and every swimmer experiences it. Photo Courtesy: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Swimming Stress: Stop Worrying – Keep Swimming.

By Wayne Goldsmith

One of the most common questions I get asked by swimmers, coaches and parents is how to deal with pre-race nervousness: what I call Swimming Stress.

People of all ages and in all walks of life experience a degree of stress everyday: it’s normal and it’s natural to feel a little stressed from time to time.

But when stress overwhelms your mind and stressful thoughts and emotions begin to impact on your body, e.g. feeling “butterflies”, shaking, sweating for no reason, feeling irritable etc. – to the point where stress is impacting negatively on your potential to perform, it’s time to learn the tips, tricks and techniques of stress management.

There are a few simple things that every swimmer can do to minimize, manage and master Swimming Stress.

And the most important one of all is….stop worrying – just keep swimming.

Swimming Stress: Don’t Stress About Stress.

First of all…Stop Stressing About Stress!

Next time you meet an elite level swimmer – or a professional athlete in another sport – ask them this question:

“Do you ever get stressed?”

You’ll hear them respond with a resounding “YES!!”.

It is normal and it’s natural for an athlete to experience a level of stress. It’s an important response wired into our brains and it warns us when there’s danger: it’s a safety mechanism.

However – stress can and does get out of control. It can progress from a “safety mechanism” to becoming a very powerful, very destructive force that can have a catastrophic impact on the stress-sufferer.

The trick is control the things you can control – and don’t stress about the rest.

And above – don’t stress about stress.

Do something about it!

So What Do Swimmers Stress About?

Recently at a swim camp, I asked a large group of swimmers to write down the top three things that gave them Swimming Stress.

Almost unanimously the three most popular (or unpopular depending on how your look at it) stresses identified by the swimmers were:

  1. Coming last;
  2. Not achieving my goals, e.g. a P.R. time or winning a medal or getting a place in the finals;
  3. Letting someone else down, e.g. coach, mom and dad, my team-mates.

Let’s look at each of these common swimming stresses.

Coming Last

Without doubt this is greatest source of stress – the most common fear experienced by young swimmers.

The very thought of looking up at the scoreboard and seeing the Number 8 next to your name is nightmare no-one wants.

In every race – someone wins – someone places fourth and someone comes last. That’s racing – that’s life.

However, every race you swim is part of your learning and development program as a swimmer. Coming last means you’ve learnt a lesson – and you’ve been given an opportunity – an inspiration to train harder – more often and with more focus than ever before.

Many great athletes will look back on their careers and identify a “magic-moment” – where they came last or experienced a failure – and that – more than anything else inspired them to passionately and uncompromisingly pursue excellence.

Not Achieving Your Goals

Many swimmers worry about not achieving their Meet goals.

There is nothing you can do to guarantee success. Nothing. That’s the nature of competitive sport – the outcome is uncertain. Even the greatest athletes – the most amazing teams – the most experienced coaches – do not win all the time. 

The key to achieving your goals is to know and to understand the difference between DREAMS and GOALS.

A dream is something that lives in your mind – and in your heart. It’s a hope – a wish – a vision that you have about something you’d like to achieve.

A goal – on the other hand – is a dream with substance. A goal has a deadline: a time-frame for when and where you’re going to do something.

Understanding the difference between a dream and a goal is critically important when it comes to managing swimming stress.

For example:

My dream is: To win the national 50 meters freestyle championships.

My goals are: “To focus on my start and explode off the blocks. I’ll do 8 fast fly kicks under-water in 3 seconds – explode to the surface and kick powerfully – and not breathe until I’ve taken five strokes. I’ll stay smooth and relaxed through the next 25 meters – breathing only once. With 15 meters to go, I’ll focus on building my foot speed and use my legs to drive me to the finish”.

You can’t control the achievement of your dreams but – you can practice – and you can control the execution of your goals.

And the funny thing is…very often – when you concentrate on your goals….your dreams come true.

Letting Someone Else Down

This is another very common swimming stress.

Here’s a real life story.

A young swimmer I was working with told me that their biggest fear – their greatest swimming stress – was letting down mom and dad.

The swimmer felt that if they didn’t win the 100 at their school Meet, they were failing their parents and would make mom and dad sad.

I spoke to mom and dad and relayed their daughter’s concerns. Mom and dad were shocked. And sad.

What happened next was nothing short of miraculous!

Dad grabbed his daughter and said, “Sweetheart, you know the thing I love most of all about you swimming….is just being here with you and watching you do something you love to do. I don’t really care if you come first or last – it doesn’t matter to me – all I care about is being here – sharing this with you and enjoying every moment I can with my wonderful daughter”.

You’re not swimming for mom and dad.

You’re not swimming for your coach.

Or for your team. Or for your friends.

You swim because you love it and because you love it – and because you’re doing something that you enjoy doing – no one – no one is ever let down.



Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports


Real Swimming Stress or Imagined Swimming Stress..It Feels the Same.

When you tell someone you’re experiencing Swimming Stress, the most common response will be “stop worrying”. Often when you tell people you’re stressed about something, e.g. “What if I come last?” they look at you like you’re just a little bit crazy.

Swimming stress feels the same whether it’s real – or if it’s something you’ve imagined: stress is stress.

However, here’s a simple technique you can use to help deal with your fears – real and imagined.

Make a list of everything that’s stressing you:write down all the things that you’re worried about happening – not matter how silly or weird or bizarre these things might seem.

In front of each of your stresses, write the words…“What If”.

Then, next to each of those swimming stresses, write the words “I will”.

For example:

  • What if….I come Last – I will train hard – I’ll give everything I have in everything I do. And if I do come last, I’ll learn from it and work harder than ever.
  • What if….I slip on the blocks at the startI will carry a towel to the start. I’ll wipe down the blocks. I’ll make sure it’s a dry surface. And if I do slip, I won’t panic, I’ll manage my pace and I’ll come home very fast at the end of my race.
  • What if my goggles come offI will double-check my goggles behind the blocks. I’ll also do some starts and sprints at training without wearing my goggles so that if they do come off I’ll still swim fast.


The Bottom Line about Swimming Stress

Most swimming stress is caused by not doing something you know you should have done when you were supposed to do it!

Stressed about your turns? Then you should have been concentrating and focusing on turns – every turn – every session – every day for the past six months.

Stressed about your starts? Then why didn’t you stay back and do 5 extra high quality, race standard starts after every practice this year?

Stressed about your speed? You could have been working on your explosiveness, kick and swimming power every session this season.

Sure – swimming stress is normal.

And Yes – swimming stress is experienced by every swimmer.

But you have it within your power – to choose to minimize the negative effects of swimming stress by the way you do what you do every day in training.


  1. Swimming Stress is a normal and natural part of competitive swimming. Everyone – from the seven-year old climbing onto the blocks for their first race through to Olympic finalists experience the fluttering feelings of pre-race anxiety and nervousness.
  2. Stress can be a positive. It can signal that it’s time to race – to perform to your potential and to do something extra-ordinary. Or – without the right management strategies – it can be an uncontrollable set of uncomfortable feelings and unwanted physical sensations that effectively hijack your competition performance.
  3. The great news about swimming stress is your can choose how it effects you. You can choose to train consistently to your potential and do the little things right day after day after day or you can sit back – wishing and hoping everything will be ok on race-day and allow swimming stress to determine how fast – or how slow – you swim.

Choose to make swimming stress an ally – manage the emotion of the moment – and use being STRESSED to help you do your BEST.

And check out my article on SWIMMING and NERVOUSNESS – “It’s OK to be Nervous” – in the June issue of SWIMMING WORLD MAGAZINE.

Wayne Goldsmith