Mike's Mailbag: Focusing on Practice Times

Mike's Mailbag: Focusing on Practice Times

By Mike Gustafson//Contributor  | Monday, November 21, 2016

Every Monday, I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have a question, please email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com

Dear Mike,

Over the past season I have gone from a BB and A swimmer to a AAA and AAAA swimmer. I have just turned 13 this season but I'm having a lot of trouble getting anywhere near my best times. Especially in my 200 breast, I keep adding 4 seconds or more in it every time I swim, which is not helping my confidence level, which was already low, and my motivation. The 13-14s in my LSC are very fast and I want to be able to compete with them at championship meets. How can I get back to where I was just a few months ago while staying motivated and confident?

From "No Confidence"


No Confidence,

You’ve had quite a lot of quick, sudden success, venturing from BB to AAAA. Which is wonderful. Congratulations — that’s a huge improvement. 

Don’t get me wrong: I hope this improvement lasts forever. However, just knowing from experience, this kind of improvement won’t necessarily always continue. Along your journey in competitive swimming, you will experience “best time plateaus,” you will experience bad weeks, months, and maybe even seasons. If everyone consistently dropped time every race, everyone would be Michael Phelps. Unfortunately, there can only be one Michael Phelps.

What’s more important is to keep a positive mindset. Control what you can control. To know that you will experience a rollercoaster ride of time progression. To understand that plateaus are part of the competitive swimming experience. And to keep training, keep trying, keep churning, keep your chin up.

These are clichés, I know. But you’re 13. You’re right on the cusp of when this starts to happen. Suddenly, you’re not dropping 5 seconds every time you race the 200 breaststroke, like you were when you were 12. Age 13 is right when this is a common experience for a lot of swimmers — the time drops become smaller, and it’s harder to have that same rate of improvement. 

If your times aren’t what you want them to be, pick something else to focus on. Like practice. Focus on your “practice times.” Focus on a particular set you’ve had difficulty with. Be patient. Monitor what you’re working on in practice, and measure that as “improvement.” 

For example, one time, I didn’t drop time in my 100 breaststroke for three years. Three years! It was the worst, I won’t lie. Tears were had. Angry, underwater screams. Frustrated thoughts. Self-doubt. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. 

The only way I “got over” and broke through that plateau was by focusing on “practice times.” In practice, I was improving. And not just my breaststroke, but other strokes. At meets—for whatever reason—the time drops weren’t happening. But my practice times over the course of those three years were improving. I was getting stronger. My pullouts were farther down the pool. My dives were better. My turns were faster. My pull and kick were faster, stronger. 

And this is the most important part: I believed it was only a matter of time before I broke back through at a swim meet.

One day, suddenly it happened. Just like that. Almost like magic. I dropped five seconds in my breaststroke. 

My point is: When your time drops aren’t happening, divert your focus into the “every day” training experience. Focus on your practice times. If you do a set of 8x50’s sprint breaststroke, for example, get those times down throughout the course of the season. Improve your endurance. Work on whatever you can, and monitor it. Get excited about practice times! Because some swimmers have an easier time “controlling” practice improvements than meet improvements. 

I’m a believer if the practice times are improving, eventually, meet times will improve. And, even better, you’ll learn what this sport is truly about: The everyday grit of goal-setting. The patience and mental fortitude required to become truly successful. 

Keep going, No Confidence. There’s no better confidence than stepping onto the blocks knowing you’ve tried your best each and every day in practice, that your practice times are there, that you are stronger, faster, and better than ever. That’s true confidence: The confidence that comes from being mentally tough not only every Saturday’s swim meet, but every day of the week. 

I hope this helps. 


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