By Olivier Poirier-Leroy | Friday, November 9, 2018
How competitive are you?
Heck, competitive is in the name of our sport. It’s right there: “competitive swimming.”
And yet, a lot of swimmers shy away from being competitive for fear of the negative connotations attached to the word. They worry about appearing greedy or narcissistic.
Like most things in life, there is healthy competition and unhealthy competition.
The healthy kind is respecting the rules of the sport, respecting your opponents, and having a relentless desire to perform at your very best. Healthy competitors also pick their spots: they are competitive with the things that matter (the main set, their races) and let the other stuff go.
The other kind, the unhealthy form of competitiveness, is the one we hear about most—the person who has to win at everything (warm-up, ahem), no matter the cost. They are more prone to cheating, and the focus is on other people losing, and not necessarily them doing their best.
Competitiveness is a tool that you can use to get the best of yourself. It’s a way to elevate your focus and push your limits.
Here are some of the benefits of incorporating a “compete every day” attitude in practice:
Competing every day helps you compete at your best on race day.
Bringing a highly competitive mindset to practice makes things easier on you when you get up on the block. Race day, for just about all of us, is stressful. All of a sudden we are buried under pressure, expectations and anxiety.
One of the reasons swimmers “choke” is because the stress they experience in competition is so far removed from what they experience in training that it is completely overwhelming.
Being competitive in practice—both with your teammates during the main set and with your own standards and personal bests—helps you get used to the high-stakes atmosphere you are going to encounter on race day.
Although practice is a place for learning skills and for failing safely, you also want to bring a degree of pressure and competition so that you are ready for those feelings when they happen on race day.
Competing in practice makes everyone better.
How many times have you felt like giving up during practice… until you saw that a teammate was still pushing the pace?
Some of the best swim practices I’ve ever had were when a teammate and I went head-to-head for the duration of the main set, each of us pushing the other faster and harder than we would have on our own.
Practice gives you a daily opportunity to compete with your teammates. Take advantage of them to race and push each other. Not only will the team as a whole get better, but you will sharpen your competitive instinct, which will give you an edge on race day.
Now, there are limitations to competing in practice, obviously. Racing during the warm-up is a preferred activity of some swimmers out there (you know who you are!). There is a time and a place for healthy competition in practice.
Main set? Bring it on. Warm-down? Not so much.
Competing shows you what is possible.
While the swimmer in the next lane can sometimes push us to ever greater heights (think Jason Lezak’s otherworldly 46.06 relay leg at the Beijing Olympics), ultimately the biggest competition is the swimmer in the mirror.
Each day you step out onto the pool deck, compete with yourself. There are an endless number of ways that you can do this:
- Compete with yourself to be more consistent at practice this week than you were last week.
- Compete with yourself to see how many breakouts you can do with killer precision.
- Compete with yourself to see if you can swim every lap of the main set with one less stroke than you usually do.
Competing and gamifying your swimming in this manner makes training an endless series of tiny improvements and dare I say it, more enjoyable.
The end result of competing like this every day in training? You are going to get a whole lot faster.
Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer, Olympic Trial qualifier and contributor to USA Swimming.
He’s the author of Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High-Performance Mindset, a 300-page mental training workbook that gives swimmers the tools and knowledge necessary to bulletproof their performances in the pool.
He also writes a weekly mental training tips newsletter for swimmers and coaches that you can subscribe to for free here.