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by Terry Heggy

February 6, 2020

Acting upon this self-talk will help you become an aquatic animal

You can tell a lot about a swimmer’s future success from what they were thinking about during the previous set. Swimmers who are most likely NOT destined for the podium will answer with something like:

  • My 10 a.m. meeting with the recruiter from Clown College
  • Double grande pecan macchiato peppermint latte ala mode with hot sauce
  • Bachman Turner Overdrive

On the other hand, you would rightfully expect higher performance from those who say they were thinking about:

  • Stroke
  • Time
  • Beating that guy in the drag suit two lanes over

Yep, thinking about what you’re doing in the pool definitely pays off. The more you focus on technique and effort, the quicker you’ll get faster. Here are four self-talk ideas to incorporate into your mental approach to swimming. Repeat these mantras frequently for the best benefit.

I am an aquatic animal!

Humans thrive on land, moving through air that we don’t even notice. We don’t have to think about breathing, and the force we use to achieve locomotion is applied to solids: our feet and the ground. As swimmers, though, we’re moving through a thick and fluid environment that requires us to deliberately seek out oxygen. Water impedes our progress and provides nothing solid to push against. Land-trained instincts do not suffice.

To succeed as aquatic athletes, we must adopt aquatic instincts. The best swimmers understand and control their relationship with the water by sensing the forces at work.

  • Drag—Forces that impede your swimming progress
  • Propulsion—Forces you apply to move forward

Yes, I know I’m beating a dead horse here: Every technique article you read talks about reducing drag and increasing propulsion. But true mastery of those forces can only come if you can recognize them, and that requires deliberate analysis of sensory input.

Every inch of your body’s surface (skin) contains pressure receptors that send environmental data to your brain, but in land-animal mode we learn to ignore subtle changes in pressure on the sides of our legs, the top of our head, and the back of our hands, etc. When you shift to an aquatic animal perspective, those sensations become important. Repeating this mantra reminds you to continually monitor pressure input and adapt your stroke accordingly.

The next three mantras represent specific applications of this critical concept.

I ponder my propulsive parts!

It’s no secret that the forces you apply with your arms and legs are what move you forward. But what elevates you to the next level of propulsion is maximizing the thrust you achieve. Maximization requires:

  • Strength—Are you lifting weights to build your prime mover muscles? Is your core and support musculature adequate to keep you stable for the best transfer of power?
  • Optimal engagement—How big can you make your hands before losing your grip? Are your hand and forearm working together as a propulsive unit? Are your hands oriented correctly for maximum force and minimum slippage? Are you starting from a good catch and with a vertical forearm? Are your ankles flexible? Are your legs moving at the proper amplitude as you kick?
  • Acceleration—Are you aware of which muscles are engaged as you create thrust? Do you continue to apply force through the full range of your propulsive effort?

If you can develop the habit of analyzing every single stroke you take, you’ll not only swim more efficiently, but will also discover weaknesses you can correct with drills or dryland training.

I am a symphony!

Envision inspiring music and imagine yourself combining the elements to produce beautiful results that transport you to your blissful state.

  • Score—Orchestral success begins with the written music—the score—which provides the central focus for each contributor. In swimming, it’s the core—the solid center of your body—that provides the foundation the other parts rely upon. A good core keeps everything in line and enables the synergy (coupling effects such as hips and arms coordinating for additional thrust, etc.) that results in the least drag and the best performance.
  • Harmony—Swimming is a synchronization of individual components working together. Hands, arms, shoulders, hips, legs, ankles, neck, and head all perform individual actions that result in your entire body moving fluidly forward. Your job as conductor is to ensure proper timing and accuracy from each of your instruments.
  • Tempo—Each swim (like each piece of music) has an ideal tempo. Develop your inner metronome to help you hold your desired pace.

I love AND hate the wall!

If you’re lucky enough to swim in open water all year, you never need to think about turns. But the rest of us encounter those darn walls hundreds of times in each practice. This mantra ensures that we remember to use walls for only two purposes during a swim: 1) to change direction, and 2) to pick up speed. (Getting extra rest, looking to see what the coach is doing, and taking extra breaths are totally unacceptable!)

  • I hate the wall!—When executing turns, think of the wall as a hot potato; it’ll burn you if you touch it for too long. The key to getting away from that horrible hot surface is to achieve a perfect “exit streamline” body position by the time your feet contact the wall. If you are already aligned (hands together, head down) by the time your feet hit, there’s nothing to do but instantly push off.
  • I love the wall!—When you nail your streamline and push off hard into your underwater dolphin kick, you’re moving faster than you’re able to swim on the surface. Yay! That’s a wonderful advantage you can leverage at every turn.

Write these mantras on an index card you can read before you begin your warm-up or right before you go to bed at night. Internal repetition of these ideas as you swim will help you stay focused for continual improvement.


  • Technique and Training


  • Mental Training