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by Jen Schumacher

January 9, 2019

Your mind can help if you’re looking to swim faster

“Confidence is a choice,” asserted the professor who changed my world.

The first time Ken Ravizza mentioned it, I dismissed it as an overdramatization. Surely that couldn’t be accurate. As a quiet, shy introvert who hadn’t yet found her voice, I just knew that my low confidence was certainly not my choice. Who would choose that?! But he kept repeating it. “Confidence is a choice.” “We get to choose what we say to ourselves.” “Who is running the show?”

Who is running the show? As someone who has always devised to control my performance, I was now listening. It didn’t hurt that my training had stagnated, yet I had committed to my first marathon swim, the Catalina Channel. I was in graduate school studying sport psychology at California State University–Fullerton, so I thought I’d better give this concept a shot. I theorized: If confidence is a choice, then I can just choose to be confident, and I clearly don’t know what that feels like, so I’m going to just act the way I imagine a confident person acts. Thus began “fake it ‘til you make it.”

I imagined I was Natalie Coughlin—she struck me as someone with confidence in abundance, as so often our idols do—and I put my suit on in the locker room the way I imagined she would, walked out onto the pool deck the way I imagined she would, entered the water the way I imagined she would, and as much as I wish I could say I magically began swimming as fast as she does—as Ravizza would say, “This ain’t Disneyland”—soon enough, I wasn’t even aware of the act. I simply was confident. Thus began “fake it ‘til you become it.”

There are a lot of places confidence comes from. What I didn’t know then is that I was tapping into body language, self-talk, and imagery as sources of confidence. I was not faking anything—that was all me. I was the one doing the hard work of walking, talking, and seeing myself as a confident swimmer. I finally understood what Ravizza was saying. It’s not that confidence is easy, automatic, or readily available. Rather, we can choose to engage in behaviors that lead to feelings of confidence, and as one of the most widely studied and strongly correlated mental skills to high performance, we owe it to ourselves to do so.

As youngsters, we often learn to feel confident when we win, set a personal best, beat others, or receive praise. These are certainly all sources of confidence, but they’re uncontrollable and unsustainable sources of confidence. If we rely solely on these factors, our confidence becomes fragile because now external forces like the outcome, our opponents, and other people’s praise are required for us to feel good. This can lead to inconsistent and unpredictable swimming.

High-level performers develop multiple, controllable, and diverse sources of confidence. This allows them to be at their best even when the cards are stacked against them. Preparation forms the foundation of our confidence, but equally important is how we choose to think about that preparation. We are a sum of what we choose to think about and focus on. Developing strategies to frame practice and competition in a way that builds and maintains confidence is essential to becoming the best version of ourselves.

We can think of our minds like a coffee filter—in goes the totality of our experiences (successes, setbacks, improvements, doubt, progress, adversity), out comes what we choose to focus on.

It is human nature to focus on what doesn’t go well. We often beat ourselves up because we care about our performances and want to do great. However, that effort undermines performance by degrading confidence. Instead, take what didn’t go well and reframe it so it passes through the filter.

For example, if you only made four out of 6 x 100s on a tight interval, rather than berating yourself for missing the last two, choose to focus on the four you did make as well as how improving your underwaters off each wall could help you make the entire set next time.

Generally, we focus way too much on the negatives and disregard the positives. Filtering after each practice or race encourages us to focus more on the positives and reframe the negatives to be lessons learned, or a blueprint from which to get better. By choosing to reflect on what we can control, we enhance confidence.


  • Technique and Training


  • Mental Training