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by Anne Minard

September 28, 2020

Follow these four steps to recover from a swim you’re unhappy with

For about 400 swimmers who got towed out of the ocean on jet skis, the Waikiki Roughwater Swim of 2019 proved a humbling experience. I was one of those swimmers.

In the months leading up to the race, I had trained hard in a pool and swam across our local reservoirs as often as I could. But my landlocked state offers no exposure to the kind of current that was pulling in the opposite direction of the finish that September morning. It was somewhat shocking to be deposited onto the start beach. And it was a little embarrassing to walk barefoot along Waikiki’s sidewalks toward the finish, with hundreds of other swimmers, brightly-colored swim caps in hand like floppy little beacons of shame. Perhaps those reactions were to be expected. But I did not expect, months later, to still be searching for my lost motivation.

As it turns out, lingering disappointment is a risk for some swimmers after upsets in the water. Luckily, there are coaches and sports psychologists who know just what to do.

Step 1: Let it Out

As soon as you hit the deck or the beach after a disappointing swim, experts suggest finding a trusted sounding board. “Processing is helpful,” says Pennsylvania-based sports psychologist Megan Cannon. “Talk about the race, ideally with another person.”

But set a time limit, she says. Process the loss “for the rest of the day, until you shower, or maybe on the drive home.” For Lee Taylor, an age-group coach in New Mexico, the time limit is shorter. He coaches his swimmers in multiday pool races in which hanging onto a loss can impact the next race. “I tell them to take five minutes,” he says. “They can be upset about it for five minutes, and then they have to focus on the next swim.”

It’s a fine balance between getting into the right mindset for the next event and short-changing your response, says Christen Shefchunas, a confidence coach and author of the book “Naked Confidence: Revealing Your Whole Truth and Finally Moving Forward.” She says unresolved feelings about bad races can become emotional anchors of fear that hold us back. “This whole think positive mentality, we act like it’s a light switch,” she says. “I believe you can be positive, but you can be real at the same time.” For her, that means acknowledging that when a race doesn’t go well, you admit you’re feeling down and then move on.

Step 2: Get Critical—of the Swim, Not Yourself

At some point, swimmers should look critically at each swim, win or lose, and extract information for the future. Cannon says this approach can help soothe the sting of a loss. “Even when a race did not go well, some things still went well,” she said. “It’s not like you got in the water and started swimming backwards. It’s good to reflect on that, even better if you write those things down.”

Patrick Cohn is a sports psychologist and president and founder of Peak Performance Sports in Orlando, Fla. He tells athletes, instead of beating themselves up, to take a growth perspective. “Athletes need to evaluate the process or their performance and not just the outcome,” Cohn says. “How can your performance improve and how can you improve practice efficiency for the next event?”

Taylor, the New Mexico age-group coach, remembers competing in a high school state championship where the top eight spots went on to finals. “In the 100 breaststroke, I glided into the finish and because of that I was just barely out-touched and did not make it into the top eight,” Taylor says. “Even to this day, at the end of my workout, I’ll practice a breaststroke finish. All of my finishes have been right on since then, because I practice it.”

Step 3: Expand Your ‘Hit Points’

Much of swimming is about the finish time. Maybe too much. “Swimmers tend to compare their best performance to their current performance; they want to match or exceed their PR or come close to it,” Cohn says. “I think it’s an unrealistic expectation.” There are other factors to consider, he says: “Did I prepare enough? How did I feel in the water? What do I need to do to improve?”

Cannon takes a similar view. “When we’re basing success on that one measure of outcome, we’re missing a lot of opportunity,” she says. She advocates making “multiple hit points for success. Is it having a certain number of underwater kicks or a breath pattern or a stroke technique? Now when I’m heading into a race, in addition to time, I also have created these other measures to help me see progress.”

Step 4: Find New Reasons to Swim

Particularly in Masters swimming, plateaus are going to happen. “We’re used to dropping lots of time at a young age or early in a Masters career,” Taylor says. But eventually, our times peak out and even begin to decline.

“I really had to change my reason for swimming and what I wanted out of it. It became less about winning and more about enjoying the moment. For me now it’s about getting behind the blocks, that moment when your mind is clear and you’re ready to race. That’s what I ended up doing it for.”


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  • Mental Training