How Swim Coaches Can Help Swimmers Be More Focused
“Focus!” my coach would bellow across the pool deck, his voice booming along the surface of the water.
Our group was hanging off the side of the wall, huffing and puffing into the gutter, counting down those precious seconds until we would be sent off into another 200 fast of best stroke.
Ten seconds of breath-catching until the send-off…
The red hand glanced the top of the clock, and I pushed off, my mind flush with exasperation.
Focus on what!?
How fast my teammate is going? How tired I am? How my dolphin kick feels lousy today? How about that there was only three weeks until the big meet, and I wasn’t showing the improvement necessary to accomplish my goals? Oh, don’t worry — I’m super focused on that!
This scenario played more times than I can count over my years of age group and senior swimming.
“Focus” was one of those buzzwords that was thrown around without much backstory or explanation. Sure, getting yelled focus at me was a reminder to think really hard, but about what I didn’t always know. I was too preoccupied with gulping down oxygen to bother asking.
It wasn’t until years later that I came to appreciate what my coaches had been hollering at me all that time.
That being better focused meant I would find more enjoyment from my time at practice. That the time I logged between the flags would be hilariously more effective. And that the resulting surge in mastery and confidence would translate into faster swimming down the road.
Below is a checklist of ways that you can help your own swimmers sharpen their focus. No matter how dialed in your athletes are, there is always room to be smarter and more efficient with how their attention and concentration is used at the pool.
Some of the things are from experience (journaling, in particular), while others, such as self-talk, are based in the sciences. Some are obvious, while others less so. All are nearly immediately actionable.
Altogether, we got a dozen things swim coaches can do to sharpen the focus of their athletes.
Let’s focus on the focusing!
Focused Swimmers Work Harder and Have More Fun Doing It
You already know the dealio when it comes to focused swimmers.
This type of swimmer is engaged in what they are doing. They are more likely to find intrinsic pleasure in what they are doing when they are mentally immersed in the challenge of it.
They swim better. They get a kick out of it. And because they are enjoying themselves, they are more likely to keeping coming back to the pool and putting in work. A more focused swimmer kicks off a cycle of improvement that starts with the simple act of being more engaged and focused at practice.
On the other end of things, we have the unfocused athlete.
They are disengaged. Their flip-turns are slow and soft. Streamlines begin to unbuckle at the elbows and then hands. They leave late on intervals, lose count of reps and rounds, “forget” their stroke counts, worry about what other swimmers are doing, and wallow in self-doubt instead of what they can do to be better.
The unraveling of a swimmer’s focus is easier to spot than the food tray at a swim meet.
So let’s get after some different ways swim coaches can help their swimmers be more focused at the pool.
Build routines. Routines narrow focus and help to block out distractions, both the external ones and the internal stuff. Pre-race routines are a popular part of race preparation, but pre-workout routines are another way to help sharpen and automate the behaviors and attitudes you would like your swimmers to leverage. The application of a pre-workout routine teaches the body and mind to expect a certain behavior once the action is completed, so don’t underestimate the power of this kind of thing.
Clear goals and focus points at practice. Being focused comes with clarity. Swimmers should know what they are supposed to be working on and what they need to do to achieve it. Vague directions and instruction invite loose focus. “Because I said so!” isn’t the most inspirational line to use when a swimmer asks why the workout is what it is. “This set is going to help you build back-end endurance,” or “This set will help you not drown like you are wearing a wool sweater on the last lap” gives swimmers purpose, focus and encourages buy-in.
Keep it simple. Multi-tasking is something the brain doesn’t do very well. The narrower the focus, the deeper the effort and resulting performance. Avoid the urge to overload things to work on. Because there is a limited number of training opportunities, coaches will sometimes try to cram in as many focus points as possible into a set or practice. High-grade focus comes from minimizing distractions and not having your athletes bounce from cue to cue. Go deep and go simple.
Emphasize things they control. We lose ourselves in our swimming when we concentrate on our own performance. Avoid comparisons to other swimmers and emphasize mastery of self. Swimmers are comparison-making machines to begin with, and this shift in focus distracts them from doing the work they need to do.
Use intense focus in spurts. Focus is a high-intensity brain activity. We can only maintain full-throated focus for so long before our brain needs a time-out. Our sport (usually) has a pretty good work-rest ratio, with rest intervals being a good opportunity for swimmers to refresh mentally as well as catch their breath. It’s not just the physical recovery between reps and workouts that you should be paying attention to. When focus begins to waver, consider hitting refresh on the set or rep.
On-the-fly feedback. Focus works great when the guard-rails of feedback are there to guide it along. A swimmer might be focusing as hard as they can, but if the technical output isn’t what it should be, that constructive criticism should be given quickly and consistently. Waiting until the set or practice is over to provide feedback robs athletes of an opportunity to correct things in the moment.
Ask swimmers what they focused on to build a library of focus points. Capitalize on moments of epic focus! When a swimmer throws down on a workout and performs well, see what they were focused on that helped them to perform so well. “You did great in that set… What were you focused on? What were you telling yourself to stay sharp mentally?”
Encourage the use of thought stoppers. When things get stressful, we lose focus. The reason for this is simple — as magical and as wonderful as our brain is, focus is a limited resource. When stress, whether physical in the form of pain, or mental in the form of uncertainty and general stress, rears its face, it chews focus apart from the edges. Thought stoppers (a physical cue designed to hit refresh on the hard drive between our ears) are a quick and easy way to side-step the negative self-talk and overthinking that happens when stress occurs.
Have swimmers journal moments of epic focus. Increased self-awareness is a swimmer’s super secret weapon. This skill can be developed via reflecting on and measuring the things that matter most to their swimming in the pages of a log book. Writing a couple sentences after practice on what they were focused on gives both athlete and coach an idea of where focus is being directed.
Name your sets after focus points. Ever considered naming the sets you are doing after the focus of the set? Seems like a simple or overly obvious thing to do, but it helps keep swimmers centered and focused on the purpose of the work being done. If you assign a set of 100s kick, and you want your swimmers to emphasize kicking from their core, you could write 8×100 core kicking @2:00. High elbow catch pull 200s. Back-half speed 75s. And so on.
You can’t over-communicate on focus points. Over-saturate the environment with the things you want your athletes to focus on. Focus is a skill that needs consistency and repetition for improvement. In the same way that you want to carpet-bomb your environment with cues and signals to build awesome team culture, focus points need to be reinforced daily. The moment your athletes tell you that they are getting sick of hearing them is when you know that it’s finally starting to sink in.
Performance vs. Skill based focus. The type of focus a swimmer should use depends on the outcome they are looking for. If you want a swimmer to work on technique and the fundamentals, a skill-based and analytical focus is best. They are thinking about their finger position. Hip roll. And so on.
A performance-based focus is loose, relaxed, and one that emphasizes clearing the mind. Performance cues (“Easy speed!”) are supremely helpful in this instance. Swimmers perform best when they allow the body to perform what they have spent countless practices over-learning. A performance-based focus avoids specific elements of technique in favor of general performance cues.
Know and encourage the type of focus that works best for each occasion. Tasking a swimmer with technical instructions or focus in a performance-based situation will force the swimmer to overthink and try to think through their performance.
Key takeaways for coaches:
- Capitalize on moments of focused success in practice. When swimmers perform well, reinforce that level of focus and ask them to describe how they got themselves into a position to be successful. The stickiest lessons are the ones swimmers cultivate on their own!
- Be exceptionally clear with focus points. When in doubt, simplify. Loading up on focus points invites confusion. If you are unable to simplify the focus, its likely your swimmers won’t be able to keep it simple either.
- Over-communicate on the things to focus on. There is no “set it and forget it” when it comes to changing behavior and mindsets. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
- Use different types of focus. The skill-based, technique-centric focus is ideal for practice and developing better skills. A broader, generalized focus that keeps the athlete from overthinking is best suited for racing.
Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer and author of Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High-Performance Mindset. You can find him at the pool and on Twitter.