The Importance of Focus

As we get into the competition season, focus in practice and during meets is becoming more and more important.

Developing the ability to focus, and refocus if you lose it, can help out in nearly every aspect of life, including school, athletics, relationships, general problem solving and more. During swim season, having  a strong sence of focus is what will help you improve, and determine when (or if) you reach your goals.

As swimmers, it’s common to catch “black line syndrome” where during sets your brain just shuts off, you float into boredomland, thinking about songs, school, your cruch, what you’ll wear tomorrow, food, basically ANYTHING to keep from thinking about swimming. Guess what you should really be thinking about? Swimming!

High school season is short, it will fly by! Your time spent in the water during the season is extra valuable, and the quality of every stroke matters if you really want to reach your goals. So how exactly can you switch your focus from your dinner to your stroke? Stay in the present moment.

Check out this article from on the art of focus before and during a race, how to develop good habits of focus, and how to continue to improve.



What you focus on both before and/or during your races will largely determine if you soar with the eagles or gobble with the turkeys!
Your training and health being equal, what you concentrate on at meets is the main cause of your best and worst swims. When you struggle with going faster in practice than races, faster in your off-events than your best ones or being unable to break through and get a certain time, faulty concentration is usually the main cause.

What you focus on as you go into a race will dramatically affect:

  • Your ability to stay calm and loose under BIG meet pressure
  • How quickly you’re able to bounce back from disappointing swims
  • Your level of self-confidence
  • Your skill in avoiding getting psyched out and intimidated
  • How well you handle adversity

Did you know that you’re ALWAYS doing a great job of concentrating, but most swimmers concentrate on the WRONG things?
That’s right! When you swim your fastest and when you totally fall apart under pressure and add gobs of time, you’re doing an excellent job of focusing! The key question here is, “ON WHAT?” When you go fast, your concentration tends to be on the RIGHT things both before and during the race, and when you struggle performance-wise, your focus is on all the WRONG things.

What SHOULD you focus on?
Championship concentration involves focusing on two, overlapping things: The first is the NOW, as opposed to the PAST or the FUTURE. Whenever you swim, your focus always has to be in one of these three “mental time zones.” The NOW is what is happening in the present and is the only time zone you have total control over and can swim fast in! If you’re stretching behind the blocks, three minutes before your race, your focus needs to be in the NOW on your stretching, not on your last race, (the past) or whether you’ll make tonight’s finals, (the future).

The second important target for your concentration is on what YOU are doing as opposed to what everyone else around you is doing. In other words, before and during your races, you want mentally to “stay in your own lane,” focusing on yourself and no one else. All too often swimmers get caught up comparing themselves, paying too much attention to their competitors or focusing on what others watching (parents and coaches) might think of them.

What does it really mean to stay in the now and in your own lane?
Staying in the NOW and in your OWN LANE means that your pre-race and during race concentration needs to stay on the FEEL of what you’re DOING before and during your swims. This means that if you’re behind the blocks pre-race, you want to focus on the feel of the stretching, NOT your thoughts about the race. Focusing on feel during your swim might mean that your concentration is on feeling long and smooth, how much water you’re pulling, your pace, feeling your chest pressing down just the right amount during fly or any number of other things depending upon what stroke you’re swimming. FEEL IS THE “GAS PEDAL” FOR FAST SWIMS!

Performance-disrupting distractions come from both outside and inside the swimmer!
OUTSIDE: Swimmers need to let go of all of the external distractions, such as who’s watching the meet, how their teammates or competitors are doing, the conditions of the pool, the clock, how crowded warm-up is, what their coach may do or say, who’s in their heat, their lane assignment, how important their race is and what’s at stake, their parents’ reactions to how they swim, etc.
INSIDE: Distractions from the inside encompass the swimmer’s thoughts about everything above as well as how they feel that day, whether they got enough sleep, how their training has been, whether they missed critical practices because of illness, how the taper went, the last time they swam this meet, how the season has gone so far, how they felt in warm-up, how big and fast their competition is, things going on in their personal or academic lives, etc.

Concentration is a two part skill:
#1) Recognize that your focus has drifted from what’s important
#2) Quickly return your focus to what’s important

What hurts swimmers isn’t that they lose their concentration. Breaks in concentration are absolutely NORMAL. What really hurts you, is when you lose your focus and you don’t immediately catch it and bring it back!

How do I get good at recognizing that I’ve drifted and then bringing my focus back?

  • You must spend regular time in practice deliberately working on this mental skill Throughout practice, for two minutes at a time, both during your warm-ups and through the main set, practice noticing when your focus drifts, and then immediately returning it to what you’re doing in the NOW
  • If you start thinking about what happened in school today, the past, quickly bring your focus back to your breathing pattern or keeping your stroke long as you swim
  • If you notice that you’re thinking too much about another teammate, return your concentration to your lane and the feel of how much water you’re pulling, one stroke at a time
  • In dryland training, focus on the feel of each exercise, one rep at a time

By regularly practicing this master skill of concentration, you will develop the ability to consistently swim fast when it counts the most!

See the origional article here.




Developing a Race Strategy that Works

As we get further into the season, and as you get even more experience with the sport of swimming, you’ll find that a few races stand out to you as your strongest events. Whether you’re a 200 IMer or a 50 freestyler, developing how you race is just as important as developing your skills as a swimmer.

Below is an article by Olivier Poitier-Leroy found on SwimSwam outlining various race strategies and their counter-moves.

This article is only a starting point.

As training sets get longer, pay close attention to finding your strengths and weaknesses. Once you’ve got a pretty firm understanding of where you excel and where you need work, think about how you can race to play up your strengths and downplay your weak-points.

Side note: A bonus of figuring out exactly what you’re terrible at is learning when and what to concentrate on during practice. Example: If you’re really slow at kick sets, you should work on your kick the entire practice, and work REALLY HARD during kicks sets. Having specific skills to focus on during whole practices can help keep your mind from wandering and keep you moving toward your individual goals efficiently by making the most of your training. 

Remember that your race strategy should be pliable. Don’t get caught in the mindset that if it worked once it will work every single time. If through training you begin to develop different skills and your strengths change, change your race strategy to emphasize your newfound strengths.

Start to play around with developing race strategies now, fresh into the season, so by the time the big meets roll around you’ll have a solid plan in place for each of your races. Read the article below for ideas, keeping in mind your strengths in each event. Once you have an idea, write it down and keep it somewhere that you’ll see it daily. Practice and fine-tune your race strategies during fast sets in practice, and try them out during meets. If something doesn’t work, toss it and start fresh. If something worked well, use it again!

Want more pre-race strategies? Check out this post about mental prep and this video about pre-race routine.


The meters and yards have been stocked up, the taper has gone well, and you executed a fantastic shave down (hardly any cuts!). Now all that remains is to get up on the blocks and unleash that bottled fury of talent and hard work you have been stockpiling over the previous few months.

Despite all the grueling work in the pool, we both know that isn’t usually enough. After all, swimming is 40% physical and 100% mental.

The race starts long before the gun goes off, from downplaying expectations for all those to hear, to feigning injuries, to the antics and mental warfare in the ready room, with the winner often being not necessarily the most physically fit athlete, but the one who is able to best stick to their race plan.

The mental back-and-forth doesn’t stop once the 8 swimmers hit the water. Often races are won and lost based on the strategies and tactics used over the course of the swim.

Below I share a few race strategies that I have observed and used over the years of swimming. They work best—like most things in competition—when your rivals have no idea what you are up to.

That is where the true power of these tactics comes into play—the less they expect it, the more it throws them off mentally. You are forcing them to react to you and knocking them off of their own race plan.

(There is obviously no guarantee that these will work. And as such with each I include the counter to each strategy. But they are worth knowing, both from an offensive and defensive point of view.)

SEE ALSO: How to Prepare for a Swim Meet

Here are 7 different race tactics you can use the next time you hit the pool deck:

1. Rope-a-Dope.

Want to utterly demoralize the competition? Let them swim their absolute hardest, and still watch you reel them in. This is a fun tactic to pull on someone. If you’ve been swimming for even a small amount of time you know how discouraging it feels to watch somebody methodically reel you in, so you know how effective it can be.

Counter: The competition, so full of confidence from their early advantage surges out to a stronger lead, perhaps so large that it cannot be overcome, no matter how deeply you negative split your race.

2. Hide-and-Seek.

In the shorter races it is pretty difficult to gauge where your competition is, especially when there is another swimmer between you and your main competition. By swimming alongside the swimmer next to you, and out of sight of your main competitor, you position yourself to be able to make a sudden move, hopefully pulling ahead quickly before they can react. Peek-a-boo!

Counter: The main drawback in this strategy is that you have to aware of where your competition is—he or she can just as easily disappear behind the cover of the swimmer beside you as well.

3. Outside Smoke/The Gutter Ball.

You purposely sandbag the heats and semi-finals in order to get one of the outside lanes, where it is mega hard to see you. When the final comes around, you drop a smoke bomb on everybody and zip out to a quick lead and are never seen again.

It was like you never existed until that fateful realization your competitors have when they touch and see you hanging off the lane rope at the other side of the pool happily chewing on your goggle straps.

Counter: Sandbagging your heat swims a little too much means missing the final entirely, so be sure of what you are doing. All it takes is for a couple swimmers to swim a little faster than expected to bump you completely out of those outside lanes and out of second swim territory.

4. Fast and Furious.

From the dive it’s go-go-go! No pacing, just blast out like a lunatic to as big a lead as you can muster on the first half and pray to anything and everything that you can sustain some measure of speed coming home.

Risky, but makes for great viewing (almost always gets the teammates and coaches on their feet), and also forces you to push yourself to upper limits of what your body can handle. There’s no saving anything, and if done correctly you leave nothing in the tank.

Some of the most agony I have every experienced is taking it out like a shot over the course of the front end of a race and then limping home.

An added benefit of this strategy is that it forces the swimmers in your heat to react to what you are doing from the get-go, thereby taking them immediately off of their own race plan.

Especially effective if you are not predominantly known for taking it out like the Tasmanian devil.

Counter: Hurts like a son of a gun. Watching some swimmers pull you in mercilessly on the last lap while you try to keep your stroke from completely and utterly falling apart.

5. Hot and Cold

This is more for you sassy middle and full-blown distance swimmers. Turn up the pace on the second 25 or 50 of each 50 or 100. On the “off” 25’s and 50’s focus on maintaining the distance and pace ahead or behind your competition.

Having those “off” legs of your swim will give you the illusion of rest, even though you are still crankin’ along.

Counter: After a couple times of doing this your competition will be fully aware of what you are doing and might do the opposite in order to gain extra ground on you (i.e. hammer down on one of your “off” lengths).

6. Mid-race Breakout

Again this is more for the 400 and up swimmers. At some pre-determined point during the race, somewhere in the middle perhaps, bust out and hammer down an exceptionally fast split. Picking up the pace suddenly and taking off will startle your opponent, and while they might give chase, the delay between you peacing out and them figuring out what is happening is sometimes enough to put an insurmountable lead into place.

Counter: If you try to sprint off, and no distance is gained, than you sense as though expended a whole bunch of fuel fruitlessly.

7. Uber for Swimmers

Jason Lezak did this perfectly in 2008 in the 4x100m freestyle relay in Beijing. Bruce Hayes did it against West German superstar Michael Gross in 1984 in Los Angeles in the 4×200 freestyle relay. The swimmer’s version of a judo move, you use the speed of the swimmer next to you against him or her. Best done at high speeds (bigger the wake, bigger the draft), cozy up to the lane line and hitch a ride, saving that energy and nitro for the last burst into the wall.

Counter: Getting too close to the lane rope and mashing your face and hands on it. Your competitor could see what you are doing and move away so far that he gives away his glorious draft to the swimmer on the other side.

by Olivier Poirier-Leroy. You can join 9,000+ swimmers and coaches who read his motivational newsletter last week by clicking here.

Featured image by Mike Lewis.