There are physical aspects to swimming and there are mental aspects. When children first start to swim, the physical aspects account for about 90% of their successes. As children perfect their swimming skills, however, the mental aspects become more and more predominant and the percentages switch. Even so, at the higher levels as well as with younger kids mental strength training for swimming (and other sports) is commonly overlooked. It is seldom intentionally taught to athletes by coaches or parents. One problem is the fact that it is not physical, like swimming a workout or lifting weights and therefore progress is not easily charted. Partly because of this, coaches most often work with the physical aspects of swimming such as technique and endurance. Coaches who do understand the importance of mental strength and want to implement mental strength training can really only be effective for 10 to 15 individuals because of time constraints alone. After all, actual swimming must be accomplished during workouts as well. I would guess there is more than a 15:1 swimmer to coach ratio on your child's team. Swim teams can't survive financially with lower numbers. Additionally, coaches may not understand the importance of mental strength, or even if they do, may not know how to foster it in their athletes while at the same time offering workouts. Understanding how to build and foster mental strength in athletes is a rare ability that few individuals possess, including the highest paid professional coaches. This may not sound very promising, but I have purposely put this chapter on mental strength ahead of the physical training chapters because it is much more important in the long run.
The good news is that mental training is an area a parent can address. Who should know more about how your child's mind works than you. You are the right one for this job and the following sections are meant to help direct your words and actions to best encourage mental strength in your child.
The Body is Weak but the Mind is Strong
Two men run to the aide of another who is trapped under a helicopter. The helicopter has crashed into a stream and is slowly sinking. The pilot (a former competitive swimmer) is in shock and about to drown. A warning signal is beeping, indicating that fuel is leaking and the helicopter could explode at any moment. The two men run to help the pilot, ignoring the fuel leak indicator. Without thinking, one of them says, "I'll lift and you pull him out." The man bends down and gets a grip on one of the helicopter's door jams, and straining mightily, he lifts the aircraft up enough so that his companion can slide the trapped pilot to safety. While this is occurring, a woman with a video camera captures the miraculous rescue on film.
After the rescue, the news media gets a look at the video and interviews the man who lifted the helicopter. They say to him, "That helicopter weighed thousands of pounds (about 1,500 kg). How in the world were you able to lift it?" The man didn't really know, but answered, "It just had to be done."
Many people have heard stories like this one, about mothers lifting cars to get to their trapped children after auto accidents, etc. Feats such as these have several things in common. The most import is that the person performing the lift did something that no one thought was humanly possible. An Olympic weight lifter couldn't have lifted the helicopter if a gold medal had depended on it. A sports scientist could have assessed this man's strength potential and told us that there was no way he could have lifted a helicopter. But it happened. The human body is incredible and capable of amazing feats. The body is strong.
It's the mind that is weak. The story above illustrates a second thing. "That helicopter weighed thousands of pounds. How in the world were you able to lift it?" The answer was, "It had to be done." Lucky for the pilot, the man didn't sit down and analyze, "Let me see, this chopper weighs, say 3000 pounds and I've been to a gym and can dead lift 400, therefore I can't pick this up, but I'll give it a try." The rescuer didn't even consider how much the helicopter weighed; he just picked it up because it had to be done.
Humans have a tendency to over-analyze things and athletes are far worse at this than the general population. Probably the worst among athletes are individual sport athletes who compete against time or a score. This includes your young swimmer. You may have already noticed.
On very rare occasions, a swimmer gets up on the block and swims great because, "It just had to be done." This happens in relays more often than individual races. It is a wonderful thing when swimmers don't think about how fast they have to swim, but just swim fast to get the job done. This type of behavior is more common in younger children because they tend to do less analyzing than their older counterparts and they have a lot farther to go to reach their "potential". Unfortunately, as a swimmer gains more experience, these spontaneous great swims happen less often. That's when another avenue for improvement must be found.