You come to a reputable coach for help because you know something is wrong or you know something could be better in how you are swimming, and you trust this person to help you work on it.

After doing some testing we hopefully come to some understanding of what is causing that problem or inferior detail. But can you make the necessary improvements?

We first need to ask, “Is your situation improvable?”

There are many things that are improvable: 

  • range of movement
  • precision of movement
  • muscular strength and power
  • metabolic fitness
  • body composition
  • strength of attention
  • body awareness, proprioception
  • understanding of how things work

And then there are things that may not be improvable:

  • your height
  • your age
  • your starting fitness
  • permanent injury to tissue or joints
  • restriction from disease
  • neural damage

There is a third category too – things that could be improved… but only if there were certain kinds of support in place to make the improvements possible.

There are some things you need inside of you, and there are some things you may need outside of yourself.


You may need help with your motivation to do the work that is required. It has to be more than “I would like to…”, it has to be ‘I will…”. You need to find satisfaction from not only the improvement once achieved, but also the process of getting there. In psychology, the broad area of study called Self-Determination Theory offers insight on how intrinsic motivation is going to be more sustainable than extrinsic motivation over the long run (Deci & Ryan 2000). The effort is going to be more sustainable if you get your own pleasure out of the activity, more than any satisfaction you may get for meeting someone else’s expectation or some external pressure to perform better. 

Deci, E.L. and Ryan, R.M. (2000) The ‘what’ and ‘why’ of goal pursuits: human needs and the  self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11( 4): 227– 68.


You need to see the improvement path forward (the process you will follow), and feel that you are capable of doing the kind of work required on that path. You need hope because hope brings the energy you need to do the work.

In psychology, Hope Theory removes that passive ‘wishing for good things to happen to me’ from the situation and shows us that one needs both a sense of agency and a view of the pathway toward the desired result to have what we can identify and measure as hope. This definition of hope empowers you. You can read a lot more on that in psychologist Shane Lopez’s book Making Hope Happen

Lopez, S. J. (2013). Making Hope Happen: Create the Future You Want for Yourself and Others. New York: Atria Books.

Learning Mindset

Then there is the need to have a good attitude for learning, an openness to new experience, a higher tolerance for persistent effort and bouncing back from failure because all this leads to more learning. Researcher Carol Dweck calls this the growth mindset (Dweck, 2016), as opposed to the fixed mindset which does not believe things can change, and believes it does not have much control over changes. If you love to learn and believe you can, then your efforts will make progress for you in some way or another.

Dweck, C. S. (2016). Mindset: The new psychology of success Updated Edition. New York: Ballantine Books.

Enjoyment Of Work

You need a good attitude about work, which hopefully is easier to apply in your swimming because this is mostly viewed as a discretionary, recreational activity, after all, even if you do it for serious health reasons. Think about what goes into learning a new musical instrument, or a new piece of music, or learning a new foreign language. Swimming well has a lot in common with those skills. You’ve got to not merely tolerate a lot of work, you need to enjoy it to some degree because the work of improvement requires patience and persistence, which ties back into motivation and hope, and it ties into the concept of finding meaning in what you do, even in your swimming. 

Acceptance Of Discomfort

You need to have a good attitude regarding the discomfort, both physical and mental, when your body and being undergo (fairly rapid) changes from exercise. All change, even the positive kind, causes stress to the body by its very nature. As the metabolism changes, as the neurology changes, as the muscles change, as the mental landscape changes, this will trigger various kinds of stress, which is uncomfortable in some ways, and it will be easier to accept when you expect it and understand it to be signs of good things happening.


Will You Open Up?

Some people we encounter do not have strong intrinsic motivation for making changes, they may not have the hope for seeing change as possible, they may not enjoy rigorous practice, they may not have a good view of work, or they may not be eager to experience discomfort.

If we encounter a person who lacks some of these attitudes and is not willing to work on them, then improvement will really be slowed down if not stopped altogether. When we encounter a person who has problems in their skills, in their body, and even in their attitude, but they are willing to submit themselves to the compassionate and firm guidance of a coach in both the physical and mental dimensions, then improvement has a great chance.

For these mental dimensions it would be wonderful if your swim coach has some ‘life coaching’ skills on board as well to help you with these attitudes, or, at least he may refer you to someone who could help you. Motivation, hope, mindset, engagement, and interpretation of bodily sensations can all be trained and improved too. There are interventions and tools to help you with these. 

Access To Help

But there is one more thing we need to consider. If your problems require it, you need to be able to access the additional help you need to make these improvements. Everything your athletic body needs might not be addressed in the narrow realm of swim instruction alone, even with a psychologically skilled coach on your team. There may likely be complementary services and therapies that you need to incorporate into your plan – neuro/physio-therapy, chiropractic, soft tissue work, pilates, yoga, nutrition, etc. You need to know who to go to for your particular needs, you need to have time and the schedule to permit seeing these people, and you need to have the money to pay for it. 

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

The reality is that many people do not have other body work specialists within reach. They do not have the schedule or the money to get the kind of attention that would make improvement in their particular areas possible. If improvement seems to require this, what do you do?

Out of compassion, I think it is still important to look honestly at whole context of the your athletic needs, to identify the various problems and deficiencies and acknowledge how you could benefit from attention from other specialists even if you cannot access them. First, it demonstrates that you and your coach do in fact see the whole person and the whole system and that should be good for the swimmer-coach relationship. It gives you more insight into your personal situation, hopefully opening up more self-compassion. The coach can still apply what skills and tools she has to offer, and this will be done with a more realistic expectation for the swim training alone, without other interventions taking place to support other improvements. 

It is not only OK, it adds credibility when the swim coach admits the limits of how he can serve you. Yet, under an atmosphere of such honesty, safety, compassion, and encouragement, while just working on the things you can work on with your swim coach, you may be surprised at what this kind of atmosphere does for your body’s ability to heal and grow, despite the lack of attention from other specialists. The body is really quite amazing in its ability to do some of the healing itself. You might gain new insights yourself, to guide your own healing. You never know what might happen.

You Can Make Improvement If…

In summary, you can make improvements if those areas are improvable, if you have the internal mental components and the support to make those, and if you have the resources in place. The physical changes that need to take place are still not necessarily going to be easy or quick, but they do become easier to work on when those mental components are in place. The good news is that those mental components are improvable too. Sometimes you need to put emphasis on improving those first and then the physical changes will follow more naturally. 


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