What Is Intention?

Your intention is another word for your sense of purpose. 

While it is not regarded as one of the attitudes I’ve been writing about in this series, intention is regarded as a central component of mindfulness practice, as one part of the triad of Attention – Attitude – Intention (Shapiro et al., 2006). 

Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “Your intentions set the stage for what is possible. They remind you from moment to moment of why you are practicing in the first place…” (Kabat-Zinn, 1990, p.32)

Your intention is like a compass that you continually check to make sure you are consistently headed in the direction you want to go.

The big question is: why do you swim? What is your intention for spending all that time, year after year, doing this activity? 

Looking at your ‘intention compass’, are the weekly activities and the events you choose aligned with your big-picture intention for swimming? 

The daily question is: why are you doing what you are doing in this practice right now? What do you want from it?

Are your plans for this practice time and your actions aligned with the intention? Are the activities in this practice going to accomplish for you what you intended them to? 


Intention On Every Level

Intention has a role to play in that big picture of your swimming life and at every level all the way down to each stroke you take. 

What is your intention for this season or the next few months? (For example, for me, swimming has been about refreshment and strength, to increase my resources for handling my responsibilities outside the pool, during these challenging months.) 

What is your intention for practices this week?

What is your intention for this practice today? 

What is your intention for this practice set that will fill the next 15 minutes?  

What is your intention for this lap? 

What is your intention for this stroke you are taking right now? 

When you are swimming with or near others and they draw your attention, are they helping you align with your intentions or distracting you away from it? 

If you want to totally relax the mind, turn off thinking and conscious monitoring of your performance, then that is your intention. 

If you want to make a correction or build a specific skill, then that is your intention. 

If you want this stroke and every stroke of this lap to be your best, then that is your intention. 


Checking In With Your Intention

It’s not that you are continually reflecting on your intentions while you are moving, but you have one established ahead of time so that you don’t get lost or waste your time. Most times you get in the car to drive, you have an intention of where you will go. You are not thinking about that intention every moment or even most moments of the drive, but you do check in with that intention from time to time, especially when there is a question about which route to take ahead. The intention guides the choices which make you end up where you planned to go.

Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

Intention Leads To Outcome

The mindfulness researcher Shapiro writes, “[our] study found that outcomes correlated with intention. Those whose goal was self-regulation and stress management attained self-regulation, those whose goal was self-exploration attained self-exploration, and those whose goal was self-liberation moved toward self-liberation and compassionate service.” (Shapiro et al., 2006, p.376)

If your intention is to improve your physical health then you plan your activities around that intention and you keep an eye on the compass to make sure your actions keep you on track. Eventually, your physical health will show results. 

If your intention is to improve your abilities to go farther, go faster, or handle more challenging conditions, then through this process of intention and alignment of actions you will eventually gain those kind of results. 

If your intention is to improve your internal experience – moving more comfortably, more relaxed, more at peace, more in control – then this process will lead you to have those experiences. 

Intention Corrections

It seems all very elementary, doesn’t it? But why then do many people come to a coach to get some help making progress? 

Some people they know what they want, but they don’t know how to achieve it. They need to learn what to practice and how to practice it.

Some people are confused about what they want. They are not sure where their compass should point. They’ve been telling themselves or they’ve picked up the cultural emphasis to want achievement something, when what they really want is more comfort, or vice versa. Their actions have not been aligned with their deeper intentions. They need to find clarity around their purpose and then set up their activities to serve it. 

Some people know what they want, but they’ve been pulled away by misinformation or distracted by the agenda of swimmers around them (those with a different intention) and end up spending their precious pool time doing things that are not actually taking them where they want to go. 

It’s OK to have a variety of intentions, and pursue different ones at different times. But you’ll do well to have those organized into a hierarchy so you know which one is most important to you over the longer-term of your swimming life. For example, if you value injury-free longevity in this activity then your seasonal interest in pursuing top age-group speed should be moderated by that higher intention. When a conflict of interest between your intentions arises, you need to know which one gets to lead you out of that conflict. 


Intentions Evolve

Intentions don’t stay fixed over one’s lifetime in the activity so you should also remain flexible, or at least open to change when it comes. Does that sound like a contradiction to what I just wrote before? 

We might not assume a similar trajectory of topics for swimmers, but Shapiro’s study found that the overall (big picture) intention of the long-term meditators tended to shift over time from one of self-regulation (e.g. calming my anxious mind), to self-exploration (e.g. understanding the nature of my anxiety), to self-liberation (e.g. become free of the attachment to certain outcomes that made me anxious in the first place). It may be that as they achieve their first intention it naturally set up an attraction to a more complex intention which they take up from there, and so on. With reference to other research on the topic, they suggest that the intentionality in mindfulness practice leads to shift in perception which then urges your intentions to shift. 

In your athletic journey you too will experience growth and shifts in your perception which may very well lead to shifts in your intention as a result. The intentions of one who is older are often different from when they were younger. The intentions of one who is highly experienced in the athletic activity are often different from when they were new to it. As you go along mindfully more breadth and more depth of possibility will open up before you, inviting you to go farther. 


Kabat-Zinn, J. (2009). Full catastrophe living: using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. Rev. and updated edition, Bantam Books trade paperback edition. New York: Bantam Books.

Shapiro, S. L., Carlson, L. E., & Astin, J. A. (2006). Mechanisms of mindfulness. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62, 373–386


View the whole series on the Attitudes of Mindfulness for Swimming:


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