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Finding the next Michael Phelps

How to train young athletes to think like Olympic swimmers

How to train young athletes to think like Olympic swimmers

Determining whether a child is the next Michael Phelps requires more than assessing the child’s physical abilities. According to 20-year veteran swim coach Michael Brooks, even if a child can swim at lightning-fast speeds and has a swimmer’s build, he must have the psychological talent to excel in competition. “Most people don’t think of psychological qualities or skills as talents, especially not in an obviously physical sport such as swimming,” Brooks says. “However, the mind plays a great part in deciding how fast an athlete will swim.”

In his book, Developing Swimmers (Human Kinetics, 2011), Brooks explains 10 psychological qualities of champion swimmers.

  1. Drive to succeed. Driven kids have a fire in the belly to be great. They have a good sense of self-confidence and set high standards for themselves.
  2. Competitiveness. Competitive kids want to race and win at whatever they’re doing, be it eating dinner, raking leaves, or swimming a set of 200 IMs. They hate to lose, and they will often ignore important considerations such as wise pacing or proper technique. These swimmers show up on race day; they are racers.
  3. Focus. Focused kids have a laser-beam attention to what they are doing, and they are not easily distracted. Most kids are more limited by their inability to pay attention than they are by physical deficiencies.
  4. Self-confidence. Confident swimmers expect to succeed. They have a positive attitude about their abilities, and they relish challenges where the results are in doubt because they enjoy proving themselves.
  5. Self-reliance. Self-reliant swimmers don’t need their parents or coaches to walk them to the blocks. They pack their own swim bags. They figure out on their own when they need to warm up for their races. They don’t wait for things to be done for them; they take responsibility for their own success.
  6. Poise. Swimmers with poise remain unruffled under championship pressure, and the more important the meet, the faster they swim. They have access to all their physical capacities when it matters most; the mind does not get in the body’s way. Poised swimmers can read themselves correctly, putting themselves in the right frame of mind to succeed.
  7. Toughness and persistence. Tough and persistent kids will not back off when under pressure or when they are hurt, and they are willing to repeat a task after failing until it is mastered or until a goal is achieved. Psychological limits are brought closer to physiological limits; in most kids, these are far apart.
  8. Work ethic. Swimmers with a good work ethic love to work hard. They would rather die than miss a practice. Consistent hard work often reveals other kinds of talent.
  9. Coachability. Coachable swimmers trust the coach; they will make the changes a coach asks them to make. This requires an honest look at strengths and weaknesses and a willingness to fix problem areas.
  10. Courage. Though obviously related to self-confidence, poise, and other psychological talents, a courageous swimmer can overcome the fear of pain, the fear of failure, and the fear of success.

By continually talking about these talents, highlighting swimmers who exhibit these talents, and linking mental attributes with swimming performance, coaches can show athletes the importance of championship thinking.

“These psychological skills provide the foundation for long-term development of the more physical talents, and they have as great an effect on an athlete’s performance as do aerobic capacity, stroke efficiency, or height,” Brooks explains. “You’ve got to think like a champion before you can swim like one.”

For more information, see  Developing Swimmers.

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