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The Importance of being a self-compassionate swimmer

by ZwemZa on May 3rd, 2019

Michael Phelps (USA Swimming)

I’ve spent the past several years working directly with NCAA Division I swim teams, both at Florida Gulf Coast University and this past season with Florida State University. I’ve worked with countless individual swimmers from the age group level as well as with swimmers competing for their countries at the senior level internationally. One of the questions I am often asked the most is following: “Will, what do you think is the most important attribute of a mentally strong swimmer?”

My answer is always the same, and it usually surprises people. For me, the most important attribute of a mentally strong swimmer is not confidence, desire, determination, persistence, or passion. For me, without any shadow of a doubt, the most important attribute of a mentally strong swimmer is self-compassion – the ability to not attack yourself when you fail or fall short, to not turn against yourself when things aren’t going your way, and to be encouraging and supportive towards yourself in hard times.

All of the other mental attributes are ultimately a by-product of self-compassion. For example, how can a swimmer develop the long-term confidence necessary to be their best and succeed if they’re always dog-piling themselves every time they’re not perfect? How can a swimmer sustain the motivation to want to train and perform on a daily basis if they’re always berating themselves every time they have a bad practice? How can a swimmer maintain a passion and love for the sport if they’re always massively critical towards themselves and attack themselves for adding time?

Society certainly doesn’t help with self-compassion. From a young age, it’s drilled into people’s heads that misery is somehow virtuous. Athletes are brainwashed to believe that bad practices and sub-par performances must be met with extreme self-criticism, debilitating anger, and a necessity to “be your own worst critic”. Scientific research has overwhelmingly shown that self-criticism is extremely harmful and actually derails goal-pursuit. Studies have conclusively shown that people who are self-critical are less motivated, less likely to bounce back from failure, and less likely to be optimistic about improving themselves than people who are self-compassionate.

The more self-compassionate you are rather than self-critical, the more confidence, motivation, and passion you’ll foster within yourself. The more self-compassionate you are rather than self-critical, the more motivated, driven to improve, able to bounce back from failure, and optimistic you’re going to be. To be a more self-compassionate swimmer, here are a few things you can do to help you with that.

1. Criticize your performance, not yourself.

There’s a huge difference between performance-criticism and self-criticism. Performance-criticism is analyzing how you swam, being honest about where you fell short, and finding the aspects of your performance where you can learn and improve. Self-criticism is attacking yourself and demeaning yourself for that performance. For example, here’s a difference between the two:

  • Performance-criticism: “I slightly missed my turn off the wall on my 2nd 50 and that’s what derailed my race. Next time, I just need to make sure I don’t reach as much and get closer to the wall before I execute my turn.”
  • Self-criticism: “I completely missed my turn off the wall on my 2nd 50 and that’s what ruined the rest of my race. I can’t believe I did that. I’m such an idiot, and if I’m going to make such stupid mistakes when I swim, I might as well just give up now and stop letting people down.”

Criticizing your performance is perfectly fine, and in fact necessary. That’s how you learn what you did wrong and how you can improve moving forward. Criticizing yourself is not. Looking at your performance and being honest about where you fell short doesn’t require you to be self-critical and attack yourself, and it’s a behavior you want to avoid as much as you possibly can. Getting better at swimming doesn’t require self-insult. Don’t fall into that trap.

2) Treat yourself the same way you’d treat a teammate.

Imagine you’re at a big, important meet. You’re sitting on the bleachers with your team watching one of your teammates about to swim one of their most important races of the season. They then proceed to swim a really bad race. They just couldn’t get it together. They add a bunch of time and completely miss an important cut they had one last chance to try and get. They get out of the pool, collect their things, head back to the team area, and sit down on the bleachers. You notice they’re extremely upset, disappointed, and miserable. You sit next to them. What would you say to that teammate in that moment?

Would you berate them? Would you insult them, tell them they’re no good, tell them how awful they were, and tell them that they’re terrible swimmers who will never be good enough that should just quit?  Or, would you put your around them, encourage them, show compassion towards them, try to make them feel better about themselves and try to lift them up? I’m willing to bet that’s exactly what you’d do. And that’s what you should do. However, here’s the most important question – If you’re willing to treat someone else that way when they fail, why don’t you treat yourself the same way?

You’re not any less worthy of that kind of encouragement, positivity, support, and compassion. You deserve those things just as much as anyone else does. To treat yourself less than how you would treat others is doing a massive disservice to yourself, and you’re worth much more than that. When you have a bad practice, swim a bad race, or perform badly at a meet, think about how you would treat a teammate who experienced the same situation and then treat yourself exactly the same way. Show yourself the exact same kind of encouragement, positivity, support, and compassion you’d show them. That’s true self-compassion.

Will Jonathan is the owner and founder of Green Rhythm Swimming, a professional mental coaching service for competitive and professional swimmers whose past and present clients include Age Group National Champions, NCAA All-Americans, and Senior-Level International Swimmers. He is the mental coach for the Florida State University swim team and the author of the book “The Swimmer’s Mind – Mastering The Mental Side Of Swimming”.  To find out more about his mental coaching services, head to his website at To grab a copy of The Swimmer’s Mind, head to Amazon or Barnes & Noble online, as well as at Barnes & Noble stores nationwide.

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