How to Overcome Failure in Swimming and Find Success

At some point in your swimming career, you’ll find yourself dealing with defeat or failure. Losing first place or missing a cut by .01. False starting at finals. Or your goggles falling off. So how do you overcome failure in swimming?

More importantly, how do you turn that swimming failure into success?

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Image of a person swimming backstroke. A yellow text box has text that reads: overcoming failure in swimming and finding success

Failure in swimming

I’ll be the first to say that we’ve all had failures before in swimming. I’ve been there several times myself! I’ve been DQ-ed, had awful races, and missed cuts.

No one is immune from these things.

My most recent personal failure in swimming came during the biggest meet of my career. At the 2017 FINA World Masters in Budapest, Hungary. For me, it didn’t get any bigger.

The entire summer of 2017, I chased a Masters record. A record that I was .20 seconds from. So close but so far! To add to the pressure, I aged up into a new age group the next year. So I only had one season to get the record.

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Each meet, I chased that record and watched as it slipped further and further away. It was so incredibly disappointing.

By the time I made it to Budapest, I knew Master’s Worlds was my last chance.

The pressure was on.

I didn’t want to let anyone down, most of all myself. My coach, my mom, and teammates all wanted this. And I wanted it so badly, I can’t even put it into words.

I think we’ve all been there at some point in our swimming career 😉

My event came on the last day. It was there and over in a little over a minute.

And the end result?

Not .20 seconds away. Instead two full seconds away.

Disappointment in Swimming

The word disappointment doesn’t even begin to describe what I felt after that race.

It doesn’t begin to describe what anyone feels after a bad race. Or a race where you just missing out on what you wanted.

We’ve all been there before. The burning in your eyes as you try to hold back tears. An overwhelming urge to avoid everyone. Trying to justify or explain what happened. Swallowing back the bitter taste of defeat.

It’s a horrible feeling. I won’t lie. Especially when it was your last chance to accomplish something. Not only do you feel disappointed, you feel anger, too.

You feel so much frustration and hurt that you don’t know what to do with yourself. You want to cry and rage at the same time. The feeling sits heavy in your stomach until you feel sick with it

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And it’s at this point where some swimmers stay locked and lost in their feelings. They’re the ones that never let go and always hold onto what could’ve been.

Then you have the swimmers who acknowledge the hurt and anger.

They feed off the feelings for a short while and either let it go or use it as fodder for their next race. But most importantly, these swimmers use their failures in swimming as a learning experience.

Overcoming Failure in Swimming

After a disappointing race, ask yourself, “what did I learn?”

Honestly, you might not have the answer. They’re not always readily available when you ask yourself what happened and what you learned.

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Be patient with yourself and speak with your coach for guidance.

You might find that you didn’t do as well as you hoped due to:

1. Over-swam your race

Looking back, it was easy for me to see that I over-swam my race. At the time though, the desire to break a record overshadowed everything else. In doing so, I swam my race at every meet I went to.

Burnout is real and it does happen if you’re not smart about your races. Constantly swimming the same event doesn’t mean you’ll improve in it. Instead, you might progressively get worse.

To help prevent this, try to swim other events at both practice and at meets. If you find yourself constantly swimming the same events, you don’t have a chance to learn and grow from them. Instead, take a step back for a few meets and give yourself time to focus on your technique.

2. Anxiety

Anxiety is a real thing and it can get to you before and during a race. If you find that you have bad anxiety or the thoughts in your head get too loud, talk to someone about it. Let them help you find techniques that work for you.

When you get caught up in the anxiety of a race, you tend to overthink things. Or you let yourself make simple mistakes that you wouldn’t typically make.

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Instead, allow yourself to take a deep breath before a race. Remind yourself that you know what you’re doing.

3. Ignored Technique

Due to overthinking my race, I stopped working on my technique. From the pull of the water to the rotation of my hips. Instead, I just tried to kick and pull faster, and hoped for the best.

All my focus fell solely on the record. I traded technique for a dream.

When you have failure in swimming and use it as a learning method, you’ll find that:

  • In the end, your failure wasn’t a failure. Not if you can learn and improve something for your future
  • Failures teach us something. If you don’t learn from failure, you’ll always set yourself up for more failure
  • While failure is part of life, you should only regret and learn from them. You should never let them determine your future
  • You are responsible for your failures and turning those failures into success

What does all this mean?

It means that we all make mistakes and we all have failures. Some might seem bigger than others. And some hurt more than others.

However, if you look at failures as an opportunity, then you can turn that failure into a success.

Turning Failure into Success

Once I examined my race and determined what I did that lead to my failure, I felt renewed. I started to work and focus on my technique again. During practice, I forced myself to be intentional with my stroke work.

Because the key to turning your failure in swimming into success is learning how to make those corrections. It requires honest – and sometimes – difficult personal reflection. And even some tough feedback!

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I had to relearn something that we tend to forget when riding the highs of success.

Failures and setbacks make us stronger, but only if we learn from them.  

If we always had good fortune and success, then we forget the struggles that got us there. We don’t appreciate the work that it took to reach that high peak.

Failures, mistakes, and setbacks serve as humble reminders. Reminders not to take your success for granted.

So when you find yourself in the valley and looking up at the peaks, don’t start feeling sorry for yourself. Instead, keep an eye on the peaks but take a moment to look back.

  1. Look back to see what you did that led you to the valley.
  2. Remember what you did to reach the peak.
  3. And then start working again.

Peaks might not last forever. But valleys don’t have to last forever, either. Your success and failures all depend on you, and how you grow from them.

And Finding Success

This story though, isn’t without success.

Because the following summer, my focus on technique and attention to my stroke put me right near my best time. Plus, I ended up dropping two full seconds in a longer event of the same stroke.

Something I hadn’t done since 2015.

I attribute that success to the failure I had at Budapest. It wasn’t a fun failure or learning experience. And I admit that it felt awful watching that record forever slip through my fingers.

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But, I didn’t let myself dwell in the past. Instead, I used it a springboard to launch myself into a renewed me. Someone determined to correct the mistakes and learn from the failure.

And it worked!

Will you still face down failures? You better believe it! Not just failures in swimming but also life. But the sooner you learn how to look at your failures and learn from your mistakes, the sooner you’ll find success.

There’s a saying that every cloud has a silver lining. You just might not see it right away. And you might not see it for several weeks or even months! But that failure or mistake serves as a lesson.

One that you probably won’t forget or do again.

How many of us faced a DQ from a false start, an incorrect turn, or stroke? I’ll be honest and raise my hand to that!

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But I can bet that you’ve never done it again. You learned from that mistake and in doing so, you grew as a swimmer. You grew as a person.

Failures and mistakes don’t have to mean the end of the world. Not if you learn how to turn them into opportunities to grow. Opportunities to turn that mistake into a success.

In Closing

Does failure hurt? Heck yes!

It doesn’t just hurt. It’s disappointing, frustrating, and upsetting. Failures make you feel like someone pushed you to ground and then kicked you until you couldn’t move.

But what you do with that failure determines the course for your future. Not just in swimming but also in life.

You have two choices when coming off a fresh failure or mistake. You can either stay down and lick your wounds while blaming everyone else.

Or, you get back up again. You climb to your feet no matter how difficult it seems and you keep going. And in doing so, you reflect on what knocked you down and you correct it. If it takes some self-examination or critique, then so be it.

And then?

Then you tackle that next mountain and you keep going.

As always, happy swimming!


Bonus Content:

How to Improve Your Swimming Performance: Trying to improve your swimming performance or wanting to swim faster? Make these adjustments to your technique to see results in the pool.

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