Top tier athletes have an astonishing way of standing out. Swimming continues to get faster and more impressive each decade that passes. Up and comers are shocking the world, and the new generations of king and queen swimmers are starting to perfect their art – Mostly referring to Caeleb Dressel, Adam Peaty, and Katinka Houszu. Katy Ledecky would be in this mix had she not suffered from the underlying conditions during the Championships.
These swimmers are exceptional and have unique traits beyond what it takes to make a World Championship final. My past experience with Cesar Cielo in 2013 certainly can testify to that. I was fortunate enough to have been a part of his high-performance staff that helped him win two gold medals in the 50-m free and fly. Based on my observations and discussions with top level swimmers and coaches, here are the 5 things that World Championship finalists have in common:
1. Strength Program
They have well-designed and structured strength programs. This is important for two main reasons. First, strength training supplements the swim training to aid in power output in starts, turns, underwaters, and stroke length. It is evident that Peaty is visibly gaining strength in his physical development in recent years. Dressel is working with University of Florida’s S&C Coach, Matt Delancey, and has been throughout his collegiate career. Delancy is known for his expertise in teaching and programming very advanced movements, including Olympic lifts and very advanced plyometric movements. Hoszu is nicknamed the Iron Lady, and looks strong and dominant in the weight room, based on social media. All these swimmers have an ability to generate high power output on land, but also a unique to transfer that into actual speed in the water. A good strength program also keeps athletes healthy. Neither of the above mentioned swimmers have suffered from major injuries to miss large chunks of a season. Injuries are setbacks that will keep you from the top.
2. Superior Recovery Habits
They prioritize their recovery. Sleep and diet is considered to be our two primary recovery sources. If one of these fall off, we will be unable to recover properly. Secondary recovery methods include work from physical therapists and massage/soft tissue specialists. Depending the level of swimmer, and the financial sacrifice from parents, these modalities are essentially big sparks for our primary recovery sources.
Tertiary recovery modalities include what we do to ourselves manually. Swimmer Strength athletes are adding up training hours based on how productively they are foam rolling and smashing hot spots in order to speed up recovery time. 60 minutes per day is an extra 7 hours of training and recovery time – choose your time outside the pool wisely.
3. Pre- and post racing routines
They have their own unique routines on pool deck. Once arrived at a Championship scene, the professional swimmers are performing anywhere from 10-60 minutes of own pre-racing routines to prepare the body and the mind that something important is about to happen. These routines are developed after years and years of trial and error for each individual and include foam rolling and shoulder warmup with exercise bands to increase blood flow, muscle tension, and body temperature before jumping in for a swimming warmup. These include foam rolling and band exercises to get the muscles firing properly before jumping in the water.
Once the race is over, they have their own post-race routine and include cool down, a specific snack, massage/shake out, more rolling and mindfulness. The purpose is to start the recovery process for the next session and race. The muscles need to properly recover and the mind needs to shut down in order to not over consume energy.
4. Mental toughness
They are mentally tough and seek out challenges. It really comes down to the be the most consistent in doing all of the little things as perfectly as possible over extended periods of time. There’s no doubt, swimmers are amongst the most mentally tough athletes out there, but again, not everyone will reach the very top. Swimmers are willing to work, but it will be the swimmers that complain the least, does the extra work needed, and does it most consistently with an enormous intrinsic motivation. These swimmers are carry enormous intrinsic motivation, they are resilient, and are considered to be fighters beyond all means. Additionally, mental toughness can be associated with decisiveness. You won’t find hesitant athletes at the top level.
5. Athletic perspective
They have a clear picture of why they even swim in the first place and what they want to accomplish. They have various goals, and probably dreams that scares them. I don’t think it was a comfortable dream for Michael Phelps to win 8 Olympic Golds. At this top level of being a finalist at the World Championships, this is businesses. For the vast majority of finalists, they are getting getting sponsorship money, and aid from federations. In other words, this is work. But it all stems from a young swimmer having fun. Enjoyment doing this sport should trump all other reasons. If we continue to have fun in a serious and deliberate fashion, there are some cool rewards that come with it.
All swimmers will not win gold, end up on the podium, make a final, or even qualify for a National Championship. As a coach, I am fully aware that all of these 5 traits exists deep within us. It all comes down to a matter of consistency and level of perfection.
In short, the strength program helps swimmers to upgrade their athletic engines and increase their durability. However, it doesn’t mean anything if we aren’t able to recover properly between workouts and races. The physical and mental pre- and post racing routines are deciding factors in maintaining performance quality over extended periods of time, such as long Championship meets. These swimmers are exceptionally mentally tough and welcome adversity and finds ways to work around them. Lastly, they know why they are doing what they are doing and enjoying the hard process – they have a clear picture of their dreams, goals, and purpose.
If you are reading this and think you possess all these qualities, then I would like for you to rate yourself 1- 5: 5 being all the World Championships gold medalists. The swimmers that are the most truthful and mindful to themselves, their bodies, their goals and dreams, those will excel the most.
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