A Systematized Model of Mental Skills Training for Competitive Swimmers 13 Years and Over by John M. Hogg, Ph.D. (1996)


John Hogg has a unique blend of practitioner and scientist. For over thirty years he was a successful swimming coach at the club, university, and international level. Originally from Britain, John coached the Scottish National Swim Team from 1968-1974 and the British Women’s Team from 1971-1974. In 1976, he was appointed coach to Canada’s Olympic swim team and coached many national teams from 1975-1983. He has earned a Master’s Degree and Doctoral in sports psychology. In addition, he has authored six books related to competitive swimming, produced numerous swimming articles and is an accomplished motivational speaker. He has acted as guest speaker at many conferences throughout the world and notably at ASCA World swim Clinics in 1978, 1979, and 1987. In 1983 he was appointed sports psychologist for the Canadian Swim Team and served as a performance enhancement consultant through to the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. In the last year, John has written a trilogy of books entitled: Mental Skills for Competitive Swimmers; Mental Skills for Swim Coaches; Mental Skills for Young Athletes (to be published in Oct.).


I would first like to thank the American Swim Coaches Association for its invitation to share with you a specific program of mental skills training that I have been developing for Canadian swimmers and coaches these past ten years. As some of you know I enjoyed an extensive and sometimes successful career as a swim coach before directly focusing my attention on servicing our athletes and coaches in terms of the mental aspects of performance. This program, though relatively new, is already demonstrating that our athletes can enjoy enhanced control over their thoughts, feelings and behavior in pre-competitive, competitive and post-competitive settings; that they are becoming better equipped to consistently create and maintain their unique ideal performance states; and that they can harness emotions and use them to advantage in a variety of stressful settings.

The mental skills program is rooted in the assumption that athletes must strive for a balanced status between the technical, physical or physiological, the strategic or tactical and the mental components of performance. [See Figure 1]. These aspects are dynamic and ongoing and receive specific emphasis not only according to the current phase of training but also dependent upon the development age, ability and commitment levels of each swimmer. Swimmers spend inordinate amounts of time working at the technical, physical and conditioning aspects of performance and expect mental states of readiness automatically to follow. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite happen this way and many swimmers find themselves mentally unprepared.

One would expect then that in conjunction with the technical, physical and tactical components of competitive swimming, the psychological aspects of performance would be afforded considerable attention by coach and swimmer alike. In reality, mental training either receives limited and somewhat haphazard attention depending on the emphasis and interest of the coach, or a reactionary response on the part of the athletes at different phases of their athletic development and maturation. In this presentation I would like to reflect on the current position of mental skills training, on select related misconceptions, briefly overview some existing models that attempt to characterize top performers, and present a systematized model of mental skills training that adopts a cognitive-behavioral approach while encouraging a constant and meaningful interaction between the coach and the athlete. The program steps of this model will be discussed. Finally, some assumptions, expectations and roles will be addressed.

Some reflections:

It is evident, judging by the media quotes of athletes who reach the podium, that they attribute their success in the main to the psychological or mental advantages they perceive to exist on the day of the competition. In recent years coaches for the most part have adopted systematized training programs that are physiologically similar. On the one hand, most competitive swimmers, while theoretically accepting the importance of mental training, realistically are not fully committed to it. On the other hand, most swim coaches have not as yet created or integrated a formal and progressive mental skills training program that they use on a daily basis, nor do they teach emotional coping strategies to help athletes create and maintain their ideal performance states.

Some misconceptions:

Swim coaches can access a host of comprehensive scientific texts that cater to the skill, biomechanical and physiological aspects of swimming (Carlile, 1966: Counsilman, 1968: Firby, 1975: Colwin, 1992: Maglischo, 1982:1993). However, they appear to lack specific knowledge when it comes to understanding the psychological constructs that underlie the mental skills. Coaches have been labeled ‘natural psychologists’ in the sport setting. Unfortunately, the art and science of psychology has grown too rapidly in recent years for this label to make sense, and it is unrealistic to expect the coach to have insights into all areas of theoretical and applied sport psychology.

Coaches also lack specific resources related to mental training despite the fact that a multitude of general texts in sport psychology and performance enhancement are available. It is only recently that a specific text has been published (Hogg, 1995b).

Similarly, there is a lack of interactive tools or instruments that would encourage athletes and coaches to work together in the applied sense both in training and in competition.

Finally, there is a lack of applied guidelines or pointers that would be initiated for the coach if a sharing of positive and negative experiences existed. These suggestions are essential if coaches are to integrate both mental skills training and coping strategies successfully into their swimming programs.

Competitive swimmers experience different misconceptions and problems about mental skills training. For instance, many develop conceptual problems especially when constructs like motivation, arousal, anxiety, concentration, self-confidence etc., are not explained fully or taught well. Often swimmers view mental training as a further encroachment into their precious time. It most certainly does require time and commitment but it can nevertheless be meaningfully integrated into existing training programs without calling for too great an inconvenience. Many swimmers either convince themselves that they do not require the mental skills or fail to persist with them over time and consequently never reap the full rewards. There may also be a stigma attached to those athletes who report experiencing problems in the mental area. Many adopt the attitude that the mental will take care of itself and it will be okay on the day! Fortunately there are those who do perceive the mental aspects of their performance as all important, put their perceptions into practice and are not slow to attributing their success to pursuing any mental advantage.

Models for improved mental performance:

Sport psychologists have studied the characteristics, successful traits and qualities of elite athletes or winners over the years (Waitley, 1979; Bennett & Pravitz, 1987; Orlick and Partington, 1988). These top down approaches, and competitive swimming is not excepted (Barzdukas, 1994), highlight mental aspects as much as they do the technical, physical and tactical components of performance. Figures 2-5 summarize these existing models.

Generally speaking then, athletes need to master basic mental skills like imagery, concentration, self-talk; to foster and maintain high levels of interest and desire (motivation) in working toward success; to create, maintain and control ideal conditions for performance; and to protect their performance by coping effectively with their emotions and using them to advantage.

A systematized model of improved mental performance in swimming:

I have been involved with the Canadian National Swim team program as a coach since 1974 and previously as a national coach in Britain (1961-1974). I have also acted as a coach educator and performance enhancer since 1981 and I have been fortunate to observe and actively assist athletes/coaches in their mental preparations for major competitions. I have concerns when I see some coaches omit the detail of mental preparations either because they are not too knowledgeable, or feel this aspect of preparation is best left to the athlete. I have seen coaches pay only lip service to teaching the mental skills because they view them as too vague, or too difficult to grasp, or not on a par with the more important technical and physical aspects of preparations. There have been noticeable occasions when coaches label their athletes psychologically inadequate or lacking in mental toughness in the face of competition without attempting to offer any practical remedy.

Just as the physiological and conditioning elements of training have become very organized over the past four decades so there is need for programs that focus on the swimmers’ mental preparations to become systematized and to be integrated in such a way that they achieve the desired results.

In presenting a model it is important to identify any assumptions or biases. Some assumptions rest in the strong belief that swimmers and coaches are best working together on the mental skills program objectives. The model presented here essentially follows an interactive paradigm. The coach needs to be willingly involved and take an active role in helping the athlete master the program content. If the coach shows a genuine interest then the swimmers will make a greater commitment. It is relatively easy to go through the motions of applying the skills with little or no effect. It is much harder to persist in applying the mental skills in a variety of settings and to recognize that learning in a self-reflective manner is incredibly powerful.

Approaches can also be viewed from a psychological perspective. The interactional model adopts a cognitive behavioral approach in the sense that actions are the reflection of the athlete’s thoughts (cognitive) and feelings (affective). To change behavioral responses it is important to influence or change the thoughts (especially for athletes 13 years and over), and the feelings (especially for athletes 12 years and under). This model is also an empowerment model. Athlete empowerment means athlete accountability. It gives athletes the freedom to do their best by providing the necessary educational and technical support. The coach in an interactive way enables the athletes to gradually take responsibility for their own development in this area. Athletes, on the other hand, need to assume increased responsibility for executing the program as they mature.

The program objectives:

Simply stated, the objectives for a systematized cognitive-behavioral interactional approach to presenting the mental aspects of performance preparations are:

  • to introduce the athlete to a balanced perspective regarding the importance of the technical, physical, mental and tactical elements of performance;
  • to teach the athlete basic mental or life skills across their developmental and maturational phases;
  • to integrate the mental skills into both the training and competitive settings so that athletes can create and control their ideal performance states (IPS) in a self-determined and responsible manner;
  • to create and share with athletes (through the use of self-reflective tools and applied exercises) a variety of ways to help them cope with their emotions in so far as these emotions positively or negatively affect their levels of performance, and require to be effectively harnessed.

The program content:

The model recognizes 3 major areas of content illustrated in Figure 6 and expanded in Figure 7. These are systematized mental skills training, the creation and maintenance of ideal performance states, and coping with emotions in so far as they might help or hinder in the pursuit of an athlete’s IPS. A brief overview of the three segments may throw some light on the model.

Foundational mental skills. These are inclusive of self-awareness, goal setting, energizing or relaxing skills, self-talk, imagery and attention control. A systematized approach suggests that (1) the concepts underlying each of the mental skills are clearly explained; (2) the skills are then taught in stages and possibly in sequence; (3) each skill is integrated into the athlete’s daily training program; (4) monitored and (5) evaluated through the use of self-reflective tools and finally (6) refined for further use. Coaches need to learn as much as possible about each of these foundational skills and how they can best be taught and utilized by athletes in a variety of settings to help them reach and protect their ideal performance states and cope with their emotions.

Ideal performance states. The ultimate focus of any mental training program is to help swimmers control and improve their performance (process and outcome). In order to create and maintain ideal performance states the athletes (with the help of the coach) need to be aware and understand precisely what it means or entails to reach and safeguard their IPS. This will require interactive discussion between swimmer and coach, and the creation of planned routines or strategies to ensure consistency of performance whether in training or in competition and no matter the conditions.

Emotional coping. The emotions or feelings – interest/desire, enjoyment, appreciation, care, anger, fear, frustration, anxiety etc., – can be positive or negative, can involve high or low energy levels, and can be functional or dysfunctional in the performance setting. Both swimmer and coach need to know which emotions operate, to what degree and how they might be harnessed to advantage. Athletes need to retain their emotional sting both to find that extra zip and to help them cope with any unexpected distractions.

In summary, the foundational skills provide each swimmer with the mental tools that he or she may need as the occasion demands [See Figure 8]. They should be stored in the mental tool box. The basic tools should be constantly upgraded as levels of performance rise. They are learned to serve each individual Self – certain skills are more significant for some athletes than others. Routines and strategies form the basis of the Plan to ensure optimal performance states. Once the plans have been tested and are perceived as successful they will create an overall Trust. Although some athletes implicitly trust the coach to design their total swimming program in accordance with their specific needs and goals, it is important for mature swimmers to seek and maintain the ideal balance for themselves.

Program delivery:

For the purposes of an effective delivery of this cognitive-behavioral model of mental skills training, specific resources for swimmers (Hogg, 1995a) and coaches (Hogg, 1995b) were created. The first workbook was geared to the needs of swimmers 13 years and over. A second workbook is in preparation for swimmers 12 years and under (to be published in late 1996). Fax and E-mail forms of communication have also been made available to enhance feedback and program refinement. A comprehensive coaching text presents the three aspects of the model from a coaching perspective and there are many opportunities for coaches’ and swimmers’ workshops on mental skills in addition to these written resources.

Program steps:

Figure 9 illustrates 8 steps or phases to the overall program. These steps have been developed over the past ten years both at the national and club levels. Constant refinements have been made and will continue to be made over the next quadrennial. A general framework is presented here and each coach should adjust the steps as he or she deems necessary.

Profile athlete:

It is important to observe and gather as much performance information about every athlete as possible. Coaches can do this by means of formal and informal interviews, by carefully reading swimmers’ behaviors when they operate at the lower, medium or upper limits of their mental abilities and to share in a non-threatening way any mental strengths or concerns. Athletes who can effectively perform inner shoveling exercises in an effort at greater self-awareness and can come face to face with their capabilities will quickly learn what needs to be changed or refined in order for them to reach the next competitive level. Coaches who can enter an honest and trusting relationship with their athletes will be able to provide the necessary means and support for further success. Appropriate use of well proven sport specific tests (See Table 1) may help in determining an athlete’s profile and in labeling the intensity of select psychological characteristics that may be present to advantage. The swim coach should build a rapport with the athlete from the outset that confirms his or her appreciation for all aspects of mental preparation. This is best done by carefully observing each athlete’s mental preparations for and response to performance, and by freely communicating or sharing in a spirit of mutual respect and total trust.

Explain important mental constructs and their applicability:

Time should be spent on a regular basis discussing and explaining select psychological constructs and how these work in the sport setting both in training and in competition. Coaches can selectively choose constructs that relate to the mental skills. For example, arousal and anxiety and their control through psycho regulatory techniques; attribution and the skill of positive self-talk; types of motivation and links to goal setting; self-concept, image, esteem, confidence, etc., and self-awareness exercises. Many constructs related to the sport of competitive swimming are identified (Hogg, 1995b) and simple definitions provided. However, explanations and understanding will occur best through an interactive approach. If encouraged swimmers will share how certain constructs work for them and how they can cope in their own specific way.

Set up an educational program of mental skills training:

Swim coaches can use their own educational approach to delivering mental skills or can utilize a suggested and hopefully a well proven framework. Figure 6 represents the 3 component model adopted by our Canadian coaches. Coaches who create their own program need to determine the precise program content, the theoretical position behind it, and the best way to integrate it into the overall training and competitive program. Any educational program of mental skills training must address all individual needs, the time of the year, the developmental, ability and commitment levels of each athlete, the athlete’s age and gender and the sport specific demands. It is very important for the coach and athlete to interact in a meaningful way (See role of the coach).

Present mental skills systematically:

Once the specific skills have been established and possibly, though not necessarily arranged in sequence and the nature of the various tasks identified, then each skill should be explained, taught in stages (according to age, level of ability and need), carefully integrated into the daily program in very practical ways, monitored as to whether it is executed or not, evaluated as to its effectiveness for the individual, and refined to suit any specific requirements. This approach should not mean that you have to add more time to the athlete’s overcrowded program. It does mean that any mental activities must be smartly and enthusiastically integrated into existing physical cues. How the coach designs and implements the program and to what degree support and credibility are given, will directly affect how athletes are likely to respond.

A program is also inclusive of consistently creating and maintaining ideal performance states and of coping with unproductive emotional states. These two aspects are best attempted once the foundational skills are in place since they are critical tools for any intervention. Seeds about how each athlete can create flow feelings that ensure successful performance should be carefully planted from an early age. Equally, athletes should learn how to realistically assess their emotions and how these feelings and moods might be employed to advantage. It is a long term process that requires long term cooperation.

As athletes mature and aim to exceed personal limits, the mental training program will need to cater for any specific problems that interfere with the ideal psycho physiological states. In high levels of competition, when the athlete needs to enjoy a balanced state of complete well-being (technical, physical, tactical and mental), specific interventions must effectively address all identified problems in an effort to help the athlete cope mentally – e.g., altitude, heat exhaustion, over thinking, distractions, preoccupation with other competitors, media interest, the hype of the competition, sponsor expectations, losing touch with the race, etc.

A small group approach that I have found successful when delivering the mental skills program is to invite swimmers to share their perceptions of a particular construct (e.g., competitive anxiety) and what it means to them. Share your understanding as well. Encourage your athletes to keep an open mind and to avoid putting up any barriers to what is being shared. Then discuss when the athletes think they need to use the mental skill(s) and in which setting should they be applied. They will suggest a variety of occasions. Finally, ask them what they do or would do or what they can do to take control of the situation. Their feedback will present a host of valid alternatives that may have a prophylactic effect.

Empower your athletes to be responsible and accountable:

Some athletes prefer to be categorically told what to do and view the coach as weak or lacking in knowledge if he or she adopts a less than autocratic approach. Other athletes, as a result of self-understanding, prefer to exercise self responsibility and to take control of their own mental states. Their preferences may depend on their home, school and coaching backgrounds. Coaches will experience difficulties monitoring and evaluating the application of mental skills training. Only the athlete knows whether he or she is really using the interventions beneficially or not. The coach can only make presumptions. Empowering the athlete means passing along the responsibility for mental training to those swimmers who can be independent and accountable. The roles of the coach (discussed later) are primarily to teach the athlete the mental skills and then to provide the opportunity for their practice. By accepting full responsibility and independently mobilizing their forces, athletes will experience the security of a consistently successful performance. An empowerment approach does not exclude the coach from stepping in to help in a crisis situation.

Evaluate and refine:

Both the athlete and the coach should be constantly monitoring and discussing progress in mental preparedness. For the athlete this involves the skill of self-awareness, and of truly recognizing existing psychological states. It is critical to determine whether interventions are effective at lower or moderate personal limits and whether they are fully functional or not when the loading limits are exceeded – e.g., in national, international or Olympic competition. Encourage the use of alternative approaches or refine any existing approaches. Some athletes are resistant to change and remain locked into their perceptions. It will take time for them to let go and to reap the benefits of change. It takes a long time to learn the physical skills. The same is true of the mental skills. Currently I am engaged in some interesting work developing self-administered monitoring procedures during the final phases of race preparation (pre-taper and taper). This tool will help athletes recognize their existing states throughout the different phases of preparedness and at the same time allow them to identify whether these states are normal or not.

Apply the program gradually from the lower to the upper limits:

Just as interventions work differently in training versus competition, it is important to recognize that there are so many variables or contrasting reference levels at play that can affect overall mental states. Mental skills can be applied uniquely across the phases of training, across different growth and development phases, across periods of less or more psychological maturity, in times of intense positive and negative stress, or when motivational levels are high or low, and in competitive settings where there are ever increasing demands or expectancies. In other words, athletes are never quite finished learning the full effects of mental skills, and should be exposed to them gradually and completely. Mental skills training is an investment for life.

Build a healthy rapport and trust with your athletes:

Mental skills training is not the saving grace for those athletes pursuing a significant performance breakthrough. It is neither a substitute for technical ability nor a replacement for specific strength and endurance conditioning. Rather it is an added component that needs to be fully explored. It is the role of the coach to facilitate this exploration by creating a psychologically healthy coaching environment in which mental skills training can flourish. This psychologically healthy coaching environment has been defined as one that provides for both fun and enjoyment, and learning opportunities; one that safeguards the athlete’s personal worth and feelings of competency; one that attempts to reduce any unnecessary stresses or fears while at the same time allowing for shared humor; and one that creates and maintains a trusting, enthusiastic, optimistic, positive and caring atmosphere for all participants (Hogg, 1996). Coaches can build rapport and trust by gaining insights into their athletes’ interests, athletic ambitions, career aspirations, family background etc., in a non-threatening manner; by developing friendly relationships that reflect a mutual respect; by building trust and sharing beliefs over time; and by understanding the levels of motivation and commitment embedded in each athlete.

Role of the coach:

In this program, the role of the coach is clear if he or she is committed to the program. Firstly, the coach should endeavor to understand the significance of the mental aspects of performance for a balanced approach. Secondly, the coach should systematically teach the mental skills starting with the very young swimmer and progressing to the elite athlete. Thirdly, the coach should create and maintain pre-performance, performance and post-performance routines to ensure and safeguard ideal performance states. Fourthly, the coach should provide a psychologically healthy coaching environment and one in which all aspects of mental preparation can flourish to the advantage to each athlete. Finally, the coach and athlete should design coping strategies to help athletes control their emotions and effectively handle any problems that could detract from ideal performance states.

Some final observations:

The swim coach needs to come to the realization that he or she is the best person to deliver, implement and evaluate the mental skills program. The exception might be if you have a resource person who has an applied knowledge of the area, and an insight into the needs of competitive swimmers and coaches alike. In this instance you may be happy to step aside and give full responsibility and support to an expert who has the time, energy and commitment for the task. A coach does not have to be suspicious of acceptable psychological interventions or paranoic about an athlete’s head space! Rather, it is important to be proactive and to recognize the responsibility to promote the use of select skills and to provide that balance that will insure mental preparedness and a successful performance.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Sponsorship & Partnerships

Official Sponsors and Partners of the American Swimming Coaches Association

Join Our Mailing List

Subscribe and get the latest Swimming Coach news