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Swimming as a Lab for Controlling Negative Self-Talk

I’m a perfectionist, and tend to be quite self-critical. It took me a while, but I eventually realized how much negative self-talk I do. Faced with a challenge or trouble, I used to unconsciously tell myself “I can’t do this” or that I was at the mercy of what was happening, which prevented me from taking action. This is how a perfectionist can put themselves in a downward spiral, when things could just as well go in a positive direction. Being self-aware when negative self-talk is happening is the first step to reducing its downside. The more I notice it, the more it helped me escape the trap of focusing on negatives, when there are just as many positive things going on.  

My swim buddy Mitch’s surprise pep talk put my negative self-talk in sharp relief, in the context of my avocation of swimming. Even though I’ve been making progress reducing negative self-talk, it was definitely a factor in my swimming. I decided to try a couple of techniques to reduce it, and record what worked and what happened. This is what I did.

1.     I took note the moment I started telling myself “I can’t do this”. After the coach dictates a challenging workout, Mitch (or my other swim buddy Jeanne) and I would repeat the drill, look at each other and say, “OK, we can do this”. I replaced it with a positive mantra instead of a negative one.

2.     That might sound simplistic and Pollyanna-ish. What I also did was address my perfectionist tendency to see things as “all or nothing”. So if I can’t do 50 yards on 1 minute 10 seconds, I tried adding 5 or 10 seconds to the rest instead of totally giving up and resting all I want which makes me feel worse, which also causes the coach to yell at me. If I can leave for the next 50 before he yells, I’m doing OK!

3.     Another strategy is to focus on what’s working – Mitch said my form doesn’t fall apart. So as I swim, I’m telling myself, “My strokes are still carrying me. I’m starting to get tired, but I’m doing OK. Keep at it”.

4.     Try anything that makes me feel better. Half way into a drill and going is getting tough, I focus on my breathing and try to control it just as it’s becoming tempting to breath in harder and breath out faster, which doesn’t help my swimming. So until I can steady the breathing, I might slow down my strokes just a bit or kick more. Simply knowing that I can pay attention to breath control is uplifting.

5.     #3 and #4 also have a secondary effect, because I know that if I push through when I could slow down (or slow down even more), I get better. I know from experience that THIS is where improvement happens. So the knowledge that I’m doing the right thing is a reward that I get while swimming.

Doing the five things above increased my swim performance, because I didn’t give up when it got hard. It made my workouts more doable. I struggled less. And surprisingly, I felt less tired after. I noticed that sometimes after swimming I’m more tired than animated, because I get up before 5 to get to the pool and don’t always get enough sleep. When I reduced my negative thoughts, I felt more energetic and positive about myself, increasing the benefits of the rush of endorphin that keeps me returning for more.

Here’s a great resource, “How to Stop Negative Thoughts from Getting You Down”. It’s chock full of techniques you can follow, but here are three of them I used in this experiment without even realizing. Each item below shows examples of techniques and concepts from the infographic, look for the text in bold.

1.     Mitch, as my swim partner, wants me to do better. A caring person wouldn’t tell me, “Kori, you CAN’T do this.” Simply knowing that made me realize the absurdity of telling myself that I couldn’t do it, and helped me stop, cold turkey. This is a technique of disputing your own negative thought.

2.     Defensive pessimism – this is considering the worst-case scenario. In swimming, there really is no downside to failing to do the drills as dictated, because I’m still exercising, which is good for my health. Explicitly thinking, “so what if I can’t do this?” helped me stop beating myself up when I couldn’t do the drills.

3.     What also happened is that a particular drill was more challenging for Mitch than for me, so I slowed it down just a smidge to swim with him. The infographic says helping someone else shifts attention from your own problems and boosts self-esteem, which worked like a charm.

My experiment with reducing negative self-talk improved my result, reduced stress and significantly enhanced my mood during and after workouts. If you think you suffer from negative self-talk, I hope you try one of the techniques. You may find that awareness and a little tweaking goes a long way towards feeling better and grabbing more staying power. You might feel so much better in the process that improved result may just feel like a bonus!

My Swim Buddy Mitch Inspires to Stop Negative Self-Talk

I swim for fitness at my local YMCA, because there’s a great coach who coaches Master Swim - which just means he’ll take you if he’s into you. I heard the coach was very good, prepared to swim 300 yards continuously to try out, and went, a bit scared. He had me swim a couple of laps, shook his head and said, “I don’t like it at all. You can come.” I guess he enjoys a challenge. That’s how I started in February 2015.


Plenty of people who swim regularly outswim me both in terms of speed and endurance. I’ve just been swimming with a coach for about 3 years, which got me hooked on the endorphins and the process of improving. Swimming with a coach is a great way to get better, because expert feedback, guidance and encouragement help you change over time and exceed your previous limits. I am so addicted that I show up at the Y pool at 5:30am three times a week to have my coach yell at me.


Lately, it’s both my coach and my new swim buddy helping me get better. Mitch, a triathlete, started coming about 4 months ago, and kept at it, getting lots of attention from the coach. When the coach watches you and gives you regular direction, you’re going to improve fast. So before long, the coach was pairing us up to do parallel workouts. He’s a super nice guy, and I enjoy working out with him. He has much greater endurance than me, and swims really fast with fins. At the moment, I’m a little faster without fins, and have smoother strokes. Sharing workouts seems to be good for both of us.


After a grueling workout two Fridays ago, Mitch gave me a pep talk. “Kori, you’re a great swimmer. When we swim (these multiple 50, 75 or 100-yard drills), your strokes mostly stay the same. Your form doesn’t fall apart, and you’re able to continue swimming smoothly. You totally look like you can pull it off. Maybe your mind is hampering you even when you’re physically capable. You can have more trust in yourself!”


I said, “WOW, thanks, Mitch. It feels really amazing to hear that from you.” His words stayed with me, and all week I’ve been thinking about what he said, the context in which he said it, and what might have compelled him to say it.


I’m always huffing and puffing on the challenging drills. Listening to the coach dictate them, I immediately start telling myself, “Oh that’s a lot, I can’t do that,” or “I’ll DIE doing that”. A couple of rotations in, I feel spent already, depleting my mental energy more quickly than my aerobic capacity and strength. By the middle of the drill, I’m feeling like I can’t go on. Yet, I usually finish the drill, resting only a few seconds longer in between than the coach specified.


One time, I petered out in the middle of an extended drill, and my coach yelled exhortations from the sidelines for me to continue. I felt so exhausted that I screamed, without a shred of artifice, “I CAN’T DO IT!” Later on, he quietly counseled me to keep going when I feel tired. Indeed, I acknowledge that feeling of exhaustion gets the better of me more quickly than it should, but I had no idea what to do about it.


I think Mitch might have been in the pool when that happened, a rare moment of open desperation where usually most swimmers are wordlessly practicing their strokes. And he’s now seen me close to quitting in the middle of drills plenty of times, panting “oh-my-gosh”, like I can’t possibly go on. He always encourages me: “We’re halfway there!” or “Just four (or two or three) more to go!”


To have a peer, a fellow swimmer working to improve himself, point out strengths that I hadn’t noticed, stopped me in my tracks. It was remarkably encouraging to hear an evidence of my continued improvement from a non-coach source. I also realized it held unexpected power to potentially help me shift perspectives where it seemed impossible before. I have the physical capacity to swim more, but the negative self-talk keeps me down. I do that really hard, sometimes to the point of screaming. If I could stop that, and focus instead on what I’m doing right, maybe I’ll swim better faster. And maybe it won’t feel like such a struggle anymore.

I’ll write about what I tried to stop the negative self-talk in my next article.