No one knows swimming into uncharted territory better than Katie Ledecky.
She’s broken so many records and dominated so many races over her career that it’s easy to take it for granted how great she’s already become. This greatness belies a (natural) measure of self-doubt, however.
In 2013, after she had dominated the world’s best swimmers in Barcelona at World Championships, she sat down with her coach Bruce Gemmell to discuss goals for the rest of the quad.
The goal times they set were nothing short of next level: Gold in the 200m freestyle. Dropping three seconds off the WR in the 400m freestyle. And shaving eight seconds off her own WR mark in the 800m freestyle.
“There are days she fails catastrophically,” he said. “She fails in practice more than anybody in her [training] group, because she’ll start out like, ‘This is the pace I need to swim in the race, so I need to replicate it in practice.’ And she’ll go six repeats like that, and the tank goes empty and she just falls off. But you know what? She’ll come back the next day and try it again. And on the third day, she’ll nail it. And she’s been doing this since the first day I walked on the deck with her.”
This kind of repeated willingness to fail without a loss of enthusiasm comes from Ledecky’s strong sense of self-belief.
She believes in herself, believes in the process, and knows that as long as she shows up and works hard that good things will happen.
HOW SWIMMERS CAN IMPROVE THEIR SELF-BELIEF
You can work at self-belief.
Although we tend to treat it as something mystical, and as something swimmers are either gifted with or not, you can cultivate and sharpen your belief with a little bit of consistent work.
Like a muscle, belief in what you are doing, in your process, and your hilariously ambitious goals is something you can strengthen.
Here are some quick ideas you can use to get the self-belief ball rolling:
Focus on the things you can control; it’s easy to feel like the world is out to get us when we allow things we don’t control influence our levels of self-belief (and consequently how much action we are taking towards our goals). This is where it’s handy to understand what your process is.
Write out a quick pick-me-up on your water bottle or a piece of swim gear that is front and center with you at practice each day. Sometimes just looking up and seeing, “I believe in me” or “You got this” on your water bottle or kick board can be enough to give you a little nudge forward.
Spend more time with the go-getters in your life. This might not be easy, and it might require pulling the rip chord on some of the Debbie Downers in your life, but motivation is contagious. For better and for worse.
Build an environment that promotes awesomeness. There’s a reason that teams hang championship banners, post pictures of their Hall of Famers in the hallways, and talk about their past successes: They are telling a story of excellence. When the environment says that great things happen here, and that great things are expected here, it helps close the gap between where you are now and where you want to go with your swimming.
Take it easy on the negative self-talk. Self-belief, ultimately, is a large result of how our inner dialogue goes. If we phrase setbacks and adversity with self-talk such as, “See, I knew I couldn’t do this” or “I’ll never be successful” it’s no wonder our self-belief craters. Get curious with your self-talk so that you don’t close off opportunities before you have a chance to maximize them: “Yeah, this set is brutally hard, but let’s see what happens if I give it my best effort the whole way through.”
The big thing with self-belief is consistency.
It’s not enough to do it once, or to say that “Yeah, yeah—I know.”
Self-belief is built up over time with repetition. Its power comes in the accumulation of those little moments where you decide to act in a manner that develops it.
You might not notice the effects of your strengthened self-belief right away, and the change may happen so slowly that it’s imperceptible, but at some point…
Maybe not next week, or next month even…
But at some point, it will happen…
And you’ll be able to look back and see how far you’ve come, and how powerful your self-belief and confidence have become.