Getting past a plateau in competitive swimming

Gretchen is a FOSS alumna and former U.S. record holder in the breaststroke. She shares her thoughts on swimming, parenting and life with our readers.

When I was 12 years old, I felt on top of the world as far as competitive swimming was concerned: Personal-best times almost every meet, record-breaking swims, top 16 times, and so on. I mean, who wouldn’t be having a blast?

But things changed the summer season after I turned 13 years old. I went from being the top in my age group at 12 to being at the bottom at 13. My improvement in times slowed, then stopped. Eventually, I couldn’t even match my personal bests. On top of this, my body was growing and changing, and I became increasingly frustrated.

What was happening here? I hadn’t changed anything in my routine—I still came to practice consistently, I gave a tremendous amount of effort in practice and meets, and still loved competing.  I remember after a swim meet, I broke down and cried—like, REALLY cried. My coach said to me, “Gretchen, just relax!  You are hitting a plateau!” I remember not understanding this at all! I was under the impression that if you just work hard, put the effort in, and have a great attitude, that you will just keep improving no matter what.  Boy was I naïve!

Taking lessons from experience
Going through a plateau in any sport can be challenging, but in swimming it’s so clear when you hit it. The times are there for all to see. Faced with this, the easiest (and worst) thing I could have done was to just flat-out quit because I didn’t feel successful. Instead, I began to do a little research and talking to older swimmers who had this experience and how they worked through it.  From this, I learned three things that helped me work through this:

  • Step back and look at the whole: Focusing on a single race, or meet, or even a set period of time can obscure your real progress – and even hidden in a plateau, new achievements. I began to realize that there were season-best times vs. taper meet or personal best times.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously: I also came to the realization of how important it is to laugh and embrace this period. I didn’t give up during this time (and believe me, I wanted to more times than I can count) and that alone was a success, building personal resiliency in swimming and life.
  • Find something to feel good about whenever you swim: I began to take note of one thing that I felt good about during swimming in practice and meets. It could be as simple as not breathing off the wall on a set, or having one underwater pull that felt great or even saying words of support or encouragement to other athletes.

After doing this for a bit, it became a habit. Soon I began to take note of more than one thing I could call a success each day, and this helped me pull through this time where it otherwise might have seemed as though I was spinning my wheels and not going anywhere.

Everyone will at one time hit a plateau and feel like they just want to throw in the towel. All I can say is give 100% effort to work through this time. It will end and once again, you will start to feel that success happening all over again. Embrace being uncomfortable and the effort it takes to overcome a difficult time.  Believe me, this will set you up for major success life in so many ways.

Related Articles

Be the first to know

We’ll let you know when enrollment opens, share tips and stories, and extend offers:

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.