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The ABC’s of Training the Olympic Way

In 1976, I set a world record in the 100 meter freestyle at the Montreal Olympics, the first person ever to break 50 seconds. World records don't come easy, but as a member of the best American Men's Olympic swim team of all time, I learned that to achieve success in the pool requires as much intelligence as muscle. 

How I achieved success in the pool – what I needed to learn, to set my mind to – and how I developed the self-will to pursue my goals: 

First You Plan

Every athlete should train with a plan – it is the easiest, fastest route to your goal. Every plan has a goal. It may not be to win Olympic Gold; it may simply be to get fit, get a little stronger and to feel good about yourself. So set a goal and then make a plan on how to reach that goal. 

Then You Commit

Once you have the plan in front of you, then obligate yourself to start doing it. Commit to making yourself into the person who accomplishes what you set out to do. This is different from "swimming because your parents want you to". As you build success, success builds you, so do it for your own reasons, not someone else's.

Don't give up. Every athlete encounters downers, deep valleys of frustration and lack of success. Be smart, count on this happening and be prepared for it to happen. Then teach yourself how to pick yourself up and get back in the game. You may not be the best in the pool, but you will be better than you were before you started and that improvement serves you for life. 

Find a Group or Partner

Training with a team is much easier than training alone – in fact, most of you probably have never trained alone. Team training gives your life structure, which is essential to getting anything accomplished, and helps you stay motivated and moving toward your goal. Within the team, it's a good idea to have friends who are your training buddies – people you can share your experience with; the ups and downs, the hard sets, the early mornings. Training buddies help you stay focused – and you help them stay focused, as well. 

Train Universally

All the way through high school, all of my swim training was just one thing, swimming. Not until college did I lift weights, and then only a little bit during off-season. Now things are different and dry-land workouts are an important part of a swimmer's training. I have learned to cross-train, because it keeps me in better shape year round and it keeps me from getting burned out doing the same thing over and over. I swim, of course, but I also bike and do a variety of dry-land exercises, including medicine ball, weights and body-weight exercise. I highly recommend that young swimmers cross-train, especially off-season. You will be in better shape, with more strength, and you will get your batteries recharged from the grind of training during the competitive season. Try biking, skating, running with friends, or volleyball. 

Build in Increments

The great pyramids of Egypt are huge, but they are constructed out of millions of blocks of stone. A great swim, or a great swim season, is not built overnight. It is built of each one of the many hours you put into training. So keep your mind on the "block of stone" you are putting in place today – that hour of practice you have before you. Get the most out of it you can. Make it solid. Make it something that carries weight. If you are dragging, then realize that this is a day you learn about commitment, about sticking it out through a tough day. That's a skill you learn – it doesn't just happen – and it's always on the tough days that you get your chance to learn it. 

Coach Yourself

The best swimmers I know are self-coached. By that I mean they are responsible for themselves. They don't blame anyone for failure – in fact, they don't really think in terms of failure. They think about what it is they can do to improve themselves – and then they try to do it. Sure they have a coach and a team, but for these swimmers the coach is like an encyclopedia from which they learn. They accept setbacks and bad days as part of the building process, not as a reason to get down on themselves. And they keep it real, meaning they keep their expectations realistic. 

Take Humble Pride

I am proud to be an Olympic Gold Medallist. I'm happy I put in the time and effort to win. However, that only makes me a good swimmer, one of many. It doesn't make me better than everyone. When I was in high school, I was one of the best swimmers in the state, but I still had to take math tests. Sometimes I got a good grade and sometimes I got grounded by my Dad! None of us is exempt from the curveballs that life throws.

To work hard and patiently toward your goal – to be a little bit better than you were yesterday – this helps you for the rest of your life. It is good to be proud of what you accomplish, even it is just getting through a tough practice. But even the best swimmers have set backs. If you have humble pride, you can deal with a set back. You can say "I've succeeded before, I'll do it again". You won't quit. 

One Step At a Time