Mental Toughness Lessons From Olympic Champion Kieren Perkins
One of my favorite swimmers of all-time is Australian distance legend Kieren Perkins.
When he was going on a world record smashing spree during the mid-1990s in the 400-800-1500m freestyles I would watch and rewatch his races before practice.
I’d jump into the pool and do my best to mimic Perkins approach to swimming the distance races: go out fast and keep going out fast.
I wore out the VHS tapes I had of his races over time.
His approach to racing and training were worthy of being idolized. Swimmers are a tough bunch as it is, but the distance swimmers are in a class of their own. The mental toughness required to train and race these events is next-level.
And fewer swimmers displayed this resilience and tenacity better than Perkins.
Perkins ruled the distance events during the 1990s, winning back to back gold medals in the 1500m freestyle at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, while breaking the world record three different times. He’d also add WR’s in the 400 and 800m freestyles.
Perkins career would end with a silver medal in front of a home crowd at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 as another Australian, Grant Hackett, ascended to the distance throne.
There’s lots you can learn from one of the greatest distance swimmers of all time.
Here are some lessons in mental toughness from Kieren Perkins.
Don’t be distracted by negative people who doubt you and your goals.
Got a big goal? Maybe it’s even a little nutbar?
I bet there are gonna be some people in your life who think it’s a little wacky, crazy, or downright foolish. Battling day in and day out for a big goal is hard enough—having people in your life throwing doubt and negativity on your efforts make it even worse.
Everyone will have an opinion when it comes to your ambitious goals.
It can be hard to not listen to those that tell you that it’s a silly goal, or that it can’t be one. Or even just by people who slowly let the air out of your drive and motivation one pin-prick at a time (Come on, it’s just one drink! Coach isn’t even looking, let’s skip the last round).
The reasons people have for having a loser attitude with your goals are varied (insecurity, for instance) and ultimately irrelevant.
Being successful in the water is not common. Otherwise everyone would be doing it. Standing out from the mediocre is going to get you some attention, not all of it positive.
When discussing goals, Perkins realizes that it’s critical not to let the unmotivated infect you while also emphasizing that this isn’t necessarily easy:
“That might mean doing something different to the rest of your peer group.”
Don’t flinch when it gets hard.
The world is full of people who talk about big goals. There’s no shortage of people who start sentences with “I could” or “I want to” but don’t finish them with “and here’s what I’m going to do about it.”
Talking a big game is easy. Having big goals when things are going your way is simple. Doing the legwork and showing up every day, on the other hand, is dang hard.
If you are serious about your goals in the water, make sure your actions prove it consistently over time.
This means in the face of adversity, doubt, or that sudden realization that your goals might take longer than you initially guesstimated.
Don’t be a fairweather swimmer when it comes to your dreams.
“If you do have a goal in life, you need to be committed for the long haul.”
Even the pros experience serious lapses in confidence.
After his dominating performances in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and during the summer of 1994 where he batted around the 400, 800 and 1500m freestyle world records like a cat playing with a stuffed mouse, Perkins was the easy favorite to win the 1500m in Atlanta at the 1996 Olympics.
But he’d struggled at the Australian Trials, not qualifying in the 400m free. During prelims in Atlanta he’d barely made the final. The cacophony of whispers that Perkins was “washed up” were hard to ignore.
On the afternoon of the final in Atlanta, a couple hours before he was to get on the block, Perkins was experiencing a full-blown meltdown of confidence.
“I actually started to get really nervous, like 10-year-old-freaking-out, I’m going-to-die, my-life’s-over kind of nerves.”
The next time you are feeling the nerves stacking up on you, remember that not only is the swimmer in the lane next to you feeling the same way, but the swimmers you idolize so much feel it too.
Do what works.
Seems like the most simple piece of advice you could ever receive, right?
Do what works. Stick to what you know. If it works, do the dang thing.
But a lot of the time when swimmers get anxious or feel that sense that things are spiraling out of their control it’s because they are doing something new, they don’t have control, and they’ve veered off from what has worked for them in the past.
Maybe it’s a new environment, so you adjust your pre-race routine. Or you are racing against elite-level athletes, so you feel you need to adjust how you do your meet warm-up at the last minute.
That day of the 1500m final Perkins got a little angry at himself. Gave himself a mental slap. And thought back to how he’d prepared for big race situations (and been successful) both as a high-level athlete and even as a kid.
He shut everything out. Compartmentalized the outside noise, the expectations, the other athletes, everything else and focused squarely on his lane and his swim.
“There was just nothing else, there was no noise, there were no other athletes, there was just this 50 meters of water where I had finally the opportunity to see what I had and really test myself and prove it.”
It wasn’t about beating anyone. Or rising to meet someone else’s expectations. Perkins locked himself in to his own performance, knowing that to get the best of himself he’d have to lock down his focus and attention.
Prepare yourself so that it doesn’t matter what the competition does.
Oh, I love this little piece of advice because it gives you the ultimate power of your own performance.
The point of training is to physically and mentally steel you so that when you get up on the block on race day it doesn’t matter what the competition does, who they are, or how fast they might or might not go.
Perkins intimidated his competition by the way he raced: he trusted his preparation enough to know that he could go out fast and keep the pace, breaking the other swimmers before the race had completed its first couple laps.
“I wasn’t particularly worried about the individual and I know that sounds a bit odd and selfish, but at the end of the day when you’re standing on the blocks there’s seven other bodies in the water with you, who they are, where they come from, what they like or don’t like—who cares? It’s irrelevant. They’re just seven other bodies that need to be dispatched like anybody else.”
If you train and ready yourself to the best of your ability it won’t matter what the competition does and doesn’t do on race day.
You’ll be armed with your best performance possible.
See you in the pool,
P.S. Want help with your mental training? Last year I wrote and published Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High Performance Mindset.
From learning how to be mentally tougher, learning how to focus properly in practice, to how to be mentally and physically ready to rock and roll on race, Conquer the Pool will help you develop the mindset of a mega champion.
The book was written with the feedback of 200+ head coaches, Olympians, former world record holders and NCAA champions. It’s written as a workbook (so you get to take your new mental toughness skillz for a ride for yourself), and it’s written in an easy to understand style that may or may not make you chortle out loud every once in a while.