Attack the Walls: The Mindset Behind Faster Swim Turns (and Faster Times)

Michael Butler
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The Reason Our Walls Stink

Most competitive swimmers I know hate sprinting. It’s a funny thing. Swimmers grow up swimming fast, but in practice it’s just not fun. And yet, despite the foreboding mental image of 50 hard turns, sprinting is a huge part of training and can make significant improvements in technique, strength, power, speed, and efficiency. The problem is that most sprint freestyle, either doing one or two laps of all-out hard turns or trying to swim faster for a few yards at the end of a workout, is less than ideal.

I rarely sprint for more than 10-12 yards without a turn at practice, and my fastest sprint is rarely the fastest sprint of the day. The same can be said for most of the athletes I work with and for. The problem is the wall. The first thing most people learn is how to air glide or make continuous turns around the wall. But just as momentum is your biggest enemy on the way out, in, and between walls, it’s equally your friend. So what’s the solution? Treating the wall like an anchor: Set up your arm entry for the turn so you’re postured for a strong, efficient pull, then accelerate your hands, body, and feet out the wall and launch yourself for the start of the next turn.

How to Do Develop an “Attack the Walls” Mindset

You might have heard the term “attack the walls” used in swimming circles, but what does it actually mean? What’s it like to attack the walls and how does the mindset translate in a swimming situation?

Attacking the walls is, more or less, a paradoxical metaphor. It’s about getting the job done in the most efficient and fast way you can, while at the same time, controlling the energy, aggression and sense of urgency you’re experiencing.

Just like you’ve probably experienced when you race, you’ve probably also noticed that how you feel in the start impact how your feeling toward the end of the race. If you go out too hard, only to fade in the last 100 meters, it can leave you feeling drained and frustrated.

To attack the walls, you need to balance aggression and energy with control and confidence. That means starting fast, staying slow and finishing strong.

The balance between attack and control is one you’ll want to find your way to, to be able to go fast and stay fast.

Implement some self-talk.

Another key habit of great swimmers is that they focus on one thing at a time. Just one. And, they don’t give their brain a laundry list to think about during a race.

Remember: our brains can’t hold more than one thought at a time and that’s why, if you give yourself more than one task to focus on during a race, you’ll slow down. You’ll get slower times and you’ll accomplish fewer goals.

If it feels challenging to focus on one thing at a time, you can train your brain to be single-minded by practicing some self-talk right before you swim.

Try saying something to yourself like: “I’m doing this well. I’m going to continue doing this well.”

Or: “What I’ll focus on now is [blah blah blah].”

Finish and turn like a hero.

But start like a coward.

The panic cell is a good thing: it’s our evolutionary way of making sure we don’t waste precious resources on stupid stuff.

When the brain is in panic mode, it’s not giving us a choice. It knows we’ll waste our strength if we fight against this sensation. It wants to protect us from dying.

The attack mindset is different. The purpose of taking up this mindset is not to win a fight but to resist the panic cell. It’s a mindset that will help you finish and turn like a hero. But start like a coward.

With the attack mindset, you can overcome the panic cell: by pushing through the sensory overload. You’ll make the dumb move, and there’ll be a very stupid moment right before you hit the wall. But that’s okay, because you’ll finish and turn like a hero.

The Takeaway

One of the biggest factors behind competitive swimmer’s success is precisely their mental game. Speed doesn’t equal skill and it doesn’t make you a better athlete, so faster swimmers are often the ones who have mastered their mindset.

This cuts wrestling down to a single-chambered activity, because while a wrestler is in the midst of a match, she is able to block out her surroundings and direct all of her attention to the upcoming bout. As her coach says, “You’re only as good as your last match.” Now that’s pressure. Without this single-pointed focus, she might lose focus and make mental mistakes that a lesser opponent exploits.

To make the game interesting, Bilsborough’s dad writes down ideas on a chalkboard, sending her to practice with “stories and characters that I think would be good to incorporate into our games.”

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