The Dark Side of Time

Since the year dot of swimming, coaches have gauged the capabilities of athletes through their ‘personal best’ or PB. Time has remained the ‘golden’ measure of a swimmer’s success, i.e. it provides a coach with quantifiable feedback on whether the swimmer has swum faster or slower since their previous performance. Swimmers also utilise time in other ways as Sports Psychologist Professor Andy Lane (@AndyLane27) of the University of Wolverhampton recently suggested on social media, “striving for a PB can be really motivational in some contexts and with some people.” He went on to say, “if it motivates, then discuss and then focus on process”. However, beware, there is a dark side to emphasising time goals.

“Often accompanied by some tears.”

At competitions, athletes eagerly listen to their coach to discover whether they have ‘PB’d’ or not. Parents crowd around the results sheet on the wall to find out their child’s time. “Did they PB?” One of the first comments a swimmer makes to their peer after they have swum is, “did you PB?” The response will usually be one of modest satisfaction, elation or, conversely, one of deflation or, despondency – often accompanied by some tears. Besides, the time a swimmer achieves (or does not achieve) provides almost no other useful information to the athlete or coach in which to act upon, i.e., the time cannot tell you how the swimmer swam.

How did the swimmer perform technically in the race? How well did they execute the skills they have been rehearsing at training? Did they follow the race plan? None of these essential questions can be answered by observing the swimmer’s time. Indeed, it’s worth noting that the improvement of age-group swimmer can be attributed to growth as they begin and progress through puberty. Focusing on the time age-groupers achieve could provide a coach with a false sense of security with regards to the effectiveness of their training programme, in that, the swimmer’s improvement should be attributed to growth as opposed to the training they have undergone. It is also not unusual to expect an athlete’s time to increase (i.e. ‘put time on’) during periods of technique transition. If the athlete has not practised the new stroke movements at race pace for a sufficient number of repetitions before a race, it is reasonable to expect a slower swim than that of previous occasions; thus, time would be completely unhelpful as an indicator of progress.

The question to also ask yourself is, how can the swimmer utilise knowledge of their time in the event just swum to benefit their next event? Simply put, they can’t. Feedback should be restricted to small ‘snippets’ of information which can be easily consumed by the athlete and, which focuses only on pointers which can be carried forward into the remainder of the competition. For example, the coach may wish to remind the swimmer to avoid breathing in the last five metres prior to their tumble turn at the wall. Also, awareness of the time they have swum in the previous event could have an adverse impact on the athlete’s performance for the remainder of their current competition if the time was slower than was hoped for.

“Eventually, the swimmer fails to swim faster and they fall from a great height.”

An emphasis on achieving a personal best time can have a detrimental effect on a swimmer’s approach to the sport. In PB-orientated clubs, swimmers who regularly swim quicker than their previous time can be placed upon a pedestal by the coach. Each time the individual improves on their previous PB the pedestal grows higher. However, the swimmer eventually fails to swim faster and, they fall from a great height. This can be a very disheartening experience for a child or teenager who is familiar with regular success (with regards to time outcomes). After a series of percieved ‘failures’, these swimmers begin to attend sessions less and, not before long, they leave their club altogether. For those who stay, what implications could this mindset have on a teenager’s social and academic life? The culture created by the emphasis on time outcomes and the personal best is, at the very least, unhelpful and, at worst, it can have a detrimental impact on a swimmer’s psychology.

So what should we do?

Coaches need to move the focus away from discussing the time outcomes of a race; instead, we need to concentrate on the process that took place before and during the swim. Sports psychologist, Dr Karen Howells of the Open University (@mind4sportpsych), recently commented: “Post race reflection should focus on [process] goals – [it] allows for focus on improvement not distracted by failure (or success)”.

The “process” goals in a swimming competition include the technique and skills executed; however, any technical feedback which has no immediate bearing on the individual’s next event should be recorded and discussed back at the training pool – including time considerations. We should focus on other factors such as, motivating the team, instilling good sportsmanship and, ensuring the athletes enjoy themselves.

Yes, we should celebrate the success of those who achieve a personal best but do this in an informal setting away from the competitive environment. One forward thinking club I belong to spends 15-20 minutes every week sat around in a circle applauding the triumphs of the past few weeks. These achievements are not limited to personal bests, we share our academic successes, goals achieved in other sports, and any other pleasing moments a swimmer wishes to inform the team of.

Take home points – ‘The good, the bad and, the ugly’:

  •  The Good – striving for time improvements can motivate the athlete;
  • The Bad – time doesn’t provide any useful information with regards to how the swimmer swam;
  • The Ugly – ultimately, an emphasis on time-based goals can drive an athlete out of the sport.

Yours in Swimming,




Lane, A., ‘AndyLane27’ (2017) Twitter. Available at:

Howells, K., ‘mind4sportpsych’ (2017) Twitter. Available at: