Joe Welstead Commonwealth Games

What swimming taught me about mental resilience

As a child, there was nothing I wanted more than being in water. Not winning swimming competitions. Not collecting a nice cheque. To me, it was simply about how fast I could cut through water.
I still recall the juvenile certitude that I felt when I arrived at the University of Stirling in 2009, eager to join their swimming programme. I was 19 years old, in great shape, and the Delhi Commonweath Games were a year away. I'm going to be there, I thought to myself. I didn't make the cut. In fact, I was third fastest at my event at Stirling University, and wasn't considered good enough for their swimming programme. I received no scholarship, no equipment, no coach, no physio and no medical staff. It was game over. The next nine months were spent mostly sulking in my tiny student dorm. I was depressed and lonely and regularly skipped training because the thought of swimming with highschool kids crushed me. The Commonwealth Games came and went. I saw athletes both jubilant and shattered – some successful in making the team, most not. Me: I was little more than a spectator, invisible to most other competitors. On the final day of the national championships as I was rushing from the pool dripping wet my swimming coach stopped me and said: “Joe, you know, you’re going to be on that team in 4 years. You’ll be a Games athlete." This was flattery. I couldn’t even imagine. I didn’t have it in me. I hadn’t even made it onto the University team! But wait… what if she was right? What if…?
Joe Welstead commonwealth games Me at The 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow
And just like that, my coach planted the seed for my Unbreakable Goal. This changed everything. It gave me a mission: an Unbreakable Goal that transcended every level of my life. It got me out of bed at 5am for the next 4 years, and it pushed me to work harder than I thought was possible. It was the perfect Unbreakable Goal: it took me 4 years, and in the end, I made it by the skin of my teeth. These are the three actionable strategies that I used to reach my goal. Copy them, tweak them, but use them:

1. Set Your Unbreakable Goal

To build your fortress of mental resilience, to reach your best performance, you’ll need to set your own Unbreakable Goal. It needs to feel just out of reach, seemingly not quite possible to realise. Not quite possible… unless you’re a bit of a dreamer. Just a little crazy. Your Unbreakable Goal should put butterflies in your belly. If your Unbreakable Goal were a dance move, it would be the kind that you barely felt comfortable doing even in the privacy of your own bathroom. For now, anyway. An Unbreakable Goal should feel far enough away that it carries you over daily challenges, but just close enough that you might, eventually, have a small shot at achieving it. Find a way to set your own Unbreakable Goal. It should feel big – bigger than you. It should make you feel giddy inside. This is a long-term goal, not something you can achieve in a matter of weeks. You may want to speak to your coach, or a business mentor, to set your own Unbreakable Goal.

2. Set Your Unbreakable Rules

Your Unbreakable Goal will give you mounds of motivation, and this is exactly what you need to get started. But this will only take you so far. Motivation is a transient feeling, and some days, you just won’t want to do what it takes. If I had relied on motivation alone, there’s no way I would have made it to my daily 5.30 AM training sessions for 4 years straight. It’s just human nature: motivation wears off, and we return to the comfort of the status quo – forget about reaching your Unbreakable Goal, life’s just fine as it is. To transcend the natural ups and downs of motivation, you’ll need to set your Unbreakable Rules. A simple set of strict personal guidelines, which mean whatever comes at you, you know exactly how to behave. In practise, during my 4 years of training 25 hours per week to reach the Commonwealth Games, this meant I would:
  1. Get to sleep by 10pm, every night of the week, no matter what.
  2. Get up out of bed the second my alarm went off. No snoozing allowed.
  3. Never drink alcohol during the week, and only indulge a little at the weekend. No hangovers allowed.
  4. Have a precise nutritional plan, including 5 meals per day, and a carefully planned-out supplementation regime.
  5. Out-train everyone. I had a lot of catching up to do, so I made it my mission to work harder than any other swimmer in the world.
Five rules to rule them all. That’s all I needed.
Rules are incredibly empowering for two main reasons:
  1. Rules allow you to focus on the important things. By setting automatic rules, you stop wasting mental energy on making the same decisions time and time again. That means that in the first place, you’re more likely to make the better decision, and in the second place, you’ve got more mental energy to work towards reaching your Unbreakable Goal.
  2. Rules allow you to beat peer pressure. Until you set your Unbreakable Rules, you will always succumb to peer pressure. Time and again, things will get in the way of you reaching your big goal.
That’s because human resilience is finite: consciously deciding to “do the right thing” eventually exhausts your goodwill and in the end, you opt for emotionally-driven options: staying in bed, having another beer – whatever it may be. In this sense, rules are about being kind to yourself.

3. Stay In Your Lane

Comparison is the thief of joy, said Roosevelt, but comparison is also the thief of achievements. It’s a long road to reaching your Unbreakable Goal and performing at your best. There will be many distractions along the way, and at times you will think: what if that person’s doing it right? Have I got it wrong after all? Do they know better? Wait, what am I even doing here? These questions are almost inevitable. In my swimming career, the temptation to compare my training, my preparation, my race plan or even my racing suit to other competitors was always there. The problem with this comparison is that it quickly leads to self-doubt. And self-doubt will get in the way of you reaching your Goal. It took so much effort for me to Stay in My Lane that during the 2014 Commonwealth Games trials – the same national championships where I had been almost invisible 4 years earlier – I had to pretend I did not even know my competitors. Some of these people were dear friends of mine. Only by completely shutting off other competitors from my field of vision and staying within my fortress of mental resilience, could I truly and entirely focus on myself, build my best performance and achieve my Unbreakable Goal. In the end, it came down to 0.02 of a second between me being selected onto the team, and my closest competitor losing out. I put that down to Staying in My Lane.

The takeaway

Mental resilience is a fortress you build one brick at a time. Until eventually, no matter what comes at you, you remain steadfast in your actions, because you know exactly what it takes to perform at your best. You can smile in the face of adversity. You can quietly observe your competitors, without getting sucked into their actions. You think clearly, even under the most intense pressure. Because at your core, you are impenetrable.