Our Unhealthy Obsession with Personal Bests


This may sound like heresy, but we in the swimming world have an unhealthy obsession with Personal Bests, or PBs.  There. I said it.

The problem is simple. The vast majority of swimmers, and virtually all parents, believe that the time is the only measure of a race.  And for major meets, they are mainly right (but not always)!  For non-major meets, they are often wrong.

So, let’s get right to it.  When is a PB not the best measure of a race? There are many reasons, but let’s touch on the highlights:

  • It’s a training meet with minimal rest beforehand. A PB might be nice, but not expected.
  • They finished a hard race 10 or so minutes before and haven’t fully recovered.
  • They are asked to try out a different strategy or tactic, eg. sticking with a faster rival as long as  possible, or negative split  the race (2nd half faster than 1st half), or go farther underwater on all of the turns, or go out much faster than in the past.
  • The swimmer might be sick or injured, or just got back from being sick or injured

Even in major meets there are reasons why a PB is not necessarily the goal:

  • Multiple finals. Remember Ryan Lochte at the Olympics? He had the 200 Back and 200 IM finals within 20 minutes of each other. A PB in the 200 IM would have been an unreasonable expectation.  And highly irrelevant as hewas there to win, not do a PB.
  • Any Trials meet where the goal is to make a team. In these cases tactics are sometimes more important than going for a PB.

And let’s flip this on its head and consider a related question.  When is a PB not necessarily a good swim?  Here are two common reasons:

  • The swimmer may not have swum the race in a long, long time. Barely beating a 100 IM time done years doesn’t mean the race was done well.
  • Young or new swimmers often PB every time they swim. This is mainly because increasing familiarity with swimming, and the possibly greater size and strength from getting older.

OK, we’ve established that a PB may not be the best measure of a race. Now we can explore how this hurts the swimmers.

I’m sure all coaches have had swimmers come back from a fantastic race, and been so focussed on the time that they can’t see the good and bad things about the race. They don’t realize that their attitude defeats the whole learning and experiential purpose of the race.  Did they realize their underwater was better? Or that the 3rd quarter of the race was much faster. Did they notice that they developed a new stroke problem coming out of the turns?  Or did they just notice the time?

Parents actually have the most potential to derail the process.  I’ve seen great coach / swimmer post-race analyses destroyed by parents questioning their swimmer. “What happened?”  or “You weren’t trying, were you?” or “Better luck next time.”  I’ve also seen parents bribing the kids with money for every PB (ensuring the swimmer will only focus on PBs). I acknowledge that parents probably didn’t know the race goal ahead of time, but they don’t need to know it. Their job is to support their swimmer no matter what. (Repeat after me.  “I love to watch you swim”)

Even coaches, myself included, contribute to this problem by praising a PB when the goal of the race was something different.  If we tell them the goal of the race is one thing, we shouldn’t confuse them by focusing on the PB afterwards.

So what’s the take away from all this?  Basically, all of us, swimmers, parents AND coaches should start looking beyond the race times, and think about what the goal of the race was.  Often, it has nothing to do with a PB.


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