7 Harsh Realities of Being Great in the Pool

Here is what you need to know:

  • You gotta be a little delusional to want to excel at the highest levels of the sport.
  • You gotta love it. If you aren’t passionate about what you are doing, no bueno. (And on top of that, it needs to be the right kind of passion.)
  • You need to be willing to do what others are too scared, or unwilling to do.
  • You should be constantly striving for progression and improvement, no matter how small.
  • You have to be willing to accept discomfort as essential.
  • Excuses are also no bueno.

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1. You will have to train through and around injuries.

Injuries are going to happen in the pool. Well, not necessarily in the pool, but as a result of spending an ungodly amount of hours in it.

Whether it is a chronic shoulder injury, slipping on ice and spraining your wrist like Phelps did a few months before the 2008 Olympic Trials, or hurting yourself lifting in the gym, injuries and illness will happen no matter how well we take care of ourselves over the span of a season. It’s just part of the deal when we are continually pushing and prodding our bodies to limits not seen before.

For most athletes, when injury or illness strikes they will completely take the foot off of the pedal. Consider also not just the time missed in training, but the time it takes to get re-acclimatized to the water, as well as the psychological effect of feeling like you have been left behind.

That feeling like you have to completely halt all forward progress when you get injured is a natural feeling. In fear of further hurting yourself you completely cease and desist all physical activity, and when this is done multiple times over the course of the year it adds up to a sizable training block.

More importantly, adopting the mindset of finding a way around your injuries means that when setbacks happen in competition – you sprain your pinky finger in a crowded meet warm-up, etcetera – than you are better suited to adapt and adjust.

There will be injuries and circumstances that you cannot train through – broken femur or broken back comes to mind, but for everything else, if there is always something you can be doing in favor of your goals.

2. You have to be willing to go above and beyond.

Are you willing to do more than the next swimmer to achieve greatness? (There is no shame in saying no. And saying yes carries with the burden that you have to be consistently and adamantly willing to stretch and prod what you consider possible.)

Here is the point blank truth: if you want to achieve the same or similar results as everyone else, do exactly what everyone else is doing. This doesn’t mean that you should go looking for a shortcut or a silver bullet solution, this is just a way of shirking away from the work necessary.

You not only have to do what everyone else is doing, but do it better and more often.

There are countless areas where you can go above and beyond that doesn’t require swimming more laps. Being all over your pre and post workout nutritional requirements. Planning your day sufficiently in advance so that you aren’t up all night cramming, sacrificing another night of sleep. And so on.

3. You have to find progression anywhere you can find it.

The best are always on the lookout for ways to improve. They know that ultimate success in the pool comes not as the result of one giant sweeping action, but of the steady piling up of small gains and victories.

Even if you aren’t feeling as crisp and as smooth in the water, perform your swimming with the best technique you can imagine.

Becoming insanely successful in the pool means you have one eye on your current performance with the other on what is next and what you have to do to achieve it.

4. You must be willing to push through the pain.

There is no doubt about it, becoming an insanely fast athlete in the pool will mean that you need to be able to absorb lots of punishment, but more importantly, become incredibly mentally resilient.

There will be times where you are feeling crippling amounts of doubt – “will I ever be able to actually do this?” – and times where you feel as though you haven’t made enough progress – “how will I ever achieve my goals if this is where I am at right now?

Being able to push through those immobilizing thoughts will teach you the value of being able to recognize the thoughts that serve to hold you back and need to be violently thrown aside. Physically, well, if you have gotten to this point you fully well know the challenge that comes with being an athlete. Of pulling two-a-days (plus dryland) over the holidays, of swimming to the point that you feel sick to your stomach, walking out of the pool in a daze, wondering how on Earth you will possibly be able to make it back to the pool the following morning for another kick at the can.

When you not only accept that this is the price that must be paid for greatness, but get to a point where you eagerly await making that deposit every day, than you will be on a straight-shot towards great things in the pool.

5. You’ve got to be a little delusional.

Every step of the way people will tell you that it cannot be done. That it won’t be done. And that you cannot do it. It’s hard enough battling the demons in our minds that ply us with negative self-talk and doubt, but to have others – some in authoritative positions like coaches or elite swimmers even – tell you that your dream is a fantasy can be a difficult pill to swallow.

The greats channel that stuff, the nay-saying, the doubters and haters into fuel, into a reserve of rage and motivation that can be used whenever they feel their commitment or focus wavering or slipping. At the end of the day, doing something great is not natural.

It goes against almost every instinct in your body that wants you to play it safe, to fit into the mould, to not stand out amongst your peers. It rails against the natural tendencies of mediocrity and the herd-mentality. It means listening to your heart of hearts above the opinions of others, of stubbornly and doggedly pursuing your goals and ambitions long after others have quit.

Becoming a hilariously fast swimmer is a goal that not a lot of people will fully understand. There is very limited fame and riches. You aren’t going to become a spokesperson for Nike, Under Armour and Gatorade—it’s just you and the black line, and for the slightly delusional, that is more than enough.

6. You have got to love it.

If you don’t love the idea of pushing yourself to the limit on a daily basis, of hurtling yourself towards the outer reaches of what is possible with your swimming, of doing the grind and of making the sacrifices, than you might as well stop now.

In a post I recently did for SwimSwam I discussed the difference between obsessive and harmonious passion. Obsessive swimmers train because they have to; their whole identity rides on it, they lack balance in their lives, and they do it to protect their ego. Swimmers who are passionate in a harmonious sense derive intrinsic pleasure from working their butts off; the process — and not just the thought of the results — is enjoyable to them.

If you don’t love what you are doing, the tough love advice is to give it up now and save yourself the inevitable burn-out that awaits you down the road.

Achieving greatness in the pool requires so much from you in terms of sacrifice, your energy – both physical and mental – to patience, discipline and so on, that unless you find the journey (and not just the results) rewarding and satisfying, than the sacrifices will be too great.

7. Get rid of your excuses. Now.

There will always be excuses knocking at the door. Too tired. Too sore. Not tall enough. Not enough time. Not enough resources. Blah blah blah.

Once you accept that all of these things are excuses, and you are willing to accept responsibility for your swimming 100%, than you will instantly be on the right path to achieving the big things you want in the pool.

Shedding the habit of making excuses for why you shouldn’t act will give you complete power and autonomy over your swimming (which is a surprisingly liberating feeling once you accept it).

In Closing

Yes, elite swimming is not for everyone. It’s not even for most. It’s reserved for a select few who are willing to brave against every instinct in their body to push themselves beyond what they and others consider possible.

Will you be one of the few?

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Olivier Poirier-Leroy Olivier Poirier-Leroy is the founder of YourSwimLog.com. He is an author, former national level swimmer, two-time Olympic Trials qualifier, and swim coach.

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