The furious glory of racing is how most people remember the sport.
The epic races, the too-close-to-call finishes, the exultant winner and the dispirited runner-ups.
During our own swimming journey, we have our own rivals and competitors from a young age. There are the swimmers whose name we scour the psych sheets for. The teammates we battle on a daily basis. The swimmers we follow on social media, and the swimmers we follow from afar.
Competition is a natural and *usually* healthy part of swimming.
Done properly, racing against other swimmers helps increase effort and intensity, teasing out great swims in clutch moments.
But for all the time and energy we spend ranking ourselves against other swimmers, they aren’t the ones who pose the biggest challenge to our swimming.
It’s not the swimmer in the next lane we fear.
The one who challenges us the most.
It’s the one between our ears.
Competing with Yourself
We have plenty of mental hiccups when it comes to swimming.
On top of all that fun goodness, one of the endless complexities of our brains and thoughts is the fear of competing with ourselves.
Like it’s bad enough that we gotta worry about what the other swimmers in the pool are doing, now we are also worked up about competing with ourselves?
Scared to compete with myself. Super.
But let’s get real…
Think about the times you have pulled your punches when it came to your effort at practice.
Was it because a teammate was crushing you? Or was it because you were worried that if you competed with your best effort that you would “lose”? Did the swimmer in the next lane defeat you, or was it your own fear of failing?
Easier to settle, ease off your effort, not do your best, and “lose” to your expectations.
It wasn’t your coach or teammates that caused you to give up—it was your own doubt, uncertainty and fear.
The real battle isn’t the swimmer in the next lane… it’s yourself.
For a moment forget the brutal swim practices that your coach gives you. And ignore the world-class teammate who laps everyone during the main set. Pay no mind to your long-time rival who frustratingly gets the best of you in competition.
The test, the race—the whole point is how you compete with yourself.
Let’s get into that a little more.
Competing against yourself means you define success.
For starters, when you are competing with yourself, you decide what success means.
This is more freeing than you might realize.
Because you don’t need to work for other people’s expectations or judgments, you have a clear sense of what winning means for you. What other people think is awesome or fast doesn’t really matter; not to you, anyway.
Everybody has their ideas about what constitutes a “successful” swimmer, but these comparisons and expectations are rarely helpful in getting you closer to excellence. After all, what good does knowing how fast another swimmer goes if it doesn’t help you compete better with yourself?
Competing with yourself means you become unshackled from the expectations and metrics of others.
You own the journey.
Competing with yourself opens a door to endless improvement and motivation.
Competing against other swimmers is pretty easy to measure.
Who got to the wall first? Who put up the fastest time on the scoreboard?
But competing with yourself, chasing that elusive perfect swim, presents an opportunity for something that is more difficult to measure–motivation.
When you are competing with yourself, you are locked in on the process of becoming the best swimmer you can be.
The inspiration you get from beating another swimmer is fleeting; the inspiration you get from looking inwards and trying to best yourself is endless.
This type of mindset is ten pounds of chlorinated fun in a five pound sack:
When you are constantly on the hunt for ways to improve your process, find little ways to chip away at improvement, and base your confidence on your ability to prepare, how you rank according to other swimmers doesn’t make or break your motivation and mindset.
Competing against yourself steels yourself for racing against others.
One of the curious side-effects of going toe-to-toe with the swimmer in the mirror on a consistent basis is that you become fluent in dealing with pressure.
After all, no one is going to have higher expectations for yourself than you.
No one on that cold pool deck is going to put more pressure on themselves than you.
By relentlessly competing with yourself, you become harder to beat when facing other swimmers.
Competing with yourself means you are focused on the right things in high pressure moments.
When you are standing behind the block, and your tech suit is digging into your skin, your legs are pumping at 300bpm and your mind and stomach are churning with butterflies and nerves, are you focused on besting your own preparation, or are you focused on the competition?
Here’s the reality…
Competing with yourself won’t automagically remove the panic and fear that swimmers experience in those quiet, sometimes agonizing minutes before a race.
But it will sharpen your focus on what matters.
After all, you are competing with yourself on:
- How well you execute your pre-race routine
- Staying on point with your performance cues and motivational self-talk
- Doing your meet warm-up to the best of your ability
Competing with yourself on the process and preparation of your ideal race better prepares you for epic swimming.
Especially when compared to the furtive and panicked comparison-making that swimmers lapse into under pressure.
Okay, those are some heavy duty benefits.
And let’s be honest, they sound pretty darn appealing.
Be less freaked out about the competition?
Swim faster, too?
In the next section I am going to give you some ideas for how you can crank up the self-compete in the water.
Consider what winning means to you.
Competing against yourself isn’t shying away from winning.
But paradoxically, winning internally often results winning externally. Winning with yourself puts you in the best position possible to win against the competition.
Which means you should have a more textured view of what winning is to you.
Winning can be executing a race strategy, going a personal best time, nailing a standard you set for yourself.
Winning isn’t always found in the reflection of a medal.
Set your own standards.
It’s easy to get caught up in what other swimmers are doing, whether it’s times they do in practice or competition.
But comparing yourself to another swimmer’s journey isn’t always helpful.
Start by building your own compete-worthy standards: things like attendance, daily effort, mindset. Things you control.
Find the moments of peak resistance in training.
Unlock some self-awareness and look under the hood of your swimming.
Take note of where you are being successful and where you are struggling with self-competition.
Get real about the things you are doing to sabotage your compete level in practice.
By “get real” I don’t mean call yourself out for being a failure, or beating yourself when you struggle.
But rather, set about trying to find the skills, habits and routines that will help you close the gap between what you are doing and what you want to do.
If you are giving up during the main set, what is something you could do to help you push a little harder?
If you lose focus and swim with less-than-super technique, what is something you could do to help stay focused?
Do one more rep.
Wanna see what you are capable of?
Or at the very least, see how much you don’t truly know what you are capable of?
Leave yourself with this simple rule with anything hard: when you get to the end of a main set, and you are sitting there in the gutter, sorting your life out, do one more rep. Not another round, not another set, but one more rep.
Plot out training goals that will push you.
Be clear idea of what you are competing on.
Are you trying to hold a harder interval? Nail a stroke count? Show up to 9 workouts this week instead of 8?
Training goals give you a chance to be clear about what it is you are competing against yourself on. Each Sunday night, open the pages of your logbook and list some training goals for the week.
Log a week of your training—and try to beat it.
When it comes to competing with yourself, I can’t think of a more motivating metric than the average.
The insanely good and insanely bad practices tend to stick out in our memory, but if you looked at the average of your training, what does the average look like?
Beating your best average is more realistic and motivating than trying to match the “best workout ever!!!”
At the end of the week, you will have some averages.
Some bright, glowing targets for you to chase on Monday morning.
If you averaged 8/10 effort last week, try and average 8 or better. If you ate healthy 5 days of 7, match that or go for 6 days.
Competing yourself means constant exposure to your “limits” and a relentless willingness to confront the possibility of failure.
The more you do it, the less you will fear the thought of failing at it.
Taking the Next Step
I hope you enjoyed this breakdown of why it’s so critical to focus on competing with yourself.
Now, I’d like to hear how you plan on using this info.
Are you going to break down your best averages and chase them in practice?
Are you going to work on maximizing your own process and preparation instead of worrying about what other swimmers are doing?
If you have comments, questions, or just want to say whatsup, you can reach out to me on Twitter. If you are a little socially shy, you can also contact me via my weekly newsletter for swimmers (it’s free).