Swimmers are comparison-making machines.
We walk out onto a pool deck, look at who is in the water, and immediately rank and sort ourselves against how fast or slow they are going.
- I could totally beat that person.
- Oh, that swimmer has killer underwaters.
- That swimmer could give me a run for my money.
- Holy chlorinated kickboards—that guy’s breaststroke kick is fast.
The comparison-making we do isn’t even conscious. It’s not as though you have it in your mind that you are going to go storm over to the edge of the pool and watch who is in the pool and tally up where you rank.
Why is why it can feel like we don’t have control over how comparison-making ends up making us feel.
Particularly when those comparisons are unfair, pointless, or utterly de-motivating:
That swimmer is really tall, there’s no way I can beat them. My competitor swims for a world-class coach, how can I compete with that? The swimmer in lane four has a seed time that is ten seconds better than my PB.
Thanks to the world wide web of internet tubes and social media we have an endless parade of swimmers to compare ourselves against.
We compare ourselves to the competition. We compare ourselves to our teammates. Heck, we even compare the swimmer we are today to the swimmer we were in the past.
There is no end to the comparison-making if you aren’t doing your part to hit the snooze button on it.
Here are some fun facts and tips about comparison making, and how you can work this normal human instinct to your benefit.
Fun fact #1: Improvement happens at different rates for all of us.
We use the clock and scoreboard to measure ourselves against other swimmers.
Makes sense, but this is way too simplistic for any reasonable kind of comparison-making.
Some kids grow a foot over a summer when they are 13 years old. Others grow slow and steady. Some kids master technique quickly, while others slowly work their way around to mastering it. Some kids peak at 16, while others don’t hit their stride until their mid-20s.
You are on your own path.
How long it takes for you to improve is unique to you. Little Bobby in the next lane might have dropped five seconds in a month in his 100-freestyle, but that doesn’t mean you are going to do the same.
You might drop one second per month, over five months. You might drop one second, per year.
Whatever the case, trying to use someone else’s progress and improvement as a timeline or blueprint for your success is risky business.
Instead, use the success of others as proof of what is possible…
“If they can do it, so can I.”
Fun fact #2: Comparison-making can be motivating when done properly.
When I was a kid, we used to a get a swim magazine to our home every two months that had national rankings for swimmers in each group.
(A printed magazine… on paper… no app, no website. I know, I’m old, bro.)
I would photo-copy the page with my competitors, highlight my name, and over the next two months try to march up as fast as possible up the rankings at subsequent meets.
The rankings motivated me and gave me a sense of urgency in practice.
In this manner, comparison-making was helpful.
On the other hand, if I was receiving that magazine, reading the rankings, and felt overwhelmed and hopeless by the fast swimming of others, with the benefit of hindsight and a time machine I’d have quickly instructed myself to lay waste to the magazine and instead focus on my own preparation.
The same could be said for farting around on social media, relentlessly scrolling through meet results, or spending hours on YouTube watching videos of fast swimmers.
If it ain’t helping you in your preparation, stop wasting time and energy on it.
Fun fact #3: Comparison-making can be the spark to ask what you can do to be better.
Rivalries and competition show us that it’s possible to be better, and can encourage us to look inward to see if we really are maximizing our preparation and efforts.
Can you go to bed a little earlier? Can you spend ten minutes writing down and evaluating your workout? Can you take two minutes to get feedback from your coach on your technique? Can you do a couple extra race pace turns? Can you video tape your start to see where you can improve?
Faster swimmers can push you to be more honest about where you can work harder.
Fun fact #4: Now you have someone to chase.
Seeing a teammate performing like a boss in practice should excite you.
Because now you have someone to race against. A challenger. Someone to chase after each day at practice.
Use the performances of others to motivate you. One of the challenges of being top dog in the group or lane is that we tend to coast when we are crushing everyone.
I always relished getting moved up a group to where I would be struggling to keep up with the faster swimmers. Intuitively, I knew that training with faster swimmers would push me far more often than training with slower swimmers, and I was stoked about the hype-improvement that would come from trying to keep up.
Fun fact #5: Winning is only meaningful if you are also improving.
Beating others isn’t always that rewarding, especially if you aren’t improving.
Ever notice the joy from a swimmer who places in the bottom of the results but drops a metric butt-ton of time? I’ve been there—improving was the real win.
Ditto with the swimmer who wins gold, but isn’t thrilled since they swam significantly slower than their personal best time? It’s a bit of a hollow win.
While we love to obsess over gold medals and winning, you can’t fake the satisfaction that comes from maximizing your talent and ability.
What can you do to be better?
What are the things you have control over?
Motivation, confidence and all the warm fuzzies in the world come from exceeding our own limits, not bypassing someone else’s.
Fun fact #6: Comparison-making knows no limits.
Reality: There will always be someone faster than you.
Even if you are the fastest of the fasterest swimmers in the history of the sport today, there is someone out there who will someday knock you off.
That’s just the endless march of the sport.
You can be the fastest swimmer in the lane, but you might not be the fastest swimmer in the group. You may be the fastest swimmer on the team, but there is going to be someone faster cross-town, or cross-state, or cross-Earth.
There will always be someone faster, better, taller, better-looking, etc etc etc.
Does this mean you should give up? Not work hard? Not see what you are capable of?
Of course not.
Work hard. Swim fast. See what you can do.
In sum, the next time one of your teammates is putting an unmitigated beat-down on you in practice, check yourself before you wreck yourself with these quick questions and reminders:
- Is comparing myself to them motivating me or not? How can I use their performance to make myself better?
- Am I improving? Swimmers develop at their own rate—as long as you are progressing with your process, the gains you want will happen.
- There will always be someone faster. There will always be someone slower.
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