This post started out as a “What did I learn about myself this year?” thing for myself. Instead, it morphed into something a little longer. So I thought I would share it with you guys instead, as judging from the emails I receive from many of you experience/suffer/obsess over many of the same things.
If you like it, feel free to share it amongst your chlorinated homies. If you don’t, feel free to heckle me on Twitter.
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Swimming fast requires some tough questions, and some tough answers.
Do I have what it takes to excel at the highest levels? Do I have the commitment within me to make the necessary sacrifices to be successful? Am I willing to put myself out there in the name of my goals? Will this be the year that I finally commit to emptying out my swim bag after practice so I can experience having a dry towel the following morning?
While I don’t have any answers for those particular questions, I put together a little guide that outlines some things to think about when you are having a rugged time in the pool. Think of this guide as a little compass, chock-full of swimming tips designed to keep you on track when you have had an epically bad day in the water (and out of it too).
Coach keeps handing out 1k’s for time like Halloween candy? Read this. Added 5 seconds to your best time at the biggest meet of the year? Read this. Fed up with the antics of the swimmer behind you, endlessly grabbing onto your toes? Read this. Freaked out that you aren’t progressing fast enough? Read this. Getting piled on by fellow swimmers who ridicule you for having big goals? Definitely read this.
Annnnd here we go:
Stop caring what others think of your goals.
One of the low-lights of my career was having a high performance coach tell me that I couldn’t do something. A well respected, international level coach point-blank telling me that I was incapable of doing big things in the water.
When you are young, impressionable and simply don’t know any better, this can be tough. And it doesn’t get easier with age. When someone of authority tells you that you can’t do something, it sucks.
It’s hard to push out the nastiness, naysaying and jealousy other people brew when they find out you want to do something special with your swimming.
- But if you are not doing a little bit extra at practice because you are worried about being made fun of…
- Or are scared to fail in front of others when coach draws up a challenging set…
- Or are embarrassed to move over to the fast lane…
In some way you are allowing what the opinions others hold dictate how you train. How you perform. And how successful you will ultimately be.
We spend so much time feeling paranoid about how others feel about us. Which is too bad, because in reality, people are gonna talk whether you are swimming fast or swimming slow.
Give them something to really stew on by training on the next level.
If you want respect, it’s earned in the water.
We tend to feel that we deserve respect. Not as a result of the work we do, how we behave, and how we carry ourselves in and out of the water, but simply because.
You don’t deserve anything you haven’t worked for. It’s goofy to think that you can train part-time, with minimal effort and achieve high-level, full-time results.
Results don’t lie. They peel back and bare the truth behind your training.
It’s not the swimmer that has a flash-in-the-pan swim in competition that other swimmers admire. (Well, maybe a little…) It’s the athlete that shows up every day and throws down with high effort that gets street cred.
You want respect? Show up and do the work.
You don’t need to be an Alpha-type to be confidant.
For you quiet, introverted swimmers out there, I feel your pain. Whenever a teacher would call on me in class my face would go instantly bright red. Like fire-engine red. We quietly go about our days, hoping that we don’t get pulled out of the crowd lest we get overly noticed.
But although you may be shy and timid out of the water, in the pool is where your confidence truly develops.
Why is this?
Because you have put in the meters. You showed up on all those early mornings. You didn’t quit on those impossibly trying final reps, and you certainly didn’t blink in the face of the insane holiday training sets.
True confidence comes from effort. If you show up and work your butt off, confidence will come. I promise you.
Don’t mistake loud, aggressive behavior for confidence. Often times this type of bravado masks a very deep insecurity. Show me the swimmer quietly staring blankly down the lane, unshakeably focused and I will show you someone who is about to swim out of their mind.
Confidence shows its true colors through action. Talking about how fast a swimmer you have the potential to be isn’t confidence. It’s hot air. It’s an illusion.
You can be the quietest introvert on the team, but if you are showing up every day and giving your best effort, you will develop true confidence. The type that cannot be faked with some chest-puffing and bluster.
Stop caring about things that don’t matter.
Each morning we wake up with a tank of empathy and energy. Over the course of the day certain things begin to drain this reservoir. What these things are, contrary to what you might think, are completely under your control.
Do you get bent out of shape that coach just drew up a tough set, or do you direct your energy towards getting mentally prepared to crush the set? We can spend energy complaining and looking for a way out, or we can drive that same focus into overcoming what lays ahead.
There are things you can choose to care about: your effort, focus, and discipline during practice.
And there are the things you can care about and which will have no difference to your day whatsoever and only distract you from the things that do matter: The swimmer next to you making big waves. Coach being in a grouchy mood. Johnny not returning your text message.
You have a limited tank of energy each day.
Pump the things you care about with that stuff.
You have goals…right? That’s where your energy should be going.
If you are getting bent out of shape about how Susie pulled on the lane ropes during kick sets, or how Billy got out early with a fake injury, or how Marky Mark didn’t finish the warm-down, than you are wasting valuable energy and focus that could be better served elsewhere.
Our energy and thoughts go somewhere. Always. Don’t let them seep into the things that don’t seem like they might matter but in actuality do not whatsoever.
Success requires you to be weird.
Social pressures require you to want to fit in. To not break the lock-step that we inevitably fall into when we are in a group or team setting.
Success, on the other hand, requires you to be strange. Weird. Abnormal. Being elite, no matter what elite means to you, demands uncommon levels of focus, commitment, and training.
The surest path to mediocrity is to do what everyone else is doing. This will guarantee you a spot in the crowd, indistinguishable from the rest. But if you want to do some genuinely special things in the pool, this kind of ambition requires you to be weird. Different. Unique.
Don’t be afraid to swim outside the lane-lines of mediocrity and normalcy. This is where the good stuff is.
There is no hard rule for where you need to be at, by what date.
At the end of the year (and season) comes the inevitable retrospection. We mentally take stock of how we performed, both the good and the ugly, and for many swimmers, there is a particular sting of pain that arises from not being close enough to achieving the big goals.
That you aren’t far enough. That you aren’t on pace to achieve your wildest of goals. That there isn’t enough time.
Here is a little secret…
You have more time than you realize. There is no strict guideline or road-post you need to be at by a specific date.
We all progress at our own pace. Physically, mentally, emotionally, and in the pool. Measuring up against other athletes is pointless in this regard, as they progress on their own terms as well.
One of my favorite all time swimming stories is that of Bill Pilczuk. The guy walked on to Auburn University (and paid his way), was never a prodigy, and never broke a NAG record.
He was simply a guy who worked and worked and worked, and eventually, in 1998, at the age of 26, unseated the greatest sprinter in the history of the sport, Alexander Popov in the 50m freestyle at the FINA World Championships.
So often you will hear a swimmer say, “If only I’d trained harder at the beginning of the season. Now it’s too late.”
For this particular competition, sure. But overall is it too late? Nope.
Trust me on this one—no matter how old you are, 16, 19, 21, 35— you will always wish that you hadn’t waited to start. That *if only* you had started by such and such a date that you would be so much further along.
You don’t need to be a prodigy at age ten to be successful at age 16. Most ten and under standouts fizzle out long before they hit the collegiate ranks. And like I said about Bill Pilczuk, the guy was on the north side of his 20’s before he made his mark.
Don’t squander the opportunity of today because you feel like you didn’t take advantage of yesterday. (Likewise, don’t squander today because you now sense as though you have a new lease on your swimming career.)
Just don’t wait.
No matter where you are at, how old you are, or where you fall on the scale between age grouper noobie and Olympian stand-out, tomorrow you will wish that you had started today.
Learn to accept that you will almost certainly fail.
This is tough. And something I know a ton of you deal with. (I’m right there with you as well.)
We have well-meaning goals, but action towards accomplishing them terrifies us. What if we come up short? What if it is harder than we expect? What if we aren’t up to the work and sacrifice necessary?
So we don’t do anything.
Failing isn’t going to crush you. Not in the same way that the weight of regret and “what-ifs” will. It’s not even if you are going to stumble and fail, it’s when. Develop a resolve to brave the ugly and unshaven face of failure and difficulty, and to trust yourself that you will be fine even if the worst case scenario comes to pass (which it will not).
No one says you have to like failing (if anything, use the anger and frustration to fuel your efforts, not allow them to fizzle out), but remember that it is a frequent occurrence on the path towards doing anything meaningful.
You’ll stumble, you’ll fail, and most importantly of all, you’ll be okay.
Get serious about what you are willing to sacrifice for your goals.
Success requires sacrifice. Not sure it can be more simply described than that.
We are sold on the idea that because we live in the age of instant information, high powered supplements, brain hacking, advanced training techniques and all the rest that we can short-cut our way through the things that truly power our performances.
Things like being consistent in practice, showing up to all our workouts, getting enough sleep every night, and eating for high performance.
Consider what sacrifice actually means for a moment…
Sacrifice isn’t denying yourself something as a form of punishment.
It’s giving up one thing to get something better.
- It’s giving up a night out with your friends in order to get a good night’s sleep and have a killer workout the following morning.
- It’s giving up 20 minutes of your night to meal prep and pack your bag for the next day so that you are properly fueled to train.
- It’s giving up watching Netflix in bed so that you rest adequately (and recover).
Small scale sacrifices are especially tough because they seem so small (don’t be fooled, they add up big time over the course of a full season), and because the windfall from doing something better (showing up and working hard at practice) doesn’t always manifest itself until much later (the big meet).
Success is lonely.
For a sport that leaves its athletes logging a lot of hours swimming up and down the black line, and around their own heads, swimming at the highest levels can be a little bit lonely.
Not everyone will have the determination that you do. Or the commitment. Or the drive.
And that is okay.
When you commit to doing something exceptional in the water you may find that you suddenly find yourself a little lonely.
Excellence happens in rarefied water. You won’t always have company when you do another rep at the end of the main set. Or stick around after practice to hone your technique. Or run down to the local football stadium to run stairs.
Being elite is a solitary endeavor. You won’t always have company or even support while you chase the outer reaches of what is possible.
You need to fall in love with routine.
It’s easy to love the goal.
In your dreams, with your imagination going full bore as though you were wearing fins, paddles, and an outboard motor, you swim faster than you ever though imaginable. You crash into the wall, the competition choking on your wake, glance up at the scoreboard and perform a technically perfect fist pump.
That’s the easy part.
And while drawing up the big goals you want to achieve are fun and easy, they do nothing to get you closer to your goal.
In fact, excess fantasizing about the outcome can actually cause you to take longer on your goal, because the act of setting the goal feels like enough of a step forward that you actually don’t take any meaningful action.
Write out your big goal. And then write out what your daily routine will have to look like in order to achieve it.
And while it may take you a little while to build up to adopting that greasy routine that will power your record-setting performances (start small, get back on track quickly, and work new habits/behaviors into things you are already doing), adopting, and learning to love the routine is what will have you swimming like a certified gangster.
Get tough on your inner monologue.
Imagine a coach or a teammate approached you mid-practice, looked you squarely in the fogged up goggles and said, “You suck. You don’t deserve to be successful. You can’t do this. Give up. Seriously. Just give up right now.”
Most of us would want to give them an “accidental” paddle-slap the next time you swam past them. Or smear some A-535 in their suit before their big race.
So why do we accept such talk from ourselves?
We talked a little bit about being hard-headed and focused enough to drown out the doubts and jealousy and others. This will seem like a piece of cake when it comes time to do battle with the brutal things that you say to yourself on a regular basis.
Things that if they were to come out of someone else’s mouth would produce a visceral and immediate reaction (“How dare you, sir!”).
Here are the Billboard top hits for such negative self-talk that we barrage ourselves with on the regular:
- I can’t do it.
- I don’t feel like doing it right now, so I won’t.
- I don’t deserve it.
- So-and-So couldn’t do it, so neither can I.
These thoughts are gonna happen, but you should be willing to unleash some exceedingly simple mental judo to keep them at bay. The reasons I love these is because it accepts the fear-based talk, and merely makes an easy suggestion that is almost impossible to say no to.
Some mental judo chops to place in the arsenal include:
- I can’t do it…but if I did, imagine how good I would feel about my swimming.
- I can’t do it… but seeing as I can’t, I might as well do one more rep/round/set and take it from there.
- I don’t deserve it… but neither does the other guy. I deserve success too.
- I don’t feel like doing it… but I know once I start I am more likely to “feel like it” again.
Negative thoughts are happen.
I don’t care how positive and optimistic you are on the outside, these nasty little barbs will bubble to the surface on occasion. Don’t allow them to set the table for how you swim.
Take control of your inner monologue and fight back.
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With anything, you can read the above post a hundred times, print it out and tape it to the fridge so you see it each day, but if you don’t focus on applying them to your life it’s just wasted time reading another listicle on the internet.
Although success in the pool and in life is never easy, it can be fairly simple when we decide to make it so.
Focus on the things that matter. Build a routine. Sacrifice short term gratification for long term glory. Grow confidence by acting. Be courageous enough to face the possibility of failure. And go forth, step poolside and be excellent.