Swimmer's Ear 5/28/14

Dear Mike,
Thanks for this column! I love hearing what all sorts of other swimmers have to really helps. :)
My question is this: I'm not a very talented swimmer. I'm kind of a fast High School swimmer, and in the middle, closer to the bottom with club.  I've been swimming for like 3.5 years, and I'm struggling right now. It's not that I have no motivation- I have more than I've ever had. I push every practice as hard as I can, even coming early and staying late. I find so much peace and joy in the sport, and I really do have the best teammates and coach I could hope for. I guess the problem is, though, no matter how hard I work, I'm not seeing big improvements. I'm getting really mad at myself for not doing what I know I am capable of. My coaches tell me I should just relax, and not worry- everybody plateaus. I know that. I'm just feeling stressed as I see the end of high school get nearer and nearer. I have goals. Not out of reach ones, but big ones- and I want them. I'm doing everything I can.  So I guess I would it worth it? Yes, I get so much out of this, and I truly love it...I think I want to swim D3 later. Is it worth all this time and effort and stress, though, if I never see the big improvements I want? Changing stuff takes so much work....and I hate how much pressure I put on myself when it doesn't pay off. What do I do?
-Just Wondering


Hi Just Wondering,

Swimming is a weird sport. On the one hand, we measure the sport by personal best times. And, if you don’t get a personal best time, that “means” that “something is wrong.” Either with training or nutrition or coaching or mentality, you should always drop time, right? That’s the only way to see improvement, correct?

On the other hand, at some point in our lives, we will stop dropping time. It will happen. You will hit a certain age, a certain peak physical tipping point, a certain place in your life, and you will stop dropping time. And ultimately, then, what gauges your success? What measures if you are improving or not improving if it is impossible to drop time? 

I know you want to drop time, but if you constantly fixate on personal best times as being the only measure of success, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s great that you want to get those personal bests, and it’s great that you feel the urge to get after them in training. But we’ve all had that championship meet when we haven’t competed well. Does that mean all the training we put into that season -- all those practices, all those little improvements we saw along the way – if it doesn’t match up to the final time on the scoreboard, does that mean it all was for nothing? 

Some people will tell you that the only thing that matters is getting a personal best, that swimming is, in its beauty, a sport that is measured by time. And when you don’t hit that time, you can fix and change something. They will tell you “the scoreboard never lies.”

I hate that term.

As someone like you -- someone who wasn’t always the best or most talented swimmer out there -- I can honestly say that, 10 years retired from this sport, the best “times” I’ve had are the friendships and the little moments throughout practice that built me. Those moments when I arrived early and stayed late, stretched, did another round of dryland. The weekend long swim meets, the after-practice conversations, the friendships (one swimmer was a best man in my wedding.) Definitely, swimming, and collegiate swimming, was a huge struggle for me. I hit a “best time plateau” for three years in college. Didn’t drop time for three years. Stayed the same, even when my practice times got better. There were a lot of frustrations. A lot of tears. A few hit walls. A few thrown goggles. A few months I stopped swimming completely. 

I hated the sport. Hated it. 

Then, I realized: Wait. There are other ways in which to feel good about this sport besides personal best times. I’ve always wondered about that term – “personal best times.” Because when you’re long retired and fat and old and can’t hardly swim a 200 IM anymore, those “personal best times” you remember have nothing to do with seconds and tenths and hundredths. They have to do with teammates and coaches and practices. 

In college, what helped me was, I started just really focusing on the moment, on the every day. I adjusted my attitude. I stopped sulking after bad swims. I enjoyed every single practice for what it was – an opportunity to work out, to fuse mind, body, and soul together. I made myself laugh. I made myself say, “I’m going to have a great practice.” I stopped worrying about that scoreboard. I realized there are other important aspects to this sport besides what the scoreboard tells you. 

“The scoreboard doesn’t lie.” 

And yet, it does, every single race, every single second. 

The scoreboard lies because it never tells the behind-the-scenes story of the swimmers competing, the sacrifices each swimmer makes when approaching those blocks -- those morning practices, those holiday sets, those breakthrough moments in practice when you “get it,” those little things. And yet, those little things are the things that matter. Those are the things you remember much later in life. Those are the things that build you, that construct you, that make you who you become. 

Oh, Just Wondering, I hope you do have a great, break-through swim. I really hope you do. And if the passion is there, you should definitely give D3 swimming a try. You can always quit, but it’s hard to come back after you quit. But even if you don’t have that crazy, gold-medal, break-through swim, Just Wondering, know this:

The scoreboard lies. In swimming, you simply have to choose what to believe: the scoreboard, or yourself. You have to choose to believe in either this bunch of electronic wires and plastic tubes, or in your own experiences, friendships, and lessons learned from this sport. We all will stop dropping time one day, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t improving, aren’t doing those every day, little things right. 

Every day, I wish the scoreboard measured that. 

But then I just remind myself, “The scoreboard can lie.”

I hope this helps.