By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Wednesday, November 8, 2017
The questions I receive
mostly have to do with pressures – external pressures,
pressures from coaches, parents, teammates. Of course, there are a
lot of internal pressures as well. Pressures to succeed. Pressures
to perform well. Pressures to win.
I never learned how to
“swim for myself” until I was around 20-years-old. It
wasn’t that I was necessarily swimming for other people
— I didn’t necessarily swim for my parents, teammates,
or coaches. But at the same time, I wasn’t swimming only for
myself. I wasn’t swimming just for the pure love of doing
something just because I could.
It happened when I failed:
At my end-of-season championship meet, I had failed to accomplish
my personal goal. I quickly realized that I just wasn’t
swimming for the right reasons. I realized that I was swimming for
so many other reasons – swimming because I felt like I had
to, swimming because I felt like I would let people down if I
didn’t, swimming because I swam the season before, and so, I
should just keep swimming.
Suddenly, instead of
feeling preoccupied with swimming as a way to interact with the
world (teammates, coaches, college, friends, etc.), I began to just
swim as a means to interact with myself. I began to imagine that no
one else was involved with this sport: No teammates, no coaches, no
parents, no competitors. I imagined that it was only me, and some
A weird thing happened: I
began to swim for myself. I took ownership over my mentality.
Rather than finishing a race and wondering why I wasn’t
swimming fast, I realized that I had a negative attitude about the
sport for multiple seasons. So I changed that attitude. I realized
that I wasn’t eating as healthy as I should be. So I changed
my nutrition. I realized that I was preoccupied with what people
thought about me. So I changed that, too.
If you’re like me,
struggling to “swim for yourself,” here are a few
changes you can make to help:
The only thing
you’ll gain from overanalyzing psych sheets is your placement
in the context of other people. Psych sheets will not help you swim
faster; they will only show you how fast everyone else could swim.
I used to pour over psych and heat sheets, and it filled me with
anxiety. When I shifted that energy over to self-focus, I found a
new sense of individualism.
2. Get to practice
early; leave practice late.
I’ll fill you in on
a secret: If you’re that swimmer leaping into warm-ups five
minutes late, you’re not swimming for yourself.
“Swimming for yourself” means you just don’t let
yourself be late. In other words, you care. Truly, deeply care. So
even if you’re struggling with caring, try it for one month:
Try showing up to practice ten minutes early; try doing a few
sprints from the blocks at the end of practice. You’ll be
amazed at that feeling you get when you take ownership over your
3. Focus on process,
Sometimes, when I was a
swimmer, I dropped so much time in a month, I thought I was an
all-star. Then other times, I couldn’t drop time for years. I
lived and died by whatever the scoreboard told me. I fixated on
personal bests. I worried about my all-time best races. I was so
fixated and focused on these end-of-year races that I forgot about
the nine months of important racing and practicing beforehand.
Championship races are not won or lost on the day of the race
itself: Championship races are won in November, during those cold
Monday mornings when you just don’t feel like it. Focus on
process, not product. Don’t get too high if you swim fast.
Don’t get too low if you swim slow. No matter how you swim,
be excited that on Monday morning, you get to start it all over
4. Cheer for your
Some people think
“swim for yourself” means “only pay attention to
yourself.” Don’t do this. Truthfully, the more you care
about how your teammates swim — the more you cheer for them,
the more you root for them, the more you help them — the more
responsibility you’ll take for your own swimming. It might
not make sense, but swimming for yourself just means holding
yourself accountable not only to yourself, but to the team around
you. If you’re only self-focused, you’re not going to
swim as fast as if you had an entire team behind you. Cheer. Root.
Support. Be a leader. Oddly, when you do this, you take even more
personal responsibility, too.
5. Try your hardest
when no one is looking.
We all want that glorious
feeling: Bringing home an Olympic gold medal relay in front of
thousands of screaming fans. But if you swim for yourself, your
hardest work will be accomplished when there are no screaming fans,
no onlookers, no one there to cheer you on. When you’re in
the last in the lane, and you can either decide to work harder or
loaf: This is when you “swim for yourself.” When you
decide not to loaf, but to do whatever you can to work your way
back to lead. Swimming for yourself is when you try your absolute
hardest when no one is looking.