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Plateaus Can Be A Good Thing

Most of you don’t know this little fun fact. My Father was one of the first Organizational Psychologist with his own practice in the states. I was fed a large diet of organizational practices and human dynamics as a youngster. His passion for human performance was obviously handed down to his son, albeit in a much different venue. 

While in college and beyond, I would go with him on some of his organizational interventions. Many times, the organization was in a crisis such as a utility company strike or major organizational shift like the breakup of AT&T.  It gave him the opportunity to give me some spending money. For me, it was professional development. Thankfully, I can still use those experiences to help our swimmers each and every day. 

On one such trip, my Dad was speaking to the president of Boston Gas and said something that had a big impact on me.  The workers went on strike. The managers had to go into the field and keep the operations going. At one point in the conversation, my Father said to the president that we will use the experience as an opportunity to, “mine for gold”.

Mine for gold. I had just been interviewing the management team, doing surveys and organizing feedback for my Dad. I was not coming away with many golden attitudes and opportunities from that team. But my Father, older and wiser, knew that we had a real chance to make a longer term impact on Boston Gas. He knew that we could assess long standing policies and practices and see what we could implement to make the entire operations more efficient and cost effective. 

Long story short, it worked. The management team was no longer isolated in their offices and got to see how their policies impacted the people in the field. They saw first hand the inefficiencies and could make the changes needed to be more productive. In essence, they got a reality check.

OK Rich, what does this have to do with swimming and hitting a plateau? Simply, everything.

We all hit plateaus. In athletics, It can happen in the middle of the season (more on that later), over the course of multiple seasons or sporadically over the course of a career. No one, let me repeat, no one, goes through the sport without hitting at least one. In fifty years on deck, as an athlete, coach and parent, I have never seen someone go from a novice swimmer to the end of their swimming career without hitting a soft patch. Here’s the difference between those who managed to overcome that reality and those who did not. Those who did used their plateau to mine for gold.

We talk alot about championship mindsets and behaviors. This might be the most important one. Mining for gold when the chips are down requires one to be brutally honest with themselves. Do you think the managers at Boston Gas wanted to say to some college kid who took a survey from them that they might have instituted policies and procedures that may not have been the best? Nope. Through some hard discussions and revealing team exercises throughout their time with my Father, they then came to a better understanding, took ownership and worked more on making the positive changes needed for themselves and the organization, rather than finding fault elsewhere.

When an athlete hits a plateau, my mind goes directly to “mine for gold”. 

Before I get too far into this, I consider a plateau occuring at the end of season meet where the swimmers times are way off the goal, barring illness or accident. Unfortunately, too many swimmers, parents and coaches want to see success in the middle of the season. There are so many reasons why mid season slumps happen. The most obvious one is the stage of the preparation from a physiological perspective. 

The other aspect of this is season ending expectations. Great teams expect to succeed when they taper. Average teams “hope” to succeed. The more we have swimmers in our system who have consistent success at the end of a season, season in and season out, hope will turn to expected.  Success breeds confidence and confidence enables even more success. We are getting here at Blue Wave, but it becomes more institutionalized over time. My experience is that the mindset is easier for younger swimmers to get than older ones.

Case in point.

When I first arrived in Florida in the eighties and took over a failing program, the older swimmers who were there at that time told me that they could never beat “Team A” (every area in the world has a “Team A”). I asked why. They responded that they had kids coming in from all over the country, they had elite facilities (which they didn’t) and it was simply, “out of the question”.  By now you should all know that I LOVE a good challenge.

It was a tough first couple of seasons for the seniors. They had to adapt to my training program, come to mornings, do dryland and internalize some attitudes that were not “comfortable”. I lost quite a few swimmers who just did not want to make the changes. Those that sayed, flourished. More importantly, the younger swimmers began to make an impact on Florida swimming and National Age Group Top 16 rankings. 

We did have seniors who stayed and eventually went faster than the “Team A” swimmers, but it was the swimmers who were 8 & Under and 9 - 10 athletes at the time who benefitted the most long term. You see, they constantly beat “Team A” at meets as youngsters. When they became seniors, they did not view “Team A” as invincible, they saw them as great competition. I see the same thing happening here at Blue Wave with our younger swimmers...and I LOVE it.

Back to mining for gold.

When you hit a plateau, be honest with yourself. Mine for gold. Have I come to every possible workout? Did I hold (or even know) my pace times for each set? Have I done mornings, if possible? Am I eating properly? Am I doing dryland as prescribed? Am I getting the right amount of sleep? Am I working on my mental prep? Our my goals in line with my effort? Most importantly, have you addressed the situation with your coaches so you can make a plan of action to get past this point? This is how you mine for gold when you hit a plateau. 

Reality is tough. And the truth is many of us will hit plateaus even when we do everything right. That’s when your commitment to yourself and your goals will really be tested. I will say it one more time for clarity, we all hit plateaus. After reading this, what will you do when you hit one? Hopefully, you will listen to my Dad and mine for gold. Your golden moments are indeed ahead of you if you are willing to live in line with your dreams.

See you at the pool - Rich