Mike's Mailbag: Complainers in Practice


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Every Monday, I answer swimmers’ questions emailed me from around the country. If you have any questions or are looking for some advice, please email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com. As always, take this advice with a grain of salt.

Hey Mr. Gustafson.

On my high school team, there are these girls who always complain about how hard the practice is, then they proceed to sit out half the time. They then go tweet or somehow get it out to the world that they're tired from a hard practice. It bothers me and some of my friends a lot because we see how much effort they put in compared to others who work twice as hard as them. They make it out as if they are the best swimmers on the team (they're not). I always try to avoid it but it seems to pop up everywhere I go. How can I deal with this?

-annoyed swimmer

Hello Annoyed Swimmer,

I hear you. Nothing kills good vibes in practice like Constant Complainers. They ruin good practices. They ruin attitudes. They ruin the fun.

“Ugh, I hate swimming!”

“This set is too hard!”

“The pool is freezing! Turn up the heat!”

Comments like these are toxic. Once someone spills these complaints into the water, they infect the entire pool. So what do you do? How do you handle teammates who constantly complain during practice? Do you yell at them, furthering the negativity? Do you brush them aside and just try to endure throughout practice? Do you tell them to shut up?

Unfortunately, this is part of life – not just in swim practice, but everywhere. You’ll get complainers in every atmosphere, every workplace, every classroom, every household, every practice. We all complain once in a while. But it’s different when someone is Constantly Complaining.

Here’s the thing: I’ve learned that the people who complain the most are also, usually, the same people who are just unhappy for different reasons. I’ve fallen into traps of Constant Complaining. Usually, when I’m stomping around at work or frowning or complaining about every single little thing that happens around me, someone will ask, “Mike, seriously – what’s really going on?” Most the time, I’m just hungry. Other times, I’m realizing that I’m projecting my negativity out into the world because of a bad day, or a cold, or a sick grandparent. Something else is going on, and I’m just trying to get my anger out through other ways – complaining about the weather, or about how tired I am, or how everything is no-good-and-terrible.

There are all sorts of reasons people complain. Sometimes this has to do with the swim practice itself. Other times, it has to do with other reasons: a bad grade, a stressful home environment, a fight with a friend, parents, something serious going on with illness or cancer, etc.. I’m not defending Constant Complainers; I’m just saying that you never know what’s going on in someone’s life. Before you get too hostile towards someone who is dropping some complaint bombs, just realize they really could be having an absolute terrible month, and this is how they are coping with it.

Does that excuse them? No. Swim practice should be the one venue in life that’s an atmosphere of positivity. So what do you do about it?

You need to worry about what you can control, which is your own attitude. You can’t keep this person from Tweeting about how hard the practice was even though they sat out for half of it. How does this Tweeting affect you? I know you might be annoyed by it, but she’s not stopping you from swimming faster. I also know that you’re annoyed she’s telling the world how hard practice was, but why do you care? You work harder than she does, so you’re going to drop more time at the end of the season. You are getting more out of practice than she is. She’s not stopping you from working hard. She’s not stopping you from having a good attitude. She’s not stopping you from countering her complaints with positive vocal messages like, “Let’s keep up the great work, girls!” She’s not stopping you from smiling. I know it may seem that way. I know constant complaints are grating and irritating, but words are just words. She’s not holding her hand over your mouth and forcing you to go along with her complaints.

The unfortunate thing about life is you’ll run into all sorts of Constant Complainers. They’re everywhere. They’re even living inside us, sometimes.

The good news? Constant Complainers are not stopping you from being Perpetual Positivity Providers. (I know that sounds corny, but go with me here.) This girl may Tweet about how hard practice is, she may sit out half of practice, she may not even realize that she complains so much, but you know something? She’s not going to get better from it. She’s not improving. She’s not getting better.

Let it go. Don’t let her corrosive comments eat you from the inside. If it really bothers you to the point where you’re not able to be a Perpetual Positivity Provider, talk to her about it – privately. (Compliment in public, criticize in private.) Talk to your coach about it – again, privately. But don’t let her toxicity infect you or the team. She may not even realize that she complains all the time. Sometimes, people just don’t realize it.

There’s a Zen lesson in the martial arts that the best way to defeat an opponent is not with opposite brute force. You don’t want to stop a charging bull by being a brick wall, or punching the bull back in the face. You’d hurt yourself. You’d lose. It’s like trying to stop a train by building a brick wall. Instead, a lesson in the martial arts is that to defeat an opponent, you gently guide that opponent to where you want him to go. Use the bull’s energy and redirect him. Like water, you work with him, using his energy and redirecting it towards somewhere else. If you complain about this person, or yell back at them, guess what? You’re complaining, too.

Smile. Laugh. Encourage. Just like negativity, positivity can be a virus. Infect people with some messages of encouragement, and soon, maybe, this Constant Complainer might be infected with a few smiles, too.

You control your own attitude. Always remember that.

Hope this helps.