The Fun Theory


Whether age groupers or National Teamers, swimmers share a common bond and culture unique to the sport itself. Each week, correspondent Mike Gustafson will reflect on the different experiences that bind us together as aquatic athletes. This week, he writes about "The Fun Theory."


BY MIKE GUSTAFSON//Correspondent

There's an utterly fascinating video you need to watch immediately – right now, drop what you’re doing and watch it – called "The Fun Theory." It's on YouTube and it has nearly 14 million views. It's an experiment that takes place in what looks to be a busy subway exit. There is an escalator, and a set of stairs. And the experiment is this: What if stairs are made to be "more fun?” Would people decide to climb those stairs instead of using the escalator?

What the producers of this video do, is they turn the stairs into a large, interactive, musical piano – think the movie "Big" when Tom Hanks and Gene Hackman square off in the toy store to play "Chopsticks" – and then record pedestrian’s choices. Do they take the stairs? Or do they take the escalator? If you’re like me, 90% of the time, you’d choose the escalator. Except when you see that the stairs are covered in musical piano keys. Watch the video, the smiles on people’s faces as they pace up and down the stairs, having fun and getting some exercise.
But the bigger issue of "The Fun Theory" is this: Can humans be persuaded to do something they wouldn't normally do when you add a little fun? According to “The Fun Theory”, the answer is a resounding "Yes" as more than 65% of people choose the stairs who normally wouldn’t.
When I worked for "Imagine Swimming" - a swim school in New York City - we teachers had two main objectives each class: water safety, and having fun with the kids. The brilliant theory is, if you teach kids to have fun in the water – and more importantly, if you have fun and kids see you having fun – then they'll see water not as a cold, dark, dreary pool, but as a place for creation, of infinite possibility, wonder, and enjoyment.
Sounds a bit corny, but it works. Every five minutes at the end of each lesson was devoted entirely to “fun time” – water surfing, underwater torpedo hunting, extravagant hunts to find bricks at the bottom of the pool. Swim lessons, to me, are like watching baseball games. They shouldn’t really be fun, but with the right friends and environment, it can be the best time of your life.
Certainly, competitive swimming isn't all fun and games. Coaches need to push their swimmers, incorporate some "tough love" along the way, because without pushing your body and forcing yourself to do some difficult workouts, you'll never know your true potential as an athlete. But if you subscribe to the theory that swimming is MORE than winning or losing -- which I hope you do -- and if you're struggling during these dark, cold, January months to motivate yourself or your swimmers, try to have a little fun.
"The Never Ending Relay" is one of those tricky games that will get your swimmers sprinting while "seeming fun." Or "Half Hour of Power" -- a bunch of 25s or 50s butterfly on the minute, sprinting. Or water polo, sharks and minnows, streamline competitions. It's very easy to lose focus of what's important: happy swimmers are faster swimmers. How many times has a superstar swimmer (think: Jessica Hardy, Ryan Lochte) said, "I'm swimming faster because I'm having fun."
No one has ever said, “I’m swimming faster because I don’t have any fun swimming.”
I remember my own days in college: before practice we'd either play ultimate frisbee outside, or play old-school four-square inside. Or during training trips, we'd have competitions to see who could spin a hoola-hoop the longest on the surface of the water, the losers would have to clean up the pool deck. And as I sit here and contemplate my own swimming career, I hardly remember the tough sets, the victories, the losses. What I remember most are those unexpected moments during the journey, the surprises -- the times when our coaches turned the stairs into a large, interactive piano, and instead of taking the escalator, we chose the stairs.