Mike's Mailbag: Swimming Through Senioritis


BJan-Feb 2010 Your Photo entry -- Masters Swimmery Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Sometimes I get emailed questions from swimmers around the country. While I am not a doctor or a swim coach, I have swum competitively in college, coached swimming to a multitude of ages, taught lessons, and been in the media and on the “dry side” now for many years. If you have any questions or stories about swimming, feel free to send me thoughts, questions, or story ideas to swimmingstories@gmail.com.  

So now that I'm done with high school swimming, I've found it hard to set goals for the summer season and college next fall. Any tips on how to keep the sport fun and exciting if you can't seem to set goals? And what are good/fun goals that I could set to keep swimming fun, but light?

— Collegiate-To-Be.

Dear Collegiate-To-Be:

This is a great question. It's not just you: Many swimmers have trouble during that senior year to college freshmen year transition over the summer.

The end of high school is the end of a huge chapter in your life. When it's done, it's tough to get back on the blocks and set new goals. You just closed out an age group/high school career. It’s natural to want to take a breather (pun intended). Swimming, as I'm sure you know, has no off-season. It’s 50 weeks a year of go-go-go, and two weeks where you can quite literally rest and breathe. So when you're celebrating the end of high school and getting ready for a new chapter, you still have this continuation of swimming. It can be very difficult to get excited for it. It can be emotionally exhausting.

But that doesn't mean this summer has to be completely wasted, either. If you have problems with goal-setting, I suggest eliminating "times" from those goals. Instead, pick a different kind of a goal. Since you’re about to head into the college season in just a few weeks or a month from now, try this: Pick the weak aspect of your swimming to concentrate on, and tell yourself that you will fix it by this fall. Don't worry about places or times, because you will have plenty of months ahead to worry about that. Instead, use this month’s relative freedom (ie: You already know you’re joining a new team in the fall) and pick your weakest part of your swimming to focus on. Make that improvement be your end-all goal this summer.

Let me explain:

The best summer season I ever had in my life was the summer before my senior year in college. I was really exhausted from the NCAA season and just couldn’t get up and motivated for another long course season of meets and worrying about times. So, I didn't attend any “taper” swim meets. My coach even gave me every fifth practice off, just to keep me refreshed, sleeping regularly and invested in the sport. The weakest part of my own swimming was that last 100 of my 400 IM. I was not a freestyler, so every time I got to that last 100, I flat-out died. I knew I needed to fix it, but throughout the swim season, I was always training 400 IMs or breaststroke, so I never had time to work on it. That summer, my coach said, "Next March at the Big Ten Championships, your last 100 of the 400 IM will be the strongest part of your race." I didn't believe him, but we set aside the entire summer to work on only that part of my race.

And so we did. It wasn't just distance freestyle swimming. We totally broke my freestyle down, tore it apart and re-built it. I was a breaststroker, and I had never before worked on another stroke so intensely as that summer. He tied a rope around my waist and monitored my pull. We used stretch chords. We did very slow technique drills. And we did a lot of very high quality (re: HARD) distance freestyle sets.

For some reason, shifting focus from concentrating on shave and taper meets to working on ONE ASPECT (the weakest part of my swimming) really got me fired up. It kept me motivated on the championship season, even though that championship season was months and months away. Focusing on the weakest aspect of my swimming also kept me refreshed, because it was something totally different and something I had never really worked on before. I knew he was right: The last 100 of my 400 IM was always the weakest.

Wouldn't you know it? Eight months later, it was one of my strongest parts of my 400 IM.

So my strategy would be this: The summer between high school and college swimming is tough, especially emotionally. You may not even realize it, but it’s exhausting to say goodbye to childhood friends, to close this huge chapter, and prepare for an exciting, completely new chapter in your life. You're graduating, you're transitioning, but you also need to stay in shape for college swimming. (Trust me: You don’t want to go into that first week of college carrying 20 extra pounds on you.) If you’re having trouble staying motivated, don’t force it. Worry less about your times, and instead, use these final few weeks or this last month of summer to focus on something you'd never really done before. If you're a breaststroker, focus on distance free. If you have terrible starts, train some running, jumping and work on a trampoline. Do dryland exercises that isolate the weakest aspect of your swimming. Then continue to work on the weakest part of your swimming. Tell yourself, "I will eliminate this as the weakest part of my swimming, and I will turn it into the strongest part of my swimming."

For some reason, at least for me, having that mentality worked. I wasn't worried about times. I wasn't worried about swimming fast. We spent weeks and just de-constructed my freestyle, which seemed like a break in itself (since it was a lot of technique work.) Be prepared to put in the work, but these last few weeks of summer, do things that you normally wouldn't get to do. You’ll enter your next season more confident and refreshed.

(That doesn't necessarily mean that if you are just a flat out terrible breaststroker to work only on breaststroke. What I mean is: If you are a 200 butterflier who dies at the end of races, tell yourself that your only goal is to learn how to come back faster. Turn that last 50 into the strongest part of your race.)

When it's such a simple goal like that, and when you don't have the pressures of fast swimming or setting specific goal times during this emotionally exhaustive transition period, you'll stay refreshed, prepared, and emotionally ready for the long collegiate season ahead.

Hope this helps.

— Mike