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Mike's Mailbag: Being Scared of Swimming

4/28/2014

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Every Monday I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have a question, please email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com.

Mike,

First, I just want to tell you how much I enjoy reading all of your articles. Reading them provides solace and makes swimming fun even when it's hard. They remind me why I love this sport so much.

I've been having a lot of trouble with my mindset lately. Yes, the season just began and I can't expect to be where I was last season right away, but thinking about how this season is going to pan out makes me anxious. I couldn't have imagined my short course season to be any better, but with all my improvement, I feel pressure to succeed in long course, not from my coaches, but from myself. I have set high, yet attainable, goals that, whenever I think of them, make my mind beat itself up. The thought of achieving those goals makes me even happier than eating a large steak dinner after a hard practice, but the thought of failing? It tears my mind apart. Yes, there is a possibility I can achieve those goals, but there is an equal opportunity I will fail. It drives me to tears and it gives me anxiety attacks.

These negative thoughts that drive me into emotional pain make me think one thing: If I love swimming so much, why does it cause my mind to fight against me? Is it worth it?

Thanks,
Anxious

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Dear Anxious,

Thank you for your note and kind words. I understand your anxiety when it comes to goals. I experienced anxiety staring at goal times, wondering if I had what it took to achieve them. Or when approaching big, championship swim meets, I always felt anxious that I couldn’t achieve my goals.

But I am particularly interested in your last question: “If I love swimming so much, why does it cause my mind to fight against me? Is it worth it?”

This past weekend, I attended the funeral of my grandfather. He was 91-years-old. He lived a good, full life as a Detroit firefighter, an instructor in the Navy, a tool and die maker, and a great Family Man. He loved to laugh, he loved stories, and he had a wonderful artistic skill – things he passed down to his children. Life was not always easy for him. He served as a firefighter during the Detroit riots. He was shot at. He saw more fires than he could put out. He had a hard life and worked multiple jobs to provide for his kids. He never complained.

I know this is random, but I bring this up because I want to tell you: Don’t be scared of experiencing hurt when in pursuit of something you love. Chasing something you love means that sometimes, you’ll experience hurt, too. Don’t stop chasing goals because you’re scared you might not achieve them. Don’t stop following dreams because you’re scared they may not come true. Don’t back away from starting blocks because you think you’re going to lose.

Life is a journey. Don’t be scared of it.

You’re in the beginning of your swim journey. Most veteran swimmers, towards the end of their journey, experience both highs and lows. They experience highs of achieving goals. They also experience lows: Missing a cut. Finishing last. Injuries. Set backs. Coaching changes. Plateaus. Anxiety. Fear.

Back to your question -- that swimming causes anxiety -- you must realize things you love can also cause hurt. Just as when you lose someone. When I lost my grandfather, I experienced hurt. That didn’t stop us loving him, even after we knew we’d lose him.

When it comes to swimming, it’s okay to be scared sometimes. It’s okay to be scared that you’ll miss a goal or lose a race. But life is short. And it’s too short to let this fear control you. Once you realize swimming is not a burden of anxiety, once you realize swimming is a luxury, once you realize to race is an activity a fraction of kids in this world ever get to experience, you’ll wonder:

What am I so scared of?

Anxious, I know you’re scared of failure because you care so much about swimming and about doing well. The thoughts of winning are exhilarating; the thoughts of failure are depressing and anxiety-producing.

Either way, life goes on.

Either way -- win, lose, or draw -- you’ll go home, you’ll go back to practice, you’ll go back to school, and you’ll try to get better. If you win, you’ll go back to practice. If you lose, you’ll go back to practice. No matter how you finish, the sun will rise and set and rise, days will continue, and you’ll keep on churning and pushing yourself to get better.

You question how something you love can hurt you. But being hurt by something you love doesn’t mean you can’t also love it. Whether that means experiencing hurt because you miss goals, or experiencing hurt because someone you love leaves you, “hurt” doesn’t mean an activity is necessarily bad, or a person you loved wanted to cause you harm. And just because it hurts doesn’t necessarily mean it was ever out to hurt you.

It means you should be appreciative of this quick, fleeting journey, be thankful that you can step to those blocks and have an opportunity to achieve goals, and the opportunity to wake up the next morning and chase more goals. It’s like that old saying: “It’s better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.”

I believe that. I do. It sucks to hurt, but hurt, when you think about it, actually means that you have cared about something, and you experienced passion, and you loved something. You love swimming. And, occasionally on this swim journey, you will feel some hurt, some anxiety, some fear. You will miss a goal, or not understand why you lost the race, or be injured and not understand why this is happening to you.

Race anyway, compete anyway, step up to the blocks anyway, and love anyway. Let go of your fear, because you will fail, you will lose, and you will be hurt at some point of this journey. This is part of any journey in life -- whether that’s swimming, meeting people, school, work, or relationships. You will experience hurt, but you will also experience love, success, achieving goals, and personal contentment. The next time you feel anxiety, tell yourself it’s normal, tell yourself that the sun will rise no matter how you finish, and you’re strangely kind of thankful for this feeling of anxiety. It means you care.

Then, just keep swimming.