Mike's Mailbag: When Your Coach Says You Can't


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 or ask me on Twitter at @MikeLGustafson. 


Hi Mike, 

Recently my first high school season ended and it wasn't a very memorable one. My coach made me feel worthless and never good enough. I would come home crying every day after practice. Then it started showing at meets I would not drop time because I psyched myself out before each race. I would tell myself I'm not good enough, I will mess this race up etc. Now club swimming is starting back up and I'm struggling with these feelings of self worth. When I swim I just hear my high school coach saying I'm not good enough in my head. I can't even complete a set without giving up on it. I used to be very confident in how I swim, now I'm embarrassed and the worst one on the team. I want to switch schools to be with a coach that pushes me in a positive way. I've read all your other stories hoping one single person might feel the same way I do right now. Could you give me some advice on how to be more confident in myself and not let others influence how I do. I need your help please. 

Lost swimmer

Hey Lost Swimmer,

The hardest thing to learn, when you grow up, is that people will tell you, “You can’t.”

You can’t get good grades. 

You can’t get into this school. 

You can’t get this job. 

You can’t make this career work. 

You can’t make your dreams come true.

Sometimes they will explicitly tell you this. Sometimes, you’ll turn to someone and say, “I’m going to be a screenwriter,” and they’ll say, “You can’t do that!” 

Other times they will say this indirectly. You’ll say, “I want to make the Olympic Trials!” and they’ll roll their eyes, or snicker, or talk about you behind your back, or write about you anonymously on some website, or just generally be unsupportive. These are still ways of saying, “You can’t.” Just because they don’t say it directly doesn’t mean they aren’t saying it. 

It stinks that your coach is one of these people. Generally, in my experience, there are many positively influencing, caring coaches in this sport. There are also a few bad apples. You’re right to consider a coaching change. Switching schools is a big deal, though. If you do, think about it carefully. Talk to your parents about it, and set up a meeting with your current coach. Since this was your first year on the team, it’s possible your coach is just using the wrong communication method to try to motivate you. Talk to your parents. Tell them what’s going on. Have a meeting with the coach to discuss what’s happening. Chances are, unless he or she is truly a cold-hearted person, he or she wants you to succeed. 

Whatever you decide to do regarding coaching is up to you. But I just want to talk to you about exactly what you wrote above – how to ignore the naysayers, and not let them influence your performance.

When you step on those blocks, it’s just you. It’s not your parents, not your siblings, not your teammates, not your coach. It’s you. When you step on those blocks, look out at what is in front of you. It’s just water. That’s the only thing that is stopping you. Only water. No one is hiding at the end of your lane to pull you down. No one is pushing or pulling against you. On those blocks, the only thing in front of you is an empty lane of water.

Of course, on those blocks are when those voices come. “You can’t swim fast.” “You can’t win.” “You can’t drop time.” The voices in your head become an obstacle. How can you get rid of these voices? How can you ignore these naysayers? Even when one of these naysayers is a coach? 

You have to become your own fan. You have to become your own cheer section. You have to become your own coach. You have to become your own cheerleader, and realize that the only physical thing stopping you from succeeding is not another person, but water. Right now, you’re putting too much investment into the opinions of others. So when someone tells you, “you can’t,” you’re allowing them to influence your thoughts. 

Don’t do this. Don’t let them influence you. 

Instead, talk positively to yourself. It sounds crazy, but it works. Tell yourself every single day, “I can drop time.” Tell yourself every single day, “I am a beautiful person and I can do whatever I set my mind to.” Clichés ring true. Be your own cheering section. When you’re cheering for yourself as loud as you can in your head, you’ll drown out all those other negative thoughts from others.

There’s this lesson in the book Zen In The Martial Arts that explains whenever you feel yourself in conflict with another person, draw a three-foot circle around you. As long as this opponent does not step into your circle, you have no reason to fear him. Your three-foot circle is your sanctuary, and as long as you own it, you have nothing to fear, either. 

Imagine yourself at practice with this three-foot circle around you. Your own personal space of positively. If you continue swimming with this high school, just don’t let those negative comments get to you. Your coach is not actually physically assaulting you. So talk positively to yourself, and let your positive comments override his negative ones. 

You can even throw it back in his face, if you want. When he says, “You can’t do something,” just tell him back, loud and proud, “Oh yes I can!” Be your own cheerleader.

The thing is, your thoughts dictate your actions. When you think negatively, your actions will turn negative. You’re going to have people throughout your life tell you that you can’t do something. Your coach is just the first of many. This is a lesson to learn: Believe in yourself, even when no one else will. 

Whatever you take on in this life, just imagine it to be like swimming: You step on those blocks and you only see water. You’re the only person stopping yourself. You can be anything you want to be. You can go anywhere you want to go. All you have to do is believe, and be your own cheerleader, and live inside your own three-foot sanctuary of positivity, and keep chasing your dreams…

…even if other people can’t see them.