Mike's Mailbag: Comparing Yourself to Teammates


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Every Monday I answer emails from swimmers around the country. If you have questions, please email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com. Please, as always, take my advice with a grain of salt.

Hey Mr. Gustafson,

In my high school team, there are a bunch of guys (about 7-10) who think they are better than everyone else. They drop time at every meet, yet they never try in practice. It is really confusing how that is possible. The coach just loves them also. He gave them awards and everything, and yes they do complain also. That doesn't bother me though. I am used to it. But explain how they manage to drop time by skipping sets and occasional warm-down. Will they eventually lose that success? In a way I hope so, because they don't deserve it, as they aren't putting in the effort like the rest of the team is.

Thanks for your help,
Confused Swimmer

Hey Confused Swimmer,

The one line in your email that caught my attention that I’ll address, was, “Will they eventually lose that success?”

Let’s take the word “success.” Success, to you, right now, is defined by dropping time. That’s the same way it was when I was your age. I saw teammates I battled in practice, who sometimes did not work very hard, who skipped warm downs, who complained, who skipped morning practice, who didn’t try hard… and they dropped time. Sometimes, they became the best swimmers around, and it drove me nuts.

Wasn’t I working harder? In swimming, don’t the people who work the hardest drop the most time?

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. There will always be swimmers who won’t work as hard as you do, but in meets, they’ll swim faster. Just like in life: There will always be someone who doesn’t put in the same amount of hours that you do, or try the hardest on a particular project, who will end up getting a raise, or a promotion, or a fancy new job. This stuff happens all the time. It won’t end with swimming. There will always be people who you think don’t deserve “success” and end up getting success.

In a way, though, that’s kind of fitting, isn’t it? That you believe they do not deserve success, and then they achieve success? It’s sort of like karma for wishing against them, don’t you think? A test, or a lesson?

The funny thing is, in swimming, when I stopped caring about what other people did, and only focused on my own practices, my own races, my own efforts, my own attitude; this is when I began dropping time. It happened when I stopped worrying about if other people were working as hard as I was. When I stopped watching others’ work ethics and if they were skipping practices, and only worried about myself.

I firmly believe the minute you begin rooting against someone, that “someone” will end up becoming a great “success.” It’s a bitter irony that you have to get over, because rooting against someone will only build bad feelings, which will end up affecting your own performances. When you let go of bad feelings, you’ll only have a blank slate to build your own positive attitude.

The other word that was interesting in your one particular line was “eventually.” Because the answer is, I believe, yes: Many will eventually lose that success.

Let’s go back to my anecdote from earlier: I had teammates who dropped tons of time even though they didn’t work very hard. You know what eventually happened, much later in life?

They stopped dropping time.

It wasn’t around age 15, or age 16, or even age 20. It was right around age 22, at the peak of many collegiate swimmers’ careers, that these people stopped dropping time. They could no longer coast on talent and swim personal best times and win races. And the people who worked harder, eventually, caught and beat them.

This isn’t always the case, of course. There are some uber-talented elite swimmers who will always beat you. Just like in life, there will always be some uber-talented business person who will get the better job and the higher pay.

But that’s not really the point, and rooting against them because you know you’ll one day beat them will only add to your anger. The point is this: If you always define yourself in terms of what someone else is doing, then you’ll always be unhappy, Confused Swimmer. Because in the end, all you’ve been doing is paying attention to the careers of other people instead of your own. It’s like staring at pictures of smiling people on Facebook all day. Whenever I did that, at some point, after an hour or two of just sitting at my desk and realizing I’ve been doing nothing but staring at smiling pictures all day, I realized that I wasn’t living my own life.

I believe the minute you begin to secretly, deep down (and we all do this at some point) resent or root against someone for their success, that’s the minute they launch forward, win the race, get the promotion, build the better house, and drive away in the fast car.

Which is why you just can’t define your own success in terms of other people. You’ll always be unhappy, because there will always be people who achieve success in methods you don’t understand or ways in which you don’t believe. Believe it or not – while you might think they don’t work hard enough, they might think you work too hard. So focus on yourself, and on your own swimming, and on your own attitude, and you’ll have nothing but positive feelings to build upon.

Attitude is like nutrition: When you consume bad stuff, you’ll only feel worse.

Hope this helps.

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