By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Every Monday I answer emails from swimmers around the country. If you have any questions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hi Mike! So I'm having a little trouble with my confidence. It's getting really close to championship season, and I'm really scared. Last March at sectionals, I did horrible and after that meet I went into a mini depression. I do not want that to happen to me again. I'm also having trouble with comparing myself to others. My swim friends are basically my second family, but I get jealous of them. I feel like I work just as hard as them, maybe even harder, but I'm the one that fails. This year, I really do not want to watch my goals go down the drain, so can you please help me? Thank you!
Swimmer with a lot of problems
Dear Swimmer With A Lot of Problems,
I know that feeling you get when you see someone who doesn’t train as hard as you win the race. You see them swim fast and drop time. Everyone in the stands goes crazy. You see them take the medal podium and smile. And the whole time you’re feeling jealous, envious, wondering, “How come it’s him? Why do they get to win, and I don’t?”
I used to feel that way. A teammate of mine Who Shall Not Be Named skipped a lot of practices and won a lot of races. He was the kind of swimmer who only worked hard on the last repeat of the last set. He never practiced mornings. And yet he won all the races. He’d drop so much time, people thought he was going to the Olympics. I was jealous.
I was so jealous of him that it affected my own racing. It got to the point where if I heard he swam fast, I’d actually get upset inside. This is not something you want to have happen, but it happens. We’re all human. We want to succeed, especially after we’ve spent years of our lives working towards one goal. One of us has to lose. We can’t all win. And it’s hard when the person who wins is your teammate who doesn’t train as hard as you.
Your problems with confidence at championship meets and worrying/comparing yourself to your teammates are related. You’ve probably heard from coaches that age-old mantra, “Don’t compare yourself to others” or “Only worry on what you can control.” These clichés never particularly worked for me, so here are some mental tricks that did:
1. Don’t think you’re going to break world records every time you swim. For some reason, whenever I approached a meet with fantasies of making the Olympics or smashing the field into a billion pieces, I always swam slower. I swam slower when I expected more out of myself. I have no idea why this is, nor do I think this is the “right” advice for impressionable age group swimmers, but I am simply being honest and this is what happened to me.
The more I expected out of my upcoming swims, the worse I did.
Maybe it was because when I fell behind in a race, or when I began to lose, or when there was much more pain than I thought there should be by the first 100, I began to mentally freak out. I analyzed my thoughts during these high-stakes races, and I realized that mid-race I’d have negative thoughts such as:
I’m not winning,
I should be winning,
This shouldn’t be hurting as much,
Oh no, my whole season is coming down to this and oops there it goes…
I also realized I swam much, much faster at meets where there was little or no pressure. Meets where I wasn’t expecting or demanding too much from myself, I ended up swimming my fastest. I swam lifetime bests at the meets the week after the big meet. And I couldn’t figure out why.
So, I began to actively transition my expectations. Instead of imagining myself setting meet and state records, I imagined myself in just another race, swimming hard, working on my own technique. The words “Powerful” and “Technique” kept coming back to my head. Instead of winning, I shifted my focus onto technique and power, no matter the result. Whenever I let myself fantasize about golden and record-breaking expectations, I just tempered that reality to, “Let’s just have a great, powerful, technical race.” In other words: I stopped imagining myself winning, and I stopped worrying about my times, and instead just focused on what my body was about to do, staying powerful and with good technique.
And I swam better because I didn’t place as much pressure on myself.
2. View teammates as an ally, not an enemy. Everyone, at some point, gets jealous of a teammate. It happens, just like it happens in life-after-swimming. But you have to let this go. This is hard to do. It took me a long time to learn how to view my teammates as partners-in-crime and comrades instead of enemies.
Flashback to that one guy I was jealous of: One of the biggest meets of my life, we ended up being seeded side-by-side. And, deep down, I knew he would win. He was faster. He raced better. In swimming, it doesn’t matter who trains harder than you or less hard than you. In competitive swimming, only the actual race matters, and this guy had what it took on race day. I knew I would lose.
So I made my expectations of myself more realistic: Instead of worrying what this other kid was about to do in this huge race, I thought, “If I could just stay with him, if I am at his hips by the first 100, I am having a great race.” In other words: I told myself that I was going to have a great race, even if I was losing.
During the race, that’s exactly what happened: He was way out in front, as expected, but I was close to his hips. And that got me fired up. I realized then that swimming alongside this teammate actually helped. I wasn’t mentally freaking out, even though I was losing. I knew how he would race. I knew he would have a great race. And by having that knowledge, it helped me. I hit the wall with a personal best and finished in 2nd place – the best race of my career, at that point.
We went 1-2, and I was proud of that.
There’s always going to be someone faster. But just because someone swims fast between two walls in a concrete pool doesn’t mean you should wish them to lose. If this were a scooter race – you know, those scooter races you’d do in elementary school where you lie stomach-down on a scooter and push yourself to the finish line -- would you be jealous? If this was a hopscotch race, would you be losing sleep at night and feeling anxious and wishing your best friend just jumped in that potato sack a little slower?
No. Of course not. You wouldn’t care.
You worry because you care about swimming. And that’s healthy. You should care. But at the same time, your teammates are your friends, and more importantly, your allies. Learn why they race fast. Ask them what they think about during races. They might have tricks that help them, that you could use. Some of the best swimmers in the world learn and steal from other swimmers – racing strategies, techniques, mental tips. You’re actually lucky to have these fast kids on your swim team because that means you have access to a plethora of knowledge. If you were on a team where you were the best, you’d never learn anything from competitors except on race day.
Root for your teammates. Learn from your teammates. Race alongside them in practice. Push them at meets. Because one day the tables will be flipped, and you’d want them cheering for you, too.
Your teammates are your allies. The better they do, the better you’ll do.