Finding Zen in Swimming


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

When I was a college swimmer, one of the hardest lessons to learn was not to fight the water.

I often fought the water. Before races, I got so excited that, by the time I dove in, I spun my arms, splashed my fists, and over-swam my races. My coaches always said, “You have to learn how to move with the water.”

Swimming is like dancing: When you fight the water, it will fight you. Coaches talk about “effortless effort”: That doesn’t mean “don’t try,” but you shouldn’t get so hyped up that your stroke falls apart, either.

That’s one of the less-talked about things in the swimming world. There’s great emphasis on holding strokes together when you’re really, really, really tired, but there’s less talk about holding your stroke together when you’re really, really, really excited.

Finding Zen in swimming can help calm nerves, make you appreciate the water and your surroundings, and provide some detached perspective. Putting yourself in a Zen-like state-of-mind takes practice. Here are just a few ways how to find Zen in everyday swimming:

Listen to the water.

Sometimes during practice, my coach noticed our anxiety, our stress resulting from hours of homework, and/or general everyday distraction. Some days we didn’t have that “connection” to practice, our bodies, or the water. Especially during taper, when stress was high. He told us to take a few moments, swim underwater during warm-ups or cool-downs, and listen. Listen to the water. Take a deep breath, float down, close your eyes, and listen for twenty or thirty seconds. Come up. Grab some air. Then do it again.

I was always astounded how much this simple process helped relieve stress and anxiety. During taper, I spent a few minutes each practice listening. It always calmed me.

Arrive to practice early, find a quiet place, and just breathe.

Many coaches tout visualization as a key for fast swimming, but just finding time to breathe before practice can help, too. You know the common drill: You’re running out of class, flying into the locker room, quickly throwing on suit and goggles, and jumping in the water just in time for warm-ups. Throughout warm-ups, though, your mind is still racing, thinking about tests, friends, outside-the-pool things…

Finding time before practice to sit and breathe is a great way to focus your mind. Arrive five or ten minutes early, find a quiet area of the pool deck, sit, and take slow, deliberate breaths. Think about your breathing. You’ll notice worries melt away, and your mind will slowly focus, become calm, alert, and more in the present.


I get many emails from swimmers asking how they can re-discover the joy for swimming they lost. Which is sad, but understandable. Swimming is tough, especially when the weather is cold, there are other obligations, and you’re tired and fatigued.

One thing I email them back is, “Try to remember why you fell in love with swimming. Not just competitive swimming, but being in the water. That feeling you got as a kid when you loved to swim in the pool, be in the water, and just play.”

Certainly competitive swimming is more serious than “play”, but taking a few minutes before or after practice to float and enjoy the water can re-connect you with that original joy for the water. Being in the moment and feeling your body move with the water, sitting atop the water, connecting with the water can be, for some people, as important as spinning your arms fast or, hypoxic breathing sets. You hear that common cliché all the time – “She has a great feel for the water.” Floating for a minute or two will help you remember that the water is another element. It might sound corny or a bit nutty, but then again, so is shaving one’s entire body to gain a better “feel for the water.” Swimming is all about feel. You need to feel the water to move with the water.

Before a race, look around.

My first high school state meet, I was a nervous wreck. I was either constantly going to the bathroom or feeling like I was about to vomit. I didn’t eat breakfast. My hands shook when I put on my goggles. I sat behind the starting blocks for twenty minutes because I didn’t want to miss my race. I’m sure I looked like a small, scared mouse about to be devoured.

A coach walked over to me and, I’m sure, saw my nerves. He was a diving coach. And he just sat next to me and said, “Look around, Mike. Take all this in. This is what you’ve earned. Enjoy this moment. Remember this moment. And before you dive in, look around and take this all in. What you’ve accomplished just by being here is a great, great thing, and you’ll remember this for the rest of your life.”

We often fall into a never-ending cycle of wanting more. We swim a best time, we want another. We win a race, we want to win again. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to competitive sports, but at the same time, we often don’t stop to truly appreciate what we’ve done – to appreciate the journey of the swimming season.

When you get to your championship meet, look around. Look at the other swimmers, the pool, the people in the stands. Appreciate the moment and what it took to get there. Then become part of that moment. Embrace it. Surviving the swim season is an accomplishment, and arriving to the championship meet, or the last meet of the season, is a celebration.

Look around. Embrace the moment.

Like water in your hand, it disappears quickly. The best thing to do is to look around, breathe, and enjoy it.

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