Finding Balance


By Mike Gustfson//Correspondent

A while back, I received an email from a Twitter follower. I asked him if it was OK that I reproduce this question and answer, since I believed it would help other swimmers in similar situations, too. If you have any questions, though I’m no doctor or Olympian, feel free to ask me on Twitter @ MikeLGustafson or email me

Dear Mike: 

I haven’t dropped time in the last four seasons. My practice times are better, but when I get to the meet, my times stay the same or get worse with each swim. I always have a blast when I go to swim meets, but lately, I haven’t been enjoying the sport as much because I’m not dropping any time. What is most frustrating is that someone who doesn’t work as hard as me will drop time, and I won’t. What should I do? Should I be worried? I’ve been thinking about quitting altogether.

-Stressed in St. Louis

Dear Stressed,

Sometimes I wish there was a machine or magic device that could measure the percentage of effort swimmers give during practice, and Olympic gold medals were given to those swimmers who had the highest overall consistent effort. Unfortunately, swimming measures itself by race times. It’s why our sport is great, and it’s also why our sport can rip your hair out. Not dropping time can be very frustrating, especially if you’re swimming faster in practice but not in meets.

I was like you. In high school, my best event was the 100 yard breaststroke. My freshman year, I had a few solid times. I was elated. I began to plot out my trajectory. I spent most of my free time projecting that if I swam X time this season, then X time next season, then X time my senior year, I would be the greatest swimmer in the history of the world. I increased my workload. I practiced harder. I lifted weights. I ran. I started to swim doubles. Every chance I had, I swam breaststroke in practice.

I didn’t drop time again for three years.

The sport of swimming reminds me of the old Zen riddle, “If you seek it, you cannot find it.” Sometimes, if you actively try and concentrate to drop time in one event, and do everything right, and go to sleep on time, and diet, and mentally focus, and work harder than you’ve ever worked before, you still won’t drop time. It’s one of those curses in the sport of swimming.

I’m no Olympic gold medalist. My best accomplishment was scoring points at the Big Ten Championships. But what I’ve learned over the years is that swimming is about balance: As soon as you begin to obsess about a certain event or certain time, that’s exactly the point in your career when you stop dropping time.

First, find some balance in practice. If you’ve been swimming and training exclusively for one event, round out your training program a bit. Do some outside-the-box training techniques. Flip some tires. Box. Play some basketball. Or simply try out a few other swimming events. Take a step back from the event that you consider your best, and put it on the backburner. Return to it in a few weeks, or even months.

Also, try to find balance outside athletics. Some swimmers (like me) obsess over every split time in practice or meets. They compare times to last season. They analyze strokes and spend every minute thinking about their next race. So of course, by the time these swimmers get to their next race, they’re mentally burned out -- even if they don’t realize it.

Find a hobby. Do something you would never normally do. Buy a drum set. Take boxing classes. Enter a triathlon. Buy a book about drawing. Rap. Kayak. Learn how to sing. Some of the best swimmers in the world also have very balanced social lives, training lives, and professional lives. They compartmentalize their swimming into just one aspect of their lives, so they never feel that slight edge of discomfort or stress when they arrive on race day.

Balance is, in my opinion, the key to fast swimming. If you haven’t dropped time in years, even if you’re having the best time of your life in practice, the sport just stops being as much fun. Concentrate on the journey instead of the destination, take a step back, and try to find some balance in your life. Call up some friends you haven’t seen – non-swimming friends – and go see a movie. Join a folk band. Take a long road trip.

If you seek fast swimming, sometimes, you cannot find it. It’s one of those curses of the sport. It doesn’t seem fair that those swimmers who seem not to care as much about swimming in practice can jump into a race and drop time. But if there is something to be learned from these types of “meet swimmers” it’s this: They usually have smiles on their faces. They don’t fret if they don’t swim fast. And they appreciate the sport for what it should be: A fun activity and part of a well-balanced lifestyle.

Fast swimming is like the food pyramid. Practice is the base; it’s your go-to food group. But you also need other things to round out that pyramid, like art, music, friends, social lives, education, and family. Neglect one of these groups, and just like in nutrition, the whole pyramid suffers.

My advice? Take guitar lessons. Ride a bike with a family member. Get outside the pool a bit. There’s nothing wrong with that. Do something totally unlike you. Take a step back and find some balance. And be patient. Time drops, for some reason, come when you least expect them.

And maybe that’s the secret.

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