Mike's Mailbag: The Fear of Failure


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Sometimes I get emails from swimmers asking for advice. I’m not a doctor or currently a swim coach, so please take this advice with a grain of salt, but I’ve been around the sport my entire life as an NCAA swimmer, coach, swim instructor, and writer. If you have any questions, please feel free to send me an email at swimmingstories@gmail.com.

Dear Mike:

I've been swimming my whole life and competitively since age 8. I was not very good, but I worked very hard every day. Now I'm 13 and I'm happy if I can reach top 6 for my LSC. This past year has been sort of crazy. Last summer, I made Eastern Zones in the 100 and 200m butterfly. Due to financial issues I was not able to go :(. I decided to put 110% into every practice throughout this past short course season so I could go this summer.

However, I hurt my shoulder and couldn't even do an average 6000-yard practice until mid December. I kept pushing on, but a lot of my teammates had gone to a big team that relocated 20 minutes away. I raced the clock every day, but a few months ago I decided that the best thing for me would be to go with my former teammates. Practices were usually 10,000 yards (give or take a little) with dryland after. I was barely able to walk, raise my hand in class, and go back to practice the next day because I was so sore. But, after one month of hard work and determination, I went 2 best times in practice and felt so much stronger in the water. It was a huge change and I'm glad I did it. But now Eastern Zones has a new rule, and I need 3 cuts to go.

I'm freaking out because Zones is the only thing in the world I want to do. Zones is the only thing I think about during practice. I try so hard, and always give my best effort. I'm not sure my coach always sees that because I still struggle sometimes during the practices since I'm still not used to the heavy yardage. That doesn't stop me from giving it my all. I am trying to listen to my coaches, teammates, friends, and even you! Of course, I still believe in myself and work really hard, but I don't know how to handle all of this pressure that I'm putting on myself! I keep obsessing over numbers, splits, and times of me and other people to see where I should be. I'm comparing myself to other swimmers around my speed. I want this so bad but I just don't know anymore. To be honest, I don't know if I've ever been so scared. Swimming is my life and I love it so much. Working hard at practice and going to meets is so much fun for me. Zones is all I have been thinking about for a year and a half, and if I don't make it this year I'll never go. I'm sorry this was so long, but even though I have never met you I know that you are probably one of the best people to get advice from when it comes to swimming.

A Scared Swimmer

Dear Scared Swimmer:

Thank you for your note. I understand what you are feeling because I was just like you. When I was younger, I obsessed over split times, and goals, and placements. I projected out my times, and when I didn’t reach those goals, I was crushed. Swimming was all I thought about. It took up all my thoughts, my dreams, everything…

Sometimes, this can be good. Other times, it isn’t.

Let me share with you an anecdote I found in this book called Zen In The Martial Arts. It’s a great book dealing with finding peace and Zen in everyday life, and it’s helped a lot of other swimmers I know, too:

A young boy traveled across Japan to the school of a famous martial artist. When he arrived at the dojo, he was given an audience by the Sensei.

"What do you wish from me?" the master asked.

"I wish to be your student and become the finest kareteka in the land," the boy replied.

"How long must I study?"

"Ten years at least," the master answered.

"Ten years is a long time," said the boy. "What if I studied twice as hard as all your other students?"

"Twenty years," replied the master.

"Twenty years! What if I practice day and night with all my effort?"

"Thirty years," was the master's reply.

"How is it that each time I say I will work harder, you tell me that it will take longer?" the boy asked.

"The answer is clear. When one eye is fixed upon your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the Way."

Sometimes, we get so fixated on goal times and far away swim championships that we forget to be in the present. This doesn’t just happen with age group swimmers. It can happen with collegiate and professional swimmers, too. And when we’re focusing on a far-away destination, what we’re really doing is not putting all our efforts and focus on the journey itself. When we have one eye looking down the road, we only have one eye focused on the practice at hand.

It’s great to have goal times. Goals are very much needed throughout the swimming journey. Goal times get you out of bed in the morning, they motivate you, they make you feel inspired, and they give you something to shoot for.

But when you obsess too much about goal times, they can be a negative motivator. They can feel like a burden, or an obstacle, or extra amounts of pressure – and this isn’t what you want. You don’t want to be scared by a goal. Because you’re not actually scared by the goal itself, but scared about what happens if you don’t reach that goal. You become scared of failure.

Unfortunately, here’s the thing: Everyone fails. Everyone experiences failure. Everyone gets knocked down, doesn’t reach a goal, misses a championship final, or loses a race. Even Michael Phelps. What matters isn’t the failure, but how you react to it – both after and before the race itself. If you are scared about failing, you will never truly feel confident on the blocks.

You need to try to let go of that fear of failure. Everyone fails. What matters more is getting back up, focusing on the journey, and not on the destination.

When you place all your focus on the journey – having a great practice, nailing a start, a turn, or just trying your best in every practice to improve one small thing – you begin to focus less on the destination and more on the journey. You begin to accept that you will occasionally fail – and failure is OK. You will feel less scared about not reaching a goal time or not reaching Zones, because you know that swimming is a long road filled with failure. It will happen. What matters is that you not be scared by it, but instead, just do the best you can every moment.

Swimming can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be. You’re so young, and you have a lot of swimming ahead of you. Swimming is a life-long journey with little baby steps and accomplishments along the way.

Goals can bring extra pressure. It’s true that tons of pressure can make diamonds. But it also can suffocate the fun. I know many swimmers who burned out throughout the swimming journey because they were no longer having fun, because they were feeling lots of pressure to succeed. But what defines “success” anyway? Some people define success about placements and times, and others define success about having fun, enjoying the sport, and enjoying your time with the sport. I tend to view success as the latter.

If you’re feeling too much pressure, take a few steps, breathe, and try to focus on the journey. I will tell you the truth: It won’t be the end of the world if you don’t make Zones. Sure, it will be disappointing, but it shouldn’t ruin your love for the sport, and it shouldn’t make you feel as though everything you’ve done – all those 10,000 yard practices you do – are worthless. Peter Vanderkaay, when he was your age, didn’t even qualify for high school states. Imagine if he didn’t qualify for states and then thought of himself as a failure. Maybe he wouldn’t have become the Olympic swimmer he is today.

But he did become one. Swimming is a long, long journey, and while goal-setting can be good, if you’re experiencing so much pressure that you’re scared about the journey, press the reset button and focus both eyes on the journey itself.

Remember the anecdote from above: When you focus on the destination, you aren’t using both eyes to see the way there.

Breathe. Smile. Keep working hard, and keep having fun, and you’ll get to where you need to go, wherever that may be.

ArenaBMWMarriottMyrtha PoolsOmegaPhillips 66SpeedoTYR