The Most Important Part of Practice
By Mike Gustafson//Contributor
Say you’re cooking a soup. You throw ingredients into a pot, turn up the heat, add water. “The most important part of any soup is the seasoning,” someone says. So you add seasoning — salt, pepper. “The most important part of any soup is the long, slow simmer,” someone else says. So you simmer for several hours. “The most important part of any soup is the presentation.” So you sprinkle some chopped onions, drizzle olive oil on top, put it into a pretty bowl.
Any competitive swimming season is like cooking a soup. You have your season-long training (meat and potatoes). Your taper (seasoning). Your shave-down (presentation). For a swim season to come together, everything needs to cohesively work. You can’t arbitrarily add pancakes or peanut butter to a soup and expect greatness. Likewise, you can’t boil a lump of stale potatoes at the last minute and expect to wow your audience. A swim season takes time to formulate, and, if executed perfectly, will come together after a long, slow process.
While there are many theories about what is, exactly, the most important part of the swim season — the holiday training? the pre-season workouts? the taper? — I’d argue that the most important part is not anything to do with actual swimming itself. The most important part of the swimming season, and swim practice, is the five minutes before practice. The five minutes before you dive in, every single day.
These five, itty bitty minutes is the time when you conjure your recipe.
When you look at your ingredients and think, “What can I make out of this?”
Many swimmers email and ask how to train better, accomplish faster times, perform to their best abilities. Many believe, then fail to understand, that a season’s greatness is not won or lost in the two-week taper. The season’s greatness isn’t necessarily about a natural-born ability, or a physical attribute you either have or don’t have (where are the onions? How can I make this soup without pepper?). The season’s greatness, like any good soup, is that daily five-minute pre-plan. When you conjure the daily goal. When you look at energy levels, your pre-practice mentality, and you take stock of your resources, and come up with a recipe for success.
I’ve long advocated that the most important part of any season, and swim practice, is the five minutes before diving in. Those five minutes when you and your teammates stand on the pool deck in swimsuits and goggles. Instead of joking or gossiping, or thinking how tired you are, take five minutes to make a practice plan. Spend five minutes thinking about the upcoming practice. Think about your body and your daily goal.
For example: You arrive to practice and you’re exhausted. You’re stressed and thinking about tomorrow’s big statistics test. You don’t really feel like being at the pool.
Instead of leaping in and thinking these negative, counter-productive thoughts for the next two hours, spend five minutes — just five minutes tops — to acknowledge how you’re feeling that day. Think, “Okay, I’m exhausted and not feeling this workout. How can I best get something out of these next two hours? What is one thing I can work on?”
Simply re-calibrating your mind during those five pre-practice minutes can have a net positive effect for the rest of practice. Rather than diving into the pool and feeling rushed or stressed, you can breathe, exhale, and come up with a small, mini-recipe. You can take an accurate look at how you’re feeling, what this practice may look like, and conjure up a great-tasting soup de jour.
The most important part of any soup is not the presentation, but the recipe. To come up with a great recipe requires a few minutes to think. To ponder. To calibrate and conjure.
My advice to younger swimmers who are feeling burned out, tired, exhausted, and craving an escape from the pool…? (Which usually happens during Februarys…)
Place importance not only on practice, but the five minutes before practice. Think about what you’re about to do. Think about why you want to do it. Just coming up with a plan — just thinking about your daily recipe — will allow you to get more out of your practice than improvisation.
Follow Mike on Twitter @MicGustafson, or ask him a question for his Mailbag at email@example.com.