Being Excited Means Being Yourself
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Occasionally I get emails sent to me from swimmers asking for advice. Topics range from not being excited about swimming anymore to what the best kinds of goggles may be to wear. I try to respond to all of them, but sometimes there are a few messages I feel would help other swimmers experiencing the same problems, too. Please take my advice with a grain of salt, as I am not a doctor or a swim coach. I'm just someone who really loves the sport and has some competitive experience with it. If you have any questions or swimming stories, feel free to email me at email@example.com.
I've been doing competitive swimming since age seven. Over the years I have won events at JO championships and qualified for Eastern Zones. I've always loved swimming and competing but over the years I've become less and less excited about practice and races. I go to practice with a sense of knowing what I need to work on and stay focused. I do the same at a meet. My coaches are always telling me that I should be more excited about the different sets and races I do. How do I become more excited about sets and racing? Should I be less serious? Or listen to music? I want to be more excited but I don't know how.
Dear Stressed Swimmer,
There are two different kinds of "excitement." The first is being physically excited -- you know, grunting and jumping around behind the blocks. The second type of excitement is caring whether or not you succeed or swim fast. I'll address both.
The first: Jumping around and being vocally and outwardly excited about your races and practices. Swimming is a hard sport to manage "excitement levels." On the one hand, swimming requires great physical strain -- sometimes people jump around to combat that physicality or prepare to do battle. On the other hand, every swimming event requires mental concentration and an emotional zen-like state-of-being. For some certain types of swimmers and personalities, "getting visibly excited" just isn't the answer.
I was a lot like you. It took a lot for me to get "pumped up" for races. I didn't like to jump behind the blocks; I didn't enjoy being less serious. I liked being serious sometimes. I began to embrace my own personality. Just because I wasn't jumping behind the blocks before a race didn't mean I wasn't ready to swim fast -- for me, I was just getting into a calm, zen state of mind. Most swimmers listen to pump up music; I began to listen to calming music. I switched from red goggles to blue goggles because I felt that blue goggles made me more calm. (As crazy as that sounds.) My event was the 400 IM -- an event that you really don't want to be going crazy behind the blocks. It requires more of a zen-like presence rather than a crazy football player hit 'em mentality. And, ironically, I swam faster the more calm and cool I was.
What I'm trying to say is: There's nothing wrong if you don't get physically and visibly excited before races. What is more problematic is if you stop caring.
Swimming is all about enjoyment. Some people enjoy swimming in different ways. I know some swimmers who are really calm behind the blocks, and they've won Olympic gold medals. Just take Aaron Peirsol. He's very zen. He's very calm. It doesn't mean that he doesn't care about his swimming -- he does. But not everyone has to listen to pump up music before races to care about their races.
In your email, you asked if you should listen to music or be less serious. The answer is: Be yourself. You will swim the fastest when you are simply being yourself. Not when you're worried about what your coaches think, not when you're thinking about your parents. The water is like a mirror: It will know if you are being true to yourself, and you will be able to control it when you are being yourself. If your approach to swimming is to be more serious, then do it! There's nothing wrong with being passionate and serious and dedicated to the sport. When I take a walk through the woods, I absolutely love it. I'm not smiling, and I'm not jumping around, and I'm not screaming and getting overly excited about walking in the woods. I just walk through the woods with a serene look, because that's what I enjoy. The same goes for swimming.
The second aspect of "excitement": If the problem is that you've stopped caring about how you perform, that's a bit different. If you find yourself no longer caring if you swim fast or slow, the first thing to do is to just acknowledge that. Don't fight that feeling. Trying to convince yourself that you care about swimming when you no longer do is almost worse than anything else. Then, ask yourself, why do you no longer care?
Passions change as you get older. I used to practice piano every single day. I was really into it. Then, I hit high school, and no longer wanted to spend all my waking hours practicing. So I quit. In all honestly, I wish I hadn't quit. But I quit because I didn't want to perform publicly. My instructor was pressuring me to perform publicly, which put more pressure on me, which actually made me stop liking piano as much. (I've since picked it back up as an adult and I've found it to be wonderful... regretting that I quit so long ago.) Do you feel outside pressures? If so, address them.
However, if you DO care about how you swim, but you just can't get motivated to swim fast, that's OK too. Swimming is a marathon. There will be times in the sport when you just don't want to wake up in the morning, or when practices are boring, or you will want to scratch an event. To overcome this, I suggest that you set small little goals and pick one very small thing to focus on. A flip turn. A start. A finish. Something very small. In a race, pick one little thing to work on. Don't expect to break world records every practice and every race. Pick small goals, achieve them, and then move on.
To sum, it's perfectly OK not to jump around and force yourself to exert an obvious display of excitement before races and practices. Your coaches probably want that type of communication to verify that their workouts are enjoyable to you. (Since smiling is an obvious sign of enjoyment.) But if you let yourself be yourself, in whatever capacity that is, you will enjoy the sport more. You shouldn't have to pretend to be something you're not. That's the beauty of swimming. In the water, you can be whomever you really are -- serious, joking, funny, excited, or calm and zen-like. Look at Cesar Cielo, a swimmer for Brazil. He smacks his chest before the 50 freestyle until there are red marks all over his body. Then look at Nathan Adrian: He is calm, cool, and collected. Both of them are Olympic gold medalists. They have completely different approaches.
If your problem, however, is that you have lost some passion for the sport, ask yourself why: Is it outside pressures? Do you not care about time drops? Would you rather pursue other endeavors? It's OK to not be "into" the sport of swimming 24/7, but if that feeling persists, talk to your coaches about it and share your concerns. Take a step away for a few days and think about what is causing you those pressures or why you aren’t enjoying it. I'm sure they will have an open ear.
But if the problem is that they just want to see you visibly excited, and you find trouble in doing so, it sounds as though your coaches just want to see that you are enjoying the sport. They care about you and your performances. But they should realize that everyone can approach the sport differently. It's perfectly OK to be analytical about your swimming and performances in a serious manner, if that is who you are! The biggest thing is to just enjoy the sport, not worry about the times, not worry about the other swimmers, not worry about coaches and parents and teammates, and just enjoy being in the water, racing yourself and achieving your own personal goals. Being yourself is when true excitement comes naturally. It’s OK not to listen to music, jump around behind the blocks, or be visibly excited if that’s not who you are.
You’ll swim your best when you’re acting like yourself.
Hope this helps.