Have you ever had a time when it seems nothing is going your way? Whether it’s in a sport or at school or both, it just seems as if you’re doing the best you can but nothing turns out how you would like?
I’ve experienced this feeling of hopelessness several times throughout my swimming career when I feel as if I’m never going to go faster no matter the effort I put in at practice. Sometimes this feeling lasts only a day, maybe a week. For others, it lasts for months, even years. Although outcomes might seem dismal now, I promise all your hard work will pay off in the end.
One of the toughest aspects of swimming is the constant mental battle athletes engage in between and during practices. My out-of-water battle is with nutrition; I joke that I’m a camel because I never drink any water (get it? out-of-water). I also say I’m married to food (and I have a fork and spoon ring to prove it!). I need to be hyper-aware of my diet since between the plethora of advisory snacks, class snacks, bake sales and barbeques, there is always a tempting tasty treat.
The pool deck hosts another entirely different struggle for swimmers. In the morning, it’s the decision to wake up at 4:10 to jump into a cold pool and suffer for two hours instead of sleeping. In the afternoon, it’s the choice to go to practice instead of hanging out with friends, going to sports events or studying.
Yet the hardest mental challenge is throughout every practice, all 23 hours a week, committing to improvement despite feeling tired or sore or defeated. Yes, I will do the three rounds of ten fast 100’s on a two-minute interval, but will I practice perfect racing technique? Will I go fast on every single one or give up on a few so the set is easy? But even if I am able to vault this hurdle, what if during competitions I don’t see the results I want?
I push off the wall for my second 50 meters of the 100 butterfly. Ten, 11, 12, 13 dolphin kicks, and I break the surface, legs burning. The splash of the girl’s arms next to me spurs me on as I focus on what my coach said before the race: “Keep your legs up!”
“Don’t press your chest down!”
“Heels out of the water!”
My back aches from the undulation, but I push on, desperately looking for the underwater camera marking the 15-meter mark. My stroke count reaches 17, and I feel my rate start to slow down; my arms are like wooden planks sloshing through a pool of pudding. But I’ve done this in practice, and I’ve finished countless 100 butterflies before — I can finish this one.
Finally, after an eternity, there it is! My beacon of light, indicating I’m almost to the wall. A few more strokes and I reach for the neon yellow touchpad, diving down so my fingers smash the black “T” in the middle. As I catch my breath on the wall, I look toward the scoreboard, squinting against the sun.
When I catch sight of my time, my body deflates in defeat, and I just want to dissolve into the water swirling into the gutter. The little red numbers flashing on the scoreboard do not reflect how hard I worked in practice or the effort I put into this race. I can feel my breath hitch, and my throat closes up — why didn’t I go faster?
In any sport, there seems to be a generic formula for obtaining results: dedication creates positive results; low effort produces lousy results. Swimming somewhat falls under these terms, but there are so many times when it seems what you’re doing in practice doesn’t translate into racing.
When my races don’t go as planned, I try to remember the advice my first coach, three-time Olympic gold medalist Debbie Meyer, repeated frequently.
“This was just one race out of a hundred that you’ll do; take a minute to be upset, then think about what you can learn from it, and then move on,” she told me.
Ruminating over a terrible practice or an atrocious race isn’t healthy and won’t help you progress. After that 100 fly, I was disappointed, but after talking through the race with my coach, I recognized parts of the event I could take back to practice and improve upon. Even though this race was unsuccessful, and the next few might be too, at least I have something to focus on improving in practice!