No Peeking!

swim peek

If you’ve ever been to a swim meet where young children were competing, you’ve seen The Peek. During the race, usually breaststroke, a swimmer will turn his/her head to check out the competition. Some little ones do this occasionally, some almost constantly, some are obvious, and some get very good at being subtle about it. And some never lose the habit.

It is an almost irresistible desire when you’re racing:  wanting to know where your competition is. Am I ahead? Am I behind? How am I doing?  Unfortunately, giving in to that temptation alters the outcome of your race. As soon as you change your head position to check out someone else, you change your body position, and ultimately change how you end up doing. You have no effect on the other person, but comparing yourself to them has changed YOUR race.

That’s pretty powerful.

Beyond the physical detriment to head and body position that a swimmer experiences by peeking, there is a mental/emotional effect as well. By expanding  your focus to include how someone else is doing, you let go of following your own plan and you allow their experience to become part of how you define yours. In a swim race, that can end up as either, “I did well because I beat Johnny” or “I did my best, but I lost to Johnny so it wasn’t that good”. Instead of comparing ourselves against our own plan or our own progress over time, it becomes about the comparison against someone else.

Comparing ourselves to others is the ultimate sucker’s game. There is no winning this one. There will ALWAYS be, for EVERYONE, someone who has more, is better at something, etc. We all have people who make us feel inferior. Social media hasn’t helped, since now we can peek into other people’s lives with impunity, forgetting that Facebook is the ultimate ongoing “Christmas Letter”, full of everyone’s surface wonderfulness. Reading Facebook, one would think that no one is unhappy, failing school, a bad cook, fighting with their kids, in danger of being laid off, unable to afford vacation, or worrying that their spouse is cheating on them. We are all looking around, peeking constantly at our “competition”, and becoming more and more convinced that we are “losing”.

Comparing ourselves to others alters the outcome of our journeys, plain and simple. We cannot be our best selves if we are focused on someone else. We cannot be truly happy and at peace if we define success in terms of someone else’s journey. When we make comparisons, we only hurt ourselves in the end.

So, at least for today, No Peeking!

It’s What You Take Away From It

Swim-wall

As a swimmer and a coach, as someone for whom water has played a major part in life, the thought of drowning is beyond horrifying. Being in my wonderful, peaceful, familiar environment and not being able to manage the situation is the worst kind of helplessness I can fathom.

I was 18 years old, swimming for my summer league team. I had quit year round swimming the winter before, choosing instead to swim for fun and to coach for both my year round and summer teams. Life was good, and I was enjoying swimming wholeheartedly for the first time in a long time.

It was our All Star meet, our end of season championship, and I was going into it seeded first in my best event, the 50 backstroke. Things couldn’t have been better:  great weather, the support of my team, my favorite stroke, the middle lane, my last swim of my career. I was ready to go out on a high note.

I got a great start, but then the unthinkable happened:  my goggles came down. This almost NEVER happens in backstroke, but there they were, right across my mouth, positioned so they were dumping water up my nose, in my eyes, and down my throat. I swam on, thinking “What the heck? It’s only a 50, I’m in good shape, I’ll just hold my breath.”  I was ahead going into the turn, which was usually the best part of my race. As I pushed off, another unthinkable thing happened:  I came up under the lane line. The line was across my right shoulder, and I was stuck there, trying to fight my way up, having not been able to see or breathe since the start of the race. Thrashing my way to the surface, my lungs screaming, I gasped involuntarily, and sucked in water. That was it. The end of my race. I could not go on.

Here’s the kicker:  as I got to the side and an official helped me out, I coughed out a big ball of water and looked up just in time to see my dad make a gesture of disgust and leave the pool deck. No concern for my well-being, just disgusted disappointment in me for “quitting”. I was beyond devastated. Crushed and embarrassed to have disqualified in my best event, scared to death by inhaling water and going under, I then had to deal with my own father’s lack of care and his misunderstanding of what had occurred.

Needless to say, I had emotions about this one for a long time. A loooooooong time. Finally, I was able to put this incident in a perspective that helped me deal with it and get past my negative feelings, by asking myself “what did I learn from it?”  I learned that sometimes, for no particular reason, bad stuff happens. I learned that sometimes, try as you might to fight your way out of it, the bad stuff can keep coming and get the better of you for a time. I learned that sometimes stopping to regroup is the best choice you have. I learned that sometimes the people watching your struggle, even the people who love you the most, will misunderstand and have opinions and judge you. Most importantly, I learned that you don’t have to let any of that define you or become a permanent part of your self-image.

I lost a medal that day, but what I took away was far more valuable. In the end, that’s all that matters.

The Dreaded “Speedo”

swimsuits

I put the name Speedo in quotes here to denote the generic way in which this particular brand name has become synonymous with the really tight, itty-bitty racing suit. I in no way am either trying to endorse or bash the brand name product.

We’ve all seen them, mostly at swim meets, but sometimes (unfortunately) on the beach. When worn by a competition swimmer, they seem like an appropriate uniform for the sport, albeit a tiny one. There is nothing quite like trying to squeeze yourself into the smallest possible, tightest possible suit, then trying to move and move FAST. Oh, unless it’s putting yourself up on a starting block two feet above everyone’s head while you’re wearing said suit. Make no mistake, we swimmers have all heard the jokes and comments about how we look and what can be seen through the tightness of the suit. We know that every ounce of excess skin or body fat gets pushed out to the edges of the suit. We know that every defect, every pimple, every hair is visible through the material.

Talk about feeling vulnerable.

There are not many sports where putting on your uniform means taking off your clothes to this extent. There is an overcoming of self-consciousness and an acceptance of emotional nakedness that swimmers must learn to deal with. (Some are better at it than others, and are usually the ones who, as adults, will walk through the locker room naked while the rest of us are wondering what the hell their problem is.)

It is daunting to bare yourself in any sense, to “put yourself out there”, to open yourself to the judgments of others. Most of us avoid doing that at all costs. We clothe ourselves with degrees and job titles and the “right” house and friends in order to protect ourselves from the vulnerability of showing who we really are. What flaws might be seen? What might people think or say?

It is interesting to observe young swimmers move from a complete uninhibited lack of awareness into the extreme self-consciousness of puberty. Some kids will quit the sport because it’s just too uncomfortable to be that exposed and vulnerable, or develop coping strategies like hiding in the locker room or wrapping in a towel. The really interesting part is seeing how they move through the agony of feeling exposed back into a lack of inhibition, as though just the repetition of being “out there” takes away the fear of it.

Choosing to be vulnerable, to put our real selves on display, to brave the eyes and judgments of others. Repeating it until we no longer fear it, until being our true selves is uninhibited habit. A good lesson for all of us, perhaps.

YAAAAAAAYYY Tired!!

23031424-young-man-with-book-sleeping-by-pool

There is no way to train a swimmer to be fast over distance without making them uncomfortable. The hardest part of coaching in my opinion is getting kids to accept, and even embrace, being tired and uncomfortable.Please note that I am NOT talking about ignoring injury pain, which is sharp and breath-taking and a show-stopper. I am referring to the dull achiness of fatigued muscles, muscles which have been doing their jobs as nature intended and are just tired.

It is a very natural, human, self-protective response to back away from physical discomfort and fatigue. It takes a huge amount of mental control and fortitude to continue to push and move and exert, when everything in your body is screaming at you to stop. It also takes understanding that there are rewards on the other side of that discomfort in order to find the motivation to push.

One of my coaching mantras was “Yaaayyyy Tired!!”  I used this to help the swimmers understand that their fatigue and discomfort was not a bad thing, that it was not a barrier unless they made it one, and that they had control of it. They could choose to have a different attitude about it. Instead of thinking negatively, “I feel bad, I hurt, I’m tired, I want to quit”, they could choose to put a positive spin on it, as in “I’m getting stronger, I’m overcoming this, YAY I’m tired!!”  Being Yay Tired was a badge of honor in my groups, and it was a way of signaling to me that they had pushed past wanting to stop.

Embracing Yay Tired is a crucial mental victory. It is an acknowledgment that things in life aren’t easy, that we need to work and sweat and earn what we want, but that when we accept that and even seek it out, our achievements are far sweeter. This is where true self-esteem is born: in the sweating and discomfort, in the pushing to continue on, in not letting your own fears get in your way. It is in overcoming a challenge and conquering that voice that urges us to quit that we find our greatest strength.

Walls

underwater

 

Walls and how we handle them are pretty important in swimming. There is only one individual event in all of swimming, the long course 50 meter freestyle, that doesn’t involve a turn and pushing off of a wall. How we approach them, how we leave them, our speed in and out, how hard we push…all of these are crucial to our success in handling walls.

The wall is a physical barrier that must be dealt with in our sport, but it is also a mental/emotional one. The tendency of most young swimmers is to slow down at the wall, perhaps to catch that extra breath at the turn or in anticipation of the end of the race. One overshot turn resulting in a cracked ankle or banged arm can cause a swimmer to slow in fear around walls for years. It takes a lot of training to master the gut response to see the wall as a stop signal.

It is in our nature to slow at a wall, to look up at it, to ponder how to get past it. Our tendency is to assume our path continues on past the wall, following the track we have been on, and that the wall stands in our way. In swim training, we must overcome this mindset:  our path does not continue on, but resumes in another direction. The wall becomes a chance to speed up, to readjust, to jump off and speed away on our new path. The wall is not obstacle, but opportunity.

In preparation for writing this, I looked up the definition for the word wall, and was interested to find this:  an extreme or desperate position or a state of defeat, failure, or ruin.I have certainly faced that kind of wall in my own life, and am facing one now. I have reached my goal of getting all three of my children raised to college age, in college and doing well. All are out of the house, and my path seems to have ended at a giant wall. What now, what next? This wall has been looming for a couple years, and I now stand in front of it, feeling a bit desperate. I cannot see past it.

I must return to what I know from swimming:  I must speed toward this wall, and see it for the opportunity it is. My path is on a different course, one that I cannot yet see. I need to have the confidence to race at this wall, lower my head, hold my breath, flip and jump as hard as I can in my new direction. The path will be there, and this wall that seems so daunting is my best chance at finding it.

Broken Goggles

goggles

Coach:  “Why did you stop in the middle of the race?”
Child: (sobbing) “Because my goggles were leaking!”
Coach: “OK, so… it’s just water. Why didn’t you keep going?”
Child: (sobbing harder) “Because they were LEAKING!!!!!”

Every sport has its equipment, and swimming is no exception. Probably the most heavily relied upon item are the goggles, which keep the chlorinated water out of swimmers’ eyes. I hate goggles. HATE them. They break, they leak, they require frequent adjustment, and worst of all, most everyone thinks they can’t swim without them.

My real issue with goggles is that they are not necessary. They are a convenience, they are nice for helping you see clearly and for not ending up with stinging eyes at the end of the day…but in reality, you can still swim without them. One of my all-time favorite moments in swimming was Michael Phelps’ 200m butterfly win at the 2008 Olympics…you know, the one where his goggles filled with water off the start and he raced 200 meters unable to see clearly, the last 50 not really being able to see at all. I like to tell that story and end with, “See?  You don’t NEED goggles!”  (I get a lot of groans and rolling eyes from the kids.)

Broken goggles represent an inconvenience, an unexpected minor setback, yet too many turn it into tragedy. Broken or leaky goggles become an excuse and an insurmountable obstacle, with swimmers allowing themselves to mentally fall apart because of a minor failure of a piece of unnecessary equipment.  I read an interview with Bob Bowman, talking about training Michael Phelps. Part of what he said was that he used to train Michael for adversity, and do things like step on his goggles right before a race. Awesome! What better way to teach resiliency in the face of setbacks?

I have wondered on occasion if daily life in this country is just too easy. We flip a switch, light comes on. We turn a faucet, clean water comes out. We click a mouse, instant access to the world is there. Is it any wonder that people raised in that environment come undone when something unexpected and (GASP!) uncomfortable happens?

Kids who swam for me learned pretty quickly that goggle issues were not an excuse that was going to gain them any traction with me. In fact, I have run practice sets where kids were not allowed to wear goggles, or had to pull them down around their necks, or had to deliberately fill them with water, in order to teach them how to deal with the minor adversity. We spent a lot of time at practice talking about the difference between inconveniences and problems, and about being focused enough to swim through the inconveniences. I encouraged them to see these little issues as opportunities to build mental toughness, and I even had a few who listened.

What are the “broken goggles” in your life? How do you respond when it happens? Are you able to stay focused and move forward, seeing it for the minor adversity it is? Or do you let it derail you? How resilient are you?

Step on your goggles once in a while. You’ll be glad you did.

The Game Changer

game changer (artwork by Hannah Grace)

This is a true story, and one that changed my life. I lost touch with the people in the story, as we do with so many who cross our paths, and they will never know that their moment laid bare was so momentous for me. I have no idea if they even remember it, if it was profound or meaningful in any way for them, or if it was just another moment like so many others in the life of their family. I have changed their names, to preserve their anonymity, but the rest is their story. And mine.

Jenny was a prodigy. At 6 years old, she knew all four strokes, did them legally, and flew past the other 8 & unders who were still swimming as though they had just had arms and legs installed the day before. Her parents were super-involved with the team, and strutted the deck as though swimming had been invented to showcase their daughter.  Jenny’s older brother, Luke, age 9 and very sweet, still limped awkwardly through his races and was largely ignored. I wish I could say Jenny was a nice child.

Fast forward 7 years. I was a young coach on the team, aged 17. Jenny’s prodigy status had faded, as the height and curves of puberty had taken hold, changing her hydrodynamics significantly. The other girls had figured out their own arms and legs in the intervening years, and grown in strength and ability, and Jenny was no longer easily winning every event. Luke was now one of the best in his age group, while Jenny struggled to keep her place. Mom and Dad, never particularly pleasant people to be around, were NOT happy with the change.

It was a Saturday morning meet, and freestyle was the first event up. This had been Jenny’s biggest struggle lately, and the place where most of the other girls were catching up to her. She had talked to me before she swam, nervous about the race. Jenny was a nice kid by this point, having learned some humility through her struggles, and we were all on her side in wanting her to succeed. She raced well, and out-touched her competition to win the race. I remember how happy she looked, and I remember cheering. She hopped out of the pool and was coming toward me, big smile on her face, when it happened.

Jenny was intercepted by her father, in front of the clerk of course where about 20 kids were sitting and waiting for their races; there were also about another 30 spectators and volunteers in the area, so this was not what you would call a private area. In my mind’s eye, it is a tableau:  Jenny and I facing each other, about 10 yards apart, smiling and excited, with Dad in between us, his back to me. Then he began to yell. He berated her for the race, calling her names, thundering at her for being slow, being lazy, being out of shape, for not beating the girl by enough. I felt frozen to the deck, horrified as I watched her smile fade and her body shrink, tears filling her eyes. He might as well have been hitting her with his fists, the way those words, those hateful words, pummeled her.

I hated him, and I hated myself for not moving, not making it stop, not knowing what to do. The moment finally broke when Jenny, unable to take any more, bolted for the locker room. I followed, and did what I could to console her. To her credit, she rallied and swam the rest of her races, but didn’t enjoy any of them. I have always wondered what happened to Jenny, and whether the events of that day stuck with her, or whether that was just normal life in their family.

That awful moment changed me forever, and became the defining story of my approach to coaching. I promised myself that day that I would NEVER AGAIN allow anyone, parent or not, to treat one of my swimmers that way as long as I was around. This is why I did not allow parents to hang over the pool or fuss at their kids in practice, this is why I have physically intercepted a large, angry dad on his way poolside to yell at his child, this is why I told parents not to “help” me coach, this is why I tried to help parents understand productive ways to give their kids feedback about their races. Parents probably have wondered about my approach, some have certainly called me tough (and worse), and I know it’s bothered some, but the truth is, I wasn’t  there for the parents. I was there for their kids. I was there for Jenny, perhaps trying to make up for the fact that I was too young and shocked to help her that day.

To this day, telling this story gives me goosebumps and makes me cry. I will never forget her face. I will never forget that feeling in the pit of my stomach as I watched her get beaten with words. I will never forget her.