The “C” Word is Can’t

i can't

I routinely ban the use of the phrase “I can’t” on the teams I coach, and instead try to teach positive self-talk, and learning different ways to express the challenges we face.

Can’t. It is one of the most self-defeating words in the language. Not only does it mean falling short of what one is trying to do, it also implies that one will not continue in the attempt. In my coaching career, “can’t” was not the wording used when someone was truly physically incapable of continuing…athletes have a whole different set of expressions when they are in that place. “I can’t” was what was used when what was really meant was “I give up”.

“I can’t” is the pressure release valve, it is the jargon to let ourselves off the hook and make the unpleasantness go away. “I can’t” is not a real state of being, but rather an attitude, and often an attitude about ourselves.

Things I hear when I hear “I can’t”:

  • I quit
  • I don’t want to
  • I don’t know how
  • I’m afraid
  • Don’t make me continue
  • I don’t believe in myself
  • I’m giving up on myself
  • Save me

We have to be careful, both about using the phrase ourselves and about how we respond when others use it. When a toddler learning to tie shoes gives up in frustration and says “I can’t!”, does the parent just do it for him? Or respond with “Let’s try again”? When an athlete backs away from a challenging training set, saying “I can’t”, does the coach take the easy route, shrug it off and turn attention to others? Or respond with a push of encouragement to keep trying?

We need to learn to hear what “I can’t” truly means. We need to hear the fear and insecurity behind that phrase, whether it is coming from ourselves or others. We need to respond with an acknowledgment of the difficulty AND a pep talk to move through it. “I can’t” needs to be transformed into “I’ll try.”

“I’ll try” does not guarantee immediate success in the endeavor, but does indicate a major change in attitude. “I’ll try” is positive, encouraging, and implies an ongoing willingness to accept and face challenges. “I’ll try” combats insecurity with small doses of confidence, and fear with the hope that at the end of the “try”, the challenge will be overcome.

Discomfort

swim injury

As a middle-aged former athlete, I live in the frustrating limbo of still being technically able to perform the sports and activities I want while also being stymied by pain. Things hurt. Every day. Good weeks, it’s the same pain each day; most weeks, it’s something new and multiple things each time I exercise. I’m trying very hard to recall my lessons from swimming to help me get through this.

While coaching teenagers, I spent a lot of time talking about the difference between pain and discomfort. Pain is severe, and means injury, and injury prohibits going forward until healing takes place. Discomfort, on the other hand, is a byproduct of hard work, and moving through discomfort is a mental discipline as much as a physical one. The ability to bear discomfort and move through it means one will ultimately be stronger. In athletics, discomfort is a step in the process of growth and improvement, while injury is a show stopper.

Learning to sort pain from discomfort is a skill, and when one is young and strong, most of what is felt is discomfort. It is the tiredness, fatigue, and achiness of pushing your body to its limits, over and over again, in the hopes of getting stronger. When one is young, the body responds easily to this push, and gets stronger quickly, repairing itself rapidly, ready to face another practice, and another challenge.

There is a different combination of pain and discomfort when one is older. There is still the achiness and fatigue, which takes longer to subside and longer to recover from. There is the pain of aging joints and muscles, twinging and zinging as we move, disrupting our workout flow. There is also the discomfort of the self-doubt which creeps in with every tight muscle, every sore knee, every white hot nerve. Things that never used to be a problem zing and hurt with every streamline, every push, every kick…and suddenly the battle I’m fighting isn’t physical anymore. My “demon” isn’t the 5000 yard workout my coach just set in front of me….it is the fear and insecurity that has crept in with each workout I’ve missed due to pain. It is the unsettling realization that my body is different, that I don’t know it and can’t count on it the way I used to. It is the trust I’ve lost and the panic I’ve gained over muscles and joints that no longer respond the way I want them to, the way they did for so many years.

If I were my own coach, standing outside myself, what advice would I give?

I would say this:  What you’re feeling is a normal and natural part of where you are in life right now, and the first part of defeating the mental discomfort is to accept that the fear and insecurity and frustration are a normal step in the process. Before you can move forward, you have to realistically accept where you are starting from. This “new normal” is now just normal…it is what it is, for now. Then you have to set goals: where do you want to be in a year? What are the milestones along the way, at 3 months, 6 months, 9 months? What do you need to do each week to make each milestone? And what are the self-care techniques, both physical and mental, that will help you stay on course each week?

It sounds so simple when I say it as though I’m talking to someone else. Although I’ve been talking primarily about the pain and discomfort that accompany physical challenges, I think this applies across the board. Accept where you are. Think about where you want to be. Set goals, and stair steps to getting there. Take care of yourself along the way.

Swimming really DOES have all my answers.

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.