The Space Between Breaths

breathe-deeply-wooden-sign

I have this tshirt from my full time job that just says BREATHE on the front. My swimmers use to say that I wore that as a cruel joke because of how much I enjoyed giving breath control sets. Controlling breathing is crucial for the physical aspects of competitive swimming, but I’ve long maintained, somewhat secretly, that it is a psycho-spiritual discipline as well.

I’ve been a swimmer longer than I can comprehend. I turned 50 last week, so swimming, both the doing of it and the coaching of it, have taken up a majority of my time on this planet. To say I love it would be an understatement. Swimming itself is a spiritual experience for me, and I get very “zen” about the feel of the water, the sensations of movement through it, and the mindfulness of breathing that swimming requires. I have yet to find anything, any exercise or discipline, that is as truly mind-body-spirit as swimming.

Until today. I went to my first yoga class today, after resisting the urge to start for several years. I had let fear and many excuses block my path, but the time had finally come…I turned 50, the stars aligned and the universe kicked me in the butt and said, “NOW!” So I went.

It was tough, physically and mentally. But I fell in love with the breathing…it’s so much like my first love! The core of the practice is managing your breathing and being mindful of it, using it to aid the movement of your body. I kept thinking, “I can do this! I know it! I’ve taught it!”.

There is a moment when you are doing deep rhythmic breathing when you realize that you can inhale more than you thought you could. There is a moment when you realize there is no rush to exhale. There is a moment when you learn how to expel all the air, not just the “stuff on top” like we do all day, but ALL of it, pushing your diaphragm with intention up into your lungs to push out the last bit. This is all super cool, but the best moment, my favorite moment, is the space between breaths.

It takes a little time to get into the rhythm of those really profound breaths and intentional exhales, but once you adapt, you can find the space. What I’ve discovered is that once I expel all the air, there is a moment, sometimes a second or two, sometimes more, where I don’t feel the urge to breathe at all. There is no urgency, no stress, no worry, no physical pressure to begin the next inhale. It is a moment of absolute perfect awareness and tranquility, floating, yet being 100% present at the same time.

I’m not sure why I felt compelled to share this. Perhaps it is because I haven’t written in a long while. Perhaps it is because I’m in the throes of a new “crush” and wanted to babble about it. Perhaps it is because I enjoy how one part of my life connects and prepares me for another, allowing me to honor what has gone before and use it to inform my next steps.

Or maybe I just thought it was cool. Namaste!

Joy and Abandon

swim29Cannonball

Competitive swimming is about details, no doubt about it. Every motion is analyzed, from the position of the head to the angle of the hand on entry to the bend of the knee. We measure heart rate recovery, and the building of workouts consists of balancing elements of the different energy systems. Minutes of training, rest between sets, weight lifted, number of practices, stroke count, reaction time, breathing, and above all, time, time, time….we measure it all. It is easy for both coaches and swimmers to get bogged down and succumb to the tyranny of measuring the details.

You remember when you were little, and you swam wildly and happily, just because it was fun? You didn’t really care how it looked or how long it took, you just DID IT. Somewhere along the line we lose the ability to do this so easily, and it usually starts with a comment like “Hey, you could be really good at this if…”

If. If only you came to more practice. If only you tried harder. If only you fixed this or that. If only you started focusing on the details.

So we do. We like the idea of being good at something, and we like the idea of pleasing people, so we start to focus on the details, work harder, show up more, measure, measure, measure. The more we focus, however, the farther away “good” seems to be…no matter how much we improve, there is always a measurement that says we can be better, faster, stronger, or more dedicated. Before we know it, we can’t remember what it felt like to have fun swimming.

I could see the tension in my swimmers who were at this point, tension in the shoulders, in the face. They were flooded with disappointment in themselves when they failed to reach a measurement that meant “good”, and there was almost a sense of defeat in the realization that there was always another “good” to reach.

My advice to them was simple:  swim with joy and abandon. Separate practice from competition, and remember that practice is where we work, measure, and focus on details. Competition is the place to shut measurement brain down, and just DO, just BE, revel in the moment. Trust the work done at practice, stop thinking, and go. Just DO, just BE. Make the measurement of “good” whether it felt fun again.

Joy and abandon.

Life must also be this balance of doing the work and focusing on the details, and then throwing ourselves out there with joy and abandon, reveling in the moment, whatever it may be. Joy should be our goal, not some measurement that means “good” to someone else, not society’s definition of success. Joy should be the goal.

So absolutely, yes, work hard. Have integrity. Show up. Do the right things. Focus on the details. And then throw yourself wildly, with abandon, into the things that give you joy. Let go of caring how you look or what other people think or how you “measure up”, and throw yourself into your joy.

When swimmers could learn to let go and swim with joy again, they often ended up easily achieving and surpassing the “measurement” they were after, with the added bonus of not caring as much. They enjoyed getting there, having the time they were after, but the joy of reconnecting with the fun part of their sport became the goal. The more joy was the goal, the better they got, and the less they worried about it.

Talk about a win.

Integrity

floatie

They say integrity is defined as doing the right thing even when no one is looking. Performing well, or behaving ourselves, only when there is outside pressure to do so is not a character building trait.

I always knew when my swimmers were not working to full capacity, even when they swore up and down that they were. There is a focus and demeanor that is different, a physical expression of fatigue that is unique, when a swimmer is giving it their all. I could always tell.

I often got argued with when I called someone out on it. The funny thing was, the more strenuously they argued that they were trying as hard as they could, working as hard as they could, the more I knew they weren’t. They knew deep down inside that they weren’t, but it was too hard to acknowledge, so they needed me to believe they were. If I believed it, then they could believe it, and override that little nagging voice that was saying, “Nope, you’ve got more in you.”

Integrity is a hard path. It’s listening to that little voice, and doing the right thing, the true thing, even when there is no one to applaud the effort. It’s resisting the temptation to tell ourselves those “little white lies” about how we’re doing our best, or how our shortcut was justified. Integrity is about owning our imperfections publicly and not trying to make excuses for  them. It’s about doing the thing that is right no matter how difficult or time-consuming it may be.

When we fall short or take the easy route, we often will think to ourselves, “It doesn’t matter. No one will know, no one will get hurt,” but that’s simply not true. WE will know. WE will be hurt. Tiny bit by tiny bit, our self-esteem is devoured by those little shortcuts and dishonesties, by those lies and justifications we give ourselves. When we lie to ourselves over and over, we lose the ability to trust ourselves when the time comes that it does matter and others will notice.

Those swimmers that argued with me may have felt they won the day by pushing their conviction that they had done their best. However, on the block, facing an important race, the truth would be in their gut, and they would know whether they were ready or not.

Are you ready?

WHAAAAATT???

teampic

Coach: “You need to rotate your backstroke more.”
Swimmer: “What?”
Coach: “Rotate!”
Swimmer: “Do WHAT?”
Coach: “Every time you take a stroke, point your belly button at the side of the pool!”
Swimmer: “OH! Okay!”

The key to effective communication is framing it in a way that makes sense to your audience, using language and images they understand. While this might seem very basic, this is a lesson that took me a long time to learn, and despite my enthusiasm as a young coach, I didn’t do a good job of communicating. I delivered information to younger and newer kids the way it was given to me:  using terminology and jargon. I had forgotten what it felt like to not know what “rotate” or “pivot” or “streamline” meant, forgot what it was like to not have a mental picture to go with those terms. I was enamored of being a Coach, and having the status to tell other kids on the team what to do. I was not noticing the confusion on their faces when I gave instruction, and then not understanding why they couldn’t execute the sets.

There was no “lightbulb” moment on this one. My understanding grew with time and maturity, with doing private lessons and tailoring those to the individual, with teaching group lessons to three-year-olds (ACK!), with having older coaches set an example, with working Special Olympics in high school, with becoming a parent, with working with swimmers with autism and developmental delays. My understanding grew as my ability to empathize grew. The more I could put myself in the place of the six-year-old, the better I became at teaching the six-year-old.

As the giver of the information, it was incumbent upon me to meet my audience where they were at, to give the information in a way that made sense to them, and not just in a way that made sense to me or was convenient for me.  I don’t know about you, but I had too few people in my life who modeled this. I had to learn this by trial and error, motivated by the desire to help my swimmers “get it”, even if it meant I had to say it 10 different ways, and demonstrate it twice.

Remember: if the person listening to you doesn’t seem to understand what you are saying, it just might be YOUR lack of clarity, and not that they are deficient in some way. Try again. And again, if you have to.

Float

rough-sea-2

I am writing this one for myself, as a reminder of a powerful image and lesson learned.

One summer when my family was vacationing at the beach, I had one of my worst scares ever in water. My parents had let my best friend come on vacation with us, and she and I were playing in the surf. It was really rough that day, but we were 17 and both very strong swimmers, so we thought it was no big deal. Plus, we were in about 3 ½ feet of water, so what could happen?

As we played, I got knocked over and rolled by a powerful wave. Coming to the surface, I scrambled to find my feet, only to have them pulled out from under me by the rip current. Wave after wave smacked me down as I tried over and over to plant my feet. I tried to yell to my friend for help, but couldn’t make myself heard before another wave had me. I could feel the bubble of panic form in my gut as I went under yet again.

As I struggled for the surface one more time, the thought, “Stop fighting and FLOAT,” went through my head. Since trying to stand had been an abysmal failure, I trusted that thought and picked up my feet. Instantly, the panic bubble popped and I relaxed. I floated. I let the waves do what they were going to do. The waves that had been so frightening, so cruel, just moments before now bore me to shore and a place where I could find my feet and catch my breath.

We often find ourselves in rough seas in our lives, in places we don’t want to be, being buffeted by circumstances beyond our control. We feel the panic rise as we struggle to find our feet, as our pleas for help go unheard for what they are by those that love us best. The fear that this is the wave that will best us keeps us fighting and resisting.

Times like these are when we most need to just pick up our feet and float. Sometimes we cannot change where we are in life or the circumstances that are beating us down, but we can change our approach. We can choose to accept the rough sea we are in and float, allowing ourselves to be carried a bit. We can float.

That day on the beach, the rough surf took me in to shore and safety, but not where I had expected to be. Pushed farther down shore than I had realized, I had to hike back to where I had begun, but a hike was a small price to pay. It was a good walk, fear replaced by relief and a new confidence in myself.

After all, I had just learned to float.

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.