Mental Toughness: A Fundamental Skill in Swimming and in Life (Coaches’ Corner #18) – June 2017

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By Sam Corea, Coach INT1.

Have you ever heard that you have to be a little bit crazy to be a swimmer?

I’ve heard this plenty of times during my time in the sport. Especially from friends who would constantly ask:

“But, how do you get up so early?!”
“I just do.”

“I would hate getting into cold water first thing in the morning!”
“It’s not so bad once you’re used to it.”

“You mean you’re busy ALL weekend!”
“Yup.”

“But, it’s so hard to do.”
“I know…”

While my friends from high school are still very near and dear to my heart I can confidently say that they must have thought I was crazy (just a little bit). They couldn’t fathom the idea of staring at a black line at the bottom of a pool, for hours on end, because the sheer boringness of it would drive them insane. (That last sentence is an actual paraphrased quote from a friend who once had the nerve to say swimming was boring to my face.) Yet, despite their periodic offhand comments, I wouldn’t let their misguided words bother me because I knew I had something they did not: Mental Toughness

Swimming is arguably one of the hardest sports to do. It requires the most vigorous preparation in order to compete competently. Practices are often an hour or two of constant motion all the while having the wherewithal to focus on maintaining perfect technique. Meanwhile, your biceps, triceps, quads, calves, and lungs are all screaming out in perfect harmony, “stop right now, thank you very much,” like a 90’s girl pop group. But, we try not to listen to that disparaging voice. We are so incredibly tough that we try to block that voice that says ‘stop’ or ‘give up’. We will even scream back just as loudly, “don’t stop me now”, with all the tenacity and strength of Freddie himself. Everyone feels like giving up sometimes. It’s an understandable feeling, but it is the swimmers who choose to fight on, especially when it feels like they are drowning, who reap the benefits. As cheesy as it sounds, what doesn’t kill you DOES makes you stronger. The next time you are faced with a difficult challenge it will only get easier as you train your brain to be strong against adversity.

Sometimes mental challenges do not originate solely from external factors such as hard sets and muscle fatigue. Sometimes they derive from an internal source as well. What I mean by this is that often, you are your biggest and harshest critic. Being too hard and limiting towards yourself results in self-doubt and a bleak outlook on what you are capable of. Let me give you a piece of wisdom passed down from a former beloved coach of mine: Shut up. It really is as simple as that. Silence and stop listening to that negative voice that tells you that you can’t do something, that compares you to other people, or that tells you are not deserving of a personal victory. Athletes are notorious for placing these unintended limitations upon themselves. Only once you learn to let go of your self-doubt will you truly see what you can do. I see it happen all the time as your coach! I hear you guys say, “But, I can’t!….” a lot and at the end of the day most of you end up completing the challenge I presented to you. Let’s try to eliminate those words from our vocabulary and start setting our goals to new heights.

The nature of this competitive environment can somewhat hinder our relationships with our fellow teammates. It is natural (but highly ill-advised!) to compare ourselves to others. When someone succeeds where you might have fallen short, we sometimes can’t help but feel animosity towards that person. It takes a truly strong person to recognize and congratulate the success of a teammate. I remember being around the age of 13 and feeling resentful towards teammates. Yes, seeing others succeed did push me to train harder but there is a difference between a little friendly competition and letting the bitterness fester and populate my head with negative comparisons.

I only truly learned how to have fun once I discovered that genuinely celebrating the achievements of my teammates and interacting with them on a profound level was a lot more effective than sulking. I realized that I was my own swimmer and the only person I needed to compare with was myself. With that being said, there is honestly nothing like seeing one of your teammates reach one of their goals. You are filled with such pride and happiness that you feel inspired and ready to race in your own events. May I suggest getting up and cheering more for your friends and teammates! With a limited number of summer swim meets under my belt, I have noticed a lack in camaraderie and team support on the deck. I’m sure you guys are friendly and having fun in your tents but that’s not where the action is! It is on the deck! This is only my humble opinion but please feel free to prove me wrong at our next meet!

Roughly 900 words later and these are my final thoughts on the matter. Mental toughness is truly a skill you will learn and develop as you continue on your swimming journey. It won’t be easy in the beginning when trying to change your mental attitude but the end result is well worth it. Far in the future when you leave swimming, the lessons that you learned while participating in the sport will stick with you forever. You will be inherently more disciplined, more focused, and more determined than your average person. All these qualities will set you apart and help you as you later find your place within the world.

The TL;DR of my Coaches’ Corner piece is as follows:

  • Rise above and push through hard times
  • Drown out negativity and self-doubt
  • Stop comparing yourself
  • Celebrate your friends’ achievements