Over the years as a coach, I have found one ingredient in the arsenal of a swimmer to be best correlated with success. This aspect of swimming is often the hardest to train, yet the most important come race time. This is of course a swimmer’s confidence and self-belief. It is in the moments when a swimmer becomes aware of what they can achieve that the greatest swims are swum. So the question becomes, why does every swimmer not have this self-belief?
I believe that this is due to our human nature, our fear of failure, and what that will mean to others. “Will people see that failure and judge me?” The simple answer to this question is YES! Culture/ society will judge failure; our cultural moment is very judgmental. However, this is not isolated to swimming by any means; every aspect of life has judgment attributed to it. This is, however, especially true in swimming, where every effort can be assessed quite objectively with a clock and two eyes.
However, a more profound question that should be asked is whether this judgment truly matters. Whether that judgment should be given the authority to paralyze effort. To truly succeed, failure is inevitable. Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time once said “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Even the greatest acknowledges the reality of failure. What separated Michael from the rest of the field was his self-belief: That the next shot was going to go in the basket. Michael was fearless in the face of judgment for failures and misses – he was in pursuit of something much greater than others’ approval.
Through the years of coaching, I have seen swimmers “reach their potential” (for the season) but it is never through working that much harder or often than everyone else, it is through the confidence and will to achieve greatness in the pool. The belief that success will come at the end of the season is not simply seen at swim meets either, it is seen in the hardest of training sets. It is seen when morale is low, and to give up is to simply fit in with the rest of the group. It is these moments where greatness is seen. It is also in these moments when character is built, and you condition your mind on how to respond when tasks that seem unconquerable arise. This training manifests itself at championship meets, when heats swim faster than predicted, and what would have been a good enough swim is now an outside lane. This mental fortitude that has been trained all season long and self-belief are then mobilized… pushing a swimmer to not accept the status quo and be “ok” with dropping a staggering amount of time in pursuit of a goal. It is that focus on a goal, and that belief that there is nothing one cannot accomplish, that lends itself to the most extraordinary results.
This elite mentality, the X-factor, is not something achievable by only a few, nor is it something that is innate to a few. It is a way of believing, a way of viewing oneself, a mentality of quieting the noise from culture and all the voices that say “you can’t” in pursuit of what you truly can achieve. A quote that has stuck with me throughout my life and been the core of my coaching philosophy says that “it’s not you, it’s what you are gripped with”. Find a goal, find a mountain to climb, an impassable challenge, and beat it, let the fire, the drive inside of you, the essence of who you are push you to what you never thought you could achieve, to places people stopped believing you could make it a long time ago…