By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Monday, November 28, 2016Every Monday, I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have a question, please email me at email@example.com or Tweet me at @MicGustafson.
I am a college swimmer. I think I knew since freshman year of high school that I wanted to swim as a Division I
athlete in college. I set a clear goal for myself since then, worked my butt off for 4 years (with lots of highs and lows along the way), and got a partial scholarship to a DI school that was right for me. As an incoming college freshman, it seemed to me back then that my career as an athlete would only go up from there. I was so wrong.
I think I had a good freshman year in the pool. At the time, I didn’t think it was so great. It seemed natural for me that I was posting several first-place finishes at dual meets and killing it at practice. I felt like a youngster that was ready to take on the world of college swimming and accomplish great things just by working hard. Because of my regular season success, I had really high expectations for myself come conference, and I knew so did my coach and teammates. However, I fell a tad short of my goal times. My coach thought I did amazing, and even though I didn’t think so because of the times I went, I felt happy just for making her proud, and so blessed to have the opportunity I was having of doing what I loved with amazing people. Looking back now, I think I had a great championship meet.
Sophomore year comes around, and dual meet season was not going my way at all. It all started from the first meet, and followed me throughout the greater part of the season. It was a complete mystery why I was finishing 3-5 seconds slower in my 200 meter backstroke, and 2-3 in my 100 than my regular in-season times from last year. I was working just as hard, doing all the right things, not going out on week nights Though my freestyle eventually (somewhat) regained its strength, my backstroke continued to suck throughout the season, and it hurt a lot because it was my best event. Safe to say my conference meet did not go well at all, and my previously excited and motivated self came back to campus feeling like a failure, a speck of dust in the wind, the swimmer nobody even knows is on the team because she doesn’t post wins anymore. I was just so discouraged. What hurt the most however, was my coach telling me to “go warm down” after my last race, when just last year she had wrapped me up in a big hug after I was done swimming. If only I had enjoyed my freshman year more, not taken my success for granted.
I am a junior now. I had my first dual meet yesterday and I did atrociously bad. So bad, and I can’t explain why. I swam all summer, have been working hard, and have been trying to fix my mentality. I just feel so discouraged, like I don’t matter anymore and like my coaches don’t care about how I swim at practice because they know I won’t be a big point contributor anyway. I want to turn things around. I want to swim fast again and feel happy after a meet. I haven’t been happy after a meet in about a year and a half. I want to matter to my coaches and to my teammates again. I want to feel confident before a race. Why do you think this is happening to me? What can I do to fix it? How can I enjoy swimming again?
Sorry if this email is long, I just really needed to let it all out. Also, I really hope it makes sense what I’m trying to say.
-Swimming’s Not Fun Anymore
You had what I refer to as a “sophomore slump.” I had one of those, too. Here’s how I overcame it:
First, stop swimming for other people. Coaches. Teammates. Family members. Friends. “Swimming for other people” means you place importance on others’ reactions to how you swim. If you swim fast, you turn to them for smiles and hugs. If you swim slowly, you turn to them for consolation. This means that no matter how you swim — fast or slow — you’re turning to them for some kind of validation about your performance.
Be your own validation. Swim for yourself. Swim because you love to compete. If you swim fast, feel good that you have conquered a previous personal best. If you swim slowly, search inside and analyze, “What more can I do?” If the answer is nothing, then feel good that you’ve done everything you can. You may not realize it now, but “all you can do” is, in itself, an accomplishment.
Second, try an experiment: Be the absolute best version of yourself. We all have many versions of ourselves. Some versions are sad. Some versions are happy. Some versions don’t want to wake up and trudge through the snow to get to swim practice. Some versions want to be the first person into the pool and last person to leave. This upcoming season, be the absolute best version of yourself that you can be.
We all know what that version is: Enthusiastic, hard-working, a great teammate. Focus on it situationally: Rather than getting upset that your coach said, “Go warm down,” ask yourself what the best version of yourself would do? The best version of yourself would probably think, “My coach must be distracted, and it’s okay, because I tried the best I could. Now I’ll go warm down.”
Try being the best version of yourself for two months. Eight weeks. Trick yourself, even if you feel those negative thoughts or negative actions coming back. Ask yourself, “What would the best version of myself be in this situation?” Then go be it.
Lastly — and this is important — when you get to swim practice and when you warm-up for swim meets, be grateful. Leap into the water (only if it is deep enough) with enthusiasm and joy. It sounds corny, but you could actually say to yourself, “I love swimming.” I know. I know. But, over time, it works. Don’t ask me why. It just does.
It’s sort of like those studies that say when you see someone smile at you, you feel happier. Or when you force yourself to smile, you feel happier. When you force yourself to say things like “I love swimming” or you leap into the water with enthusiasm, over time, you’ll actually regain that confidence. You’ll regain that swagger. You’ll feel better about being an athlete, staying healthy, and pushing yourself every day. Goals will become more attainable and you’ll begin to worry about what you can control.
Swim for yourself, be the best version of yourself, and leap into the water with enthusiasm. Try these three things. You may not best all your previous records, but you’ll feel happy about this sport, and about your participation in it.
I hope this helps.