Mike's Mailbag: Swimming Without Regret

Mike's Mailbag: Swimming Without Regret

By Mike Gustafson//Contributor  | Monday, December 12, 2016

Every Monday, I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have questions, please email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com

Dear Mike,
For essentially my whole swimming career, I never have been able to reach the vast improvement I look for. I amstill improving, but I don’t feel like I am improving at the rate I should be and that a lot of other swimmers are. This is frustrating because there are times when I feel I have trained for it, but do not reach the goal. I do not know why I cannot reach my times like everyone else, whom I feel have had their hard work pay off and I don’t. I believe I have an adequate mindset, as I don’t get too nervous before meets, making everything more confusing.
I have always been told that if you constantly put in the hard work, dedication, and effort, you will succeed and reach the potential you should meet. I think I have been putting in that work, but it has been quite a long time and I don’t really see the potential shining. Could you please tell me what may be causing me to not be reaching my fullest potential still at this point in time?
Frustrated Swimmer


Hey Frustrated Swimmer,

Hard work, dedication, and effort will generally result in your fullest potential. But sometimes hard work doesn’t mean you’ll win an Olympic gold medal. Sometimes you will work hard, and you will still lose. It’s a frustrating, painful aspect of sports. I’ve been there, and so have 99.9% of other swimmers who put in hard work, dedication, and effort. 

The real question is: Does knowing this stop you from putting in everything you can give?

What if you knew, right now, your “fullest potential”? What if you knew, right now, that the highest place you’d ever have was 12th at the Big Ten Championships? Would that make you want to quit, or stop trying? 

Rates of improvement do not always correspond with hard work, dedication, and effort. The hardest workers on the team are not always those who break pool and team records. The most dedicated are not always Olympic champions. Those who put forth the most effort are not always those who become champions. 

This frustrates me, too. Because I was never an Olympic champion, but I like to think I tried pretty hard over the course of my career. I worked hard. I sweat. I tried. I didn’t win, but I found my own version of personal glory. 

There are clichés in sports like if you work hard, you will improve. But sometimes, that rate of improvement will slow, or stop, even though you’re trying harder than ever. Sometimes you will try harder than you ever have, and you might swim slower than you did last week, last season, or even last year. 

The beauty in sports, despite those clichés, are the questions athletes ask themselves when facing brutal truths. If you are not able to be an Olympic champion, does that mean you stop trying? If you are not going to set a world record, do you give up? Do you stop? Do you retire? Do you quit? 

None of us know our fullest potential. That’s the other beauty in sports. But those who truly accomplish their fullest potential are those people who continue charging on despite the murky future. They generally seem to know that hard work doesn’t necessarily pay off all the time, and yet, they keep charging forward and chugging along anyway. They have answered those questions with a resounding, “I will not quit… I will keep trying my best.” Not necessarily because they believe they will win Olympic gold, but because for them, not-trying is not an option. Giving 100% is a journey in itself. 

Sports is ultimately a process of regret. “I should have nailed that turn.” “I should have practiced dives more.” “I shouldn’t have skipped morning practice.” Your fullest potential isn’t a number or a time or a place. It is simply the cessation of regret at the end of your career. Your fullest potential is your own definition, and ultimately, in my experience, it means a career without regret. It means a career where you, as an athlete, gave your all, despite knowing that there was a possibility that your rate of improvement might slow, that you might not win, that you might not break a record or win a race. 

I hope this helps. 


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