By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Monday, January 30, 2017Every Monday, I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have questions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve been getting in the habit of comparing myself to my teammates. They are getting faster and I'm stuck at the same times. How can I still love swimming and love my faster teammates at the same time? How can I get a positive attitude in practice?-Stuck Behind Teammates
A long time ago, I had a similar problem. There was a guy I trained with who was always three steps ahead of me,in terms of times. We swam similar events. We trained together. In practice, I could keep up with him, or beat him most the time. But at meets, he’d zoom past me. He was always performing better. It was impossible not to compare myself to him.
After a few seasons of comparing myself to his performances, a feeling began to eat away at me: I felt like I wasn’t good enough. Envy. Jealousy. I began to resent his success. When he raced and performed well, I’d actually wish that he would swim slower, just so I could win for a change. This wasn’t healthy, I recognize that now. But it was how I felt.
About halfway through my sophomore year in high school, I realized that harboring these feelings was affecting my own swimming. Spending mental energy on someone else was distracting. I wasn’t focusing 100% on my own performances.
I remember thinking, “What if this faster teammate could be an advantage, rather than a disadvantage?” What could I learn from him? Could he make me faster? What if his improvement could be spun around as motivation? After all, we trained together. We raced each other. Could I use his talent to my advantage, rather than bottle up emotions of envy and jealousy?
For one season, I tried being genuinely happy for his performances. And suddenly, it was like a huge piano was lifted off my shoulders. I didn’t feel pressure to keep up. And that’s what led to envious feelings — pressure. Pressure to keep up. Pressure to drop time. Pressure to win, like him.
Once I felt happy for him, I began to learn from him: “How do you drop so much time when you race?” I asked. “How do you think I could drop time?” Instead of viewing him as an adversary, we had an “us against the world” mentality. I asked him to help me get better, and he pushed me.
In the end, I improved more with him on my team than had he been on a different team. No matter what team he competed for, he still would have won races. No matter what team name was on his swim cap, he still would have beat me. I couldn’t control how he performed. So rather than focusing on something I couldn’t control, I found ways we could work together. Like teammates should.
See, Stuck Behind Teammates, when you focus on other people, you’re taking away time you could be focusing on your racing. Every race is you versus the water. It’s not you versus a teammate. It’s not you versus another swimmer. It’s you versus the clock. The clock is the enemy. The beautiful thing about the clock, and about competitive swimming, is that time treats everyone the same.
No matter who you are, time ticks the same.
Cheer for your teammates’ success, in the same way you’d want them to be happy for you. What goes around comes around. The pressure you’re putting on yourself is unfair. There are some people in this world who will simply swim faster than you. That’s a fact, whether you’re Michael Phelps or an 8-year-old age grouper. Eventually, one day, now or later, you will be beat.
And remember this: It’s to your advantage to not be the fastest person on the team. Like that old adage, “Surround yourself with people smarter than you,” in swimming, you want to surround yourself with swimmers faster than you. Because now, you have room to improve — you can see what you need to do. You have swimmers you can race in practice, teammates who can help guide you and give you tips and pointers, and people you can learn from on a daily basis. I’d rather train with an Olympic gold medalist, even if I knew that gold medalist would beat me, because then I’d know that, in my career, I trained with the best. Have that perspective. Don’t feel resentful. Feel empowered. Feel fortunate you have such fast teammates. Feel like you have an opportunity, and eventually, you’ll believe that you do.
I hope this helps.
Follow Mike on Twitter @MicGustafson.