By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Wednesday, February 1, 2017
“I can’t. I’m just not any good at it.”
For whatever reason, I’ve rarely believed in that comment above. Whether that comment is spoken about musical ability, artistic ability, math ability — any ability, really — I’ve never thought a person is incapable of doing something due to some abstract reason like not being “any good.” Perfect is a measure of talent; good is a measure of practice. If you practice something with regularity, you might not become perfect at it, but you will become good at it.
Maybe not the world’s best. But perfectly good enough.
When I was a kid — maybe 10-years-old, and just starting out on the competitive swimming scene — I couldn’t flip-turn. My flip-turns resembled not a Michael Phelps charging through the water, but a confused, tiny little fleshy blob awkwardly spinning over and slowly hitting the wall. It was almost like a comedy routine, my sad flip-turns. Water rushed up my nose every time, to the point where I thought something was wrong with me. I’d surface to the water coughing, spitting, near tears, frustrated and upset.
“Coach, I just can’t do flip-turns,” I’d say. “I’m not any good at them.”
“Yes, you can. It only takes practice.”
Which is exactly what every 10-year-old doesn’t want to hear.
The thing is, when you’re growing up, it can be hard to see difficult tasks come naturally to other people. Whether that be flip-turns or free throws, when you’re a kid, and your best friend nails the perfect free throw every time, you can become frustrated and think, “I’m just not meant to do this. I’m not any good.” What we don’t realize as kids is that your best friend who hits nine out of ten free throws simply got there by practicing free throws for years, and years, and years. We assume they are naturally good. Maybe they are.
But it also took practice.
Are there some reasons why certain people can’t do certain things? Yes, of course, sometimes. Sometimes there are definitive reasons. Sometimes there are, quite simply, impossible tasks, or definite reasons why people cannot do a certain task. But on the whole, on the average, “I’m not good enough” depends on your definition of “enough.”
A friend of mine likes to say that anything is accomplishable through “relentless determination.” And so I’m reminded once more of my 10-year-old inability to learn how to do a flip-turn. They seemed so awkward, so impossible. You mean I have to flip in the water, push off the wall in a perfect streamline, and not die? The concept of it was unfathomable. Yet I saw my peers do it again and again — peers who had been on swim team longer, who had more practice than I had. I was jealous of them. I was envious of them.
After my coach told me, again and again, that all it took was practice, I became relentlessly determined to learn the flip-turn. I spent hours working on them. Over and over. Water rushed up my nose every time. My goggles came off. I missed the wall so much, that my legs were tired and sore just reaching for the wall. There are home videos of a younger version of me trying to do somersaults, and I couldn’t do those either. More than a few times, I thought I was just not coordinated enough to flip-turn. That I’d never do it. I thought about quitting. I hated it. And most practices, I’d think, “I’m just not good enough to learn this.”
I don’t know if I buy that old adage that “practice makes perfect.” Because, if that were the case, everyone who practiced hard would become perfect. And there can only be one world record holder in each event at any given time, no matter how much someone practices. So, talent accounts for something.
But I do believe in this: “Practice makes perfectly good enough.” I became perfectly good enough at the flip-turn to the point where now, in my mid-thirties, the flip-turn is an action that comes as effortlessly as breathing. It’s natural. It’s smooth. It looks nothing like the fleshy floating blob from my past.
“I can’t do flip-turns,” a fellow friend of mine said the other day — another thirty-something, just now taking up the sport for the first time. “I think I’m just incapable. I’m not good enough.”
Whatever age, whatever the task, with relentless determination, almost anyone can become “perfectly good enough.” Especially when it comes to the sport’s more challenging tasks, like learning butterfly (or swimming a 200-meter butterfly nonstop), performing a flip-turn, or that back-to-breaststroke IM turn.
Being good at anything takes relentless determination. When I learned that flip-turn, suddenly, I went from last in my lane to third-to-last. It wasn’t a major feat, but to me, it felt like I had won Olympic gold. I felt like I had finally caught up with my peers. I felt like I had finally became a swimmer. A real, true swimmer… even if I didn’t have the natural talent level of others. I was 10-years-old. And, at last, finally, I could flip-turn.
The only thing left to learn?
How to dive.
I wanted to shout, “But I’m an awkward, uncoordinated, incapable kid who can never learn how to dive!”
And maybe I did — internally.
But I stepped up, climbed on that tall, towering, scary block, and belly flop after belly flop, months and months later, became not the next Greg Louganis, but perfectly good enough.
Follow Mike Gustafson on Twitter @MicGustafson.