Mike's Mailbag: Stop Worrying About Competitors

Mike's Mailbag: Stop Worrying About Competitors

By Mike Gustafson//Contributor  | Monday, March 13, 2017

Every Monday, I answer swimmers’ questions from around the country. If you have a question, email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com or ask me on Twitter @MicGustafson. 

Hi Mike,

I’m a High School swimmer who works very hard and is very dedicated to swimming. The only problem is, I’m not sure how to relax? I always want to know my competitors’ times, but I know I should focus on myself, but I’m not sure how? Am I even supposed to focus on myself? Is it bad that I look at others times? If I’m not supposed to focus on others, how am I supposed to focus on myself? 

I hope you can help me and thank you in advance.

- "Nervous Swimmer"


Nervous Swimmer,

Swimming is a beautiful sport, and I’ll tell you why: 

Last night during the NCAA Tournament Selection Show, a committee — a group of people — decided the fates of entire teams. They decided who got into the tournament, and who did not. They used factors like schedule strength, wins, losses, momentum, and head-to-head contests with other teams. (Yes, you can also argue that teams who did not get in deserved not to get in because they didn’t “do enough,” which is a legit argument. But even still, in the end, a selection committee decided who got in and who didn’t.) As is the case every year when a committee decides which teams get into which tournaments, the committee acknowledged that there is no perfect, scientific process. 

In other words: The continuation of a basketball season, to a certain extent, was decided by people who were not even playing basketball. 

Swimming doesn’t have this problem. 

The beauty in swimming is that a time is a time. There are no arguments made against a clock. The clock provides one inarguable fact: How fast you swam. You cannot dispute this. You cannot appeal this. You cannot argue this. 

Here’s another beautiful aspect of swimming: The only thing that matters is your own time. Sure, you can look at your competitor’s times — go ahead. Won’t hurt anything (unless you obsess about it too much). But your times are the only factor that counts. 

In swimming, sure, we race other people. But other people do not control how fast you go. And that’s the biggest difference between swimming and other sports. In basketball, for example, every offensive player faces a defensive player. That defensive player is tasked with stopping the offensive player, and stopping the scoring of points. Football, same thing. 

But in swimming, other swimmers do not impede your success. Other swimmers do not cause your failure. Yes, gold medals are handed out at the Olympics, and championships are determined by place, not time. But your competitors cannot hop into your lane and stop you from swimming fast. 

Nervous Swimmer, you write about trying to stay relaxed. Let me tell you: There is a great relief when you put your hands up and say, “I can’t control how fast other people swim.” Suddenly, you don’t have to worry about your competitors. You don’t have to fret that your teammate who skips every fourth practice swims faster than you at meets. Why don’t you have to worry? Because it doesn’t matter. 

The only way other swimmers’ performances can affect you is if you worry about them. If you fret about them. If you obsessively follow the times of your teammates, peers, and competitors. If you spend so much mental energy worrying about other people, you forget to worry about yourself. 

It’s hard. It takes constant, daily work. But treat this like practice. Worry less about other people. Focus on yourself, and concentrate on your own performances, and your own times.

Put it this way:

If LeBron James and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers joined your competitors’ basketball team, you’d be in trouble. You wouldn’t be able to score. You likely wouldn’t score a point. You’d lose big time. (No offense.) 

But if Katie Ledecky swam next to you, you could still go a personal best time.

And that’s the beauty of swimming.



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