By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Monday, May 8, 2017
Every Monday, I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have a question, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have been a swimmer for most of my life. I've tried other sports, but I have never matched my swimming abilities in sports like baseball, soccer, and hockey. For the past year, my mental health has been in a constant battle because of swimming. I can no longer find it enjoyable. It tires me out, my coaches never help, and I have been faking illnesses and injuries nearly every week, just to get out of practice. I want to quit, but my parents say "you're just too good at swimming to quit" or "you're too old to try another sport". At this point, I'd rather do terrible in a sport I actually enjoy instead of swimming. I wish no offense to anyone who enjoys swimming.
-Too Scared To Quit
Hey Too Scared to Quit,
For a long while in my swimming career, I shared your mental struggles. I didn’t enjoy competitive swimming — I liked the friends, meets, relays, making up team cheers, etc., but I didn’t enjoy the day-to-day practices. The early mornings. The long freestyle sets. The monotony.
Quitting seemed like a solid option.
So I did. I quit. For about three months.
The first few days away from competitive swimming (sleeping in, no alarm clocks, no sore shoulders, no skin smelling like chlorine all day) seemed euphoric: Freedom! No morning practices! Afternoons off! Did I mention, no morning practices! time to spend playing guitar and writing and hanging out with friends! For a few days, life was easy.
But after a few days, I got very, very bored.
Eventually, I returned to swimming, but with a different perspective. Instead of thinking about swimming as this “thing” that “took up the rest of my life” and would “never end,” I viewed it as something with a beginning, middle, and end. I viewed it as a five-month season, one that would end. Once it ended, I could embark on different life pursuits. Simply knowing there was an end-point destination helped me enjoy the journey.
Swimming takes up so much time; swimmers often get bogged down with the sheer amount of “years ahead.” The grind can wear us down too much. The relentlessness of the season, and the short off-seasons, can become a burden, a chore, a pain. We get waterlogged by the amount of time, stress, physical and emotional pain, and exhaustion throughout the workouts, the morning and afternoon time commitments and weekends away from home. Day after day, month after month, it’s exhausting.
But it doesn’t have to be.
You’re “good” at swimming — which is why your parents don't want you to quit. As someone who has quit the sport, only to return and find so much more enjoyment upon that return, I have advice. Changes you can make now, to improve your enjoyment of the sport… changes that aren’t as drastic as quitting, but could help your enjoyment level:
1. Try “off-events.”
You’re a breaststroker? Try an entire season of swimming 100-yard butterfly. You’re a distance freestyler, and you can’t stand the monotony? Join the sprint group. You’re a sprinter, and you don’t see the point of it? Take up a few practices with those crazy distance swimmers. Get outside your comfort zone. Let go of expectations. Find that old, “summer league” fun that swimming used to be. Get back to racing for the pure fun of racing. Sometimes, off-events force us to see the sport differently. Rather than seeing swimming through this monotonous prison of one single event, off-events can open up the sport in new eyes.
I remember training with the sprint group in college a few times. It was so fun. Not because I was any good — I was a terrible sprinter. Uncoordinated. Virtually no fast-twitch muscle fiber in my body. BUT! It rejuvenated my love for racing again. Just like joining the distance group for a few practices rejuvenated my love for a good, solid hard set. I saw how hard those distance guys trained, how much they loved it, and I absorbed their passion.
Switch your routines. Race off-events. Train with another group. Hop into a different lane. Maybe join a new team. Change your routine and see what happens. At this point, you have nothing to lose.
2. Shorten your competitive season, and play a different sport.
I knew many swimmers who burned out. To re-kindle that old enjoyment of competitive swimming, many of these swimmers decided to play other sports throughout the year: A season of water polo, a season of soccer. Honestly, depending on what your event is, you can be a very good swimmer while being a “two-sport athlete.” Sometimes, participating in another sport makes you appreciate competitive swimming. Water polo is a great choice. But if you’re looking to get away from the pool, joining a 3-on-3 summer basketball league can be incredibly fun. Or an ultimate Frisbee team. Get away from the pool. Join a kickball league. Anything.
3. Take every fifth workout off.
Here’s a revolutionary idea: Take every fifth workout off. Don’t come to the pool. Sleep in. Nap. Do homework. Take a walk. Do not come to the pool, do not practice, do not think about swimming.
What, you may ask? Every fifth workout? How? Is that legal?
I think swim coaches can be too set in rigid systems, and too blind to the fact that some swimmers are like you: They want to quit, they don’t like the sport, and it shows in their performances. Thankfully, I had a coach who recognized this in me (and recognized I wasn’t performing well in practices) and gave me every fifth workout off. The rule was: I had to rest. Which was fine with me. I watched movies. I napped. I caught up on reading and homework. When I returned to practice, I was refreshed and energized — to the point of annoying my teammates. However, isn’t that the mood and mentality we want? An athlete who is motivated, refreshed, recovered, and ready for more? Hungry to swim?
I empathize, Too Scared To Quit. There are creative solutions — trying new events, a new sport, or cutting back on practice hours — that could help your enjoyment of swimming. Though I would never recommend continuing something you dislike, I believe you should try one, two, or three of these suggestions. See if one works. See if you enjoy swimming again. Talk to your coaches. Tell them, “I’m not enjoying this process,” and see if they are open to these solutions.
The last thing they want is you quitting. I think they’d also want to try something new. Regardless, the worst thing you can do is stay the course and continue down this road of negativity and passionless swimming. If you are miserable to the point where it’s affecting your mental health, you have to change. Talk to coaches. Be honest. Talk to parents. Be forthright. And go from there.
I hope this helps.