Mike's Mailbag: The Definition of Success

Mike's Mailbag: The Definition of Success

By Mike Gustafson//Contributor  | Monday, December 18, 2017

Every Monday online at USASwimming.org and inside each issue of Splash Magazine, I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have a question, please email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com. I’ll do my best to answer.


Dear Mike,

I have been swimming for almost 12 years now and I have just finished up my freshman year of college swimming. I wasn't happy with my results. I haven't dropped time since I was a junior in high school, and I'm frustrated. I always go to practice, do everything I'm told, work hard, and focus. I watch what I eat, and I even go to bed as early as possible every night. It seems like I'm doing everything right, yet I'm still not dropping time. Any advice?


Frustrated Swimmer


Dear Frustrated:

I hear this question a lot. It’s the most frequently asked swimmer-question. And it’s not really a question at all. It’s more like a despair. One I have related to during my days as an age group and competitive NCAA swimmer, and one I relate to now.

“I do everything right… everything but drop time.”

I hear you.

It’s the hardest question to answer, because there are no good answers. I can respond about continuing on, or some cheesy slogan like just keep swimming. I can supply a good deal of motivational quotes to post in your locker or scribble on a kickboard. I could offer hope that time drops are to come — though this could prove untrue, because sometimes, they won’t. But in the end, the premise of despair is still there. By which I mean: If we as athletes continue to define success *only* in terms of times, we will fail. Because one day, there will always be a day or moment when we stop dropping time, when we gain time instead of lose time, when we swim slower than the day before.

Perhaps a more balanced philosophical approach would help — at least mentally. Yes, times are how we measure athletic performance. Obviously. Times are objective. Rewarding. Cruel. Times don’t care about you, your practice routines, your talent level, your height, your upcoming test, how smart you are, what you look like, what you believe, or where you come from. Times are beautiful, in this way.

But balance out that definition of success. What else matters, besides times? It’s like valuing only money. Does wealth define a good life? Do fast times define success in this extracurricular endeavor of swimming between two walls?

If you try, and fail, and keep trying, and self-sacrifice, and arrive early, and stay late — doesn’t this count for something?

The scoreboard won’t show it. So, it’s up to us.

Frustrated Swimmer, try this: Make a list of everything you enjoy about this sport — a list of things you control. Then do those things. Remember to breathe. Remember to support your teammates. Remember to work as hard as you can.

Everyone will, at some point — now or years later — stop dropping time. And if that is our only measure of success, we will all fail, from the 10-year-old to the 90-year-old.

Instead, make daily, monthly, and yearly goals of things you can control and accomplish. You can be a leader. You can change your team’s culture. You can help others. You can eat the right kinds of foods. You can learn how to manage your time. You can spend your time — both at the pool and away from the pool — wisely.

If you want to have the best time in this sport, stop fixating on times. A million dollars isn’t guaranteed to make you happy. Neither will a personal best time.

In other words:

When you step onto those blocks, do everything you can to feel successful, no matter what the scoreboard will say two minutes later.

Do those things, and you’ll win. 



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