By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Wednesday, May 9, 2018
A long while back, I was an unhappy swimmer.
On the surface, I did things the right way: I rarely missed a practice, tried hard, raced well. I dropped time, cheered for teammates, overcame obstacles. I swam hard, listened to my coaches, won a few races.
But I was still unhappy.
I was “going through the motions.” Though outwardly I was a good swimmer, inside, I dreaded practices, counted down to taper, and looked forward more to getting out of the pool than hopping in. Some morning practices, I would close my eyes and pretend to sleep, even while swimming freestyle. I got so good at eyes-closed-swimming that I could nearly swim an entire warm-up with them completely shut, my body on auto-pilot. I’d half-open my eyes just before flipping over, and then, lapping back, I’d once again close them.
One day, my coach — sensing a few of us were “going through the motions” — sent an email about passion. Not only swimming with passion, but living life with passion. I’ll paraphrase the email, but essentially, it was a rally-cry:
Live life with passion, because why would you choose to live any other way?
That struck a chord in me. I realized, for an entire season, I was swimming without passion. I was simply at the pool, lapping up and down, waiting for practice to be over. I swam fast, but I never felt true accomplishment, even when there was a time drop. I wasn’t depressed. I felt fine. I had simply lost my passion for the sport, and I never realized it.
Until I received that advice — to live with passion.
It’s such simple advice, and I’m sure all of us have heard that advice before. But I hadn’t marinated in that advice until I read that email. Until I truly considered what it was to live with passion.
Now, I consider that advice to be the best piece of coaching advice I ever received. It had nothing to do with swimming. Nothing to do with freestyle or butterfly technique. Nothing to do with race strategy. Nothing to do with best times or goal-setting or even trying hard.
It was all about finding a new perspective, not a new technique. A perspective to give yourself fully to what you do, whatever that is. It’s a little like our culture’s current obsession with the word “mindfulness” — to be aware of what we’re doing, and to be passionate about it.
After I heard that advice, I began to analyze how I spent my time. I cut out a few activities and groups I was involved with that I wasn’t passionate about. I switched majors. I ate better. I slept more. And I began to see that somewhere along the way, I had lost my passion for swimming… and I wanted to get that passion back.
The process of finding that passion again wasn’t an overnight solution. I didn’t just wake up one day and declare, “I’ve got my passion back!” It was a slow acknowledgement that, yes, I wasn’t as passionate about it anymore, and then a slow questioning of, “Well, why not? What happened?” Eventually, I realized that I had become so fixated on the end-of-the-season destination that I dreaded everything else required to get there. I was so worried about that last race that I essentially stopped caring about everything else. I thought so much about dropping time, that when I finally did drop time, it either wasn’t enough time, or I would immediately just think about dropping more time. I was fixated on the results and rewards instead of the day-to-day.
That passion did return. It was a slow process, a process that included some better mindfulness, some awareness, some sitting by the pool and reminding myself about how it was a privilege to swim, and some self-analysis. But the biggest thing, for me, was learning how to enjoy that first few minutes of practice again. Feeling grateful and inspired to be at practice, instead of dreading it. Self-talking words of gratitude and passion before arriving for morning practice. Remembering what I liked about afternoons spent at the pool in the first place.
The best piece of coaching advice I’ve ever heard had nothing to do with swimming, and yet, it had everything to do with swimming.
In its essence: Be passionate about the process. If you choose to swim, swim passionately. If you choose to compete, compete passionately. Everything else will fall in line — hard work, enjoying the process, being a good teammate, learning from your mistakes — if it is all done with passion. Because after the goggles are hung the final time, after the last race has finished, the only thing that’s left is the feeling like you gave it your all… that you lived with passion.