Mike's Mailbag: Lost Without but Lost Within

Mike's Mailbag: Lost Without but Lost Within

By Mike Gustafson//Contributor  | Monday, July 9, 2018

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


Hi Mike,


I am a 16-year-old swimmer (obviously) and I am in desperate need of your wise words. I am struggling with my confidence level and my mental game all together. I have been swimming since I was 4 and love it. I am lost without it, but I am somehow lost within it.

Every single season I train my butt off and at the end of the season it always boils down to nothing. My championship meets end in tears, unaccomplished goals and added time. I swim the 100 fly and have been aiming to break a minute since I was in 8th grade.

I know that I can be under a minute. It's possible, but somehow, I can't at the same time. I've read all the mental training articles out there, gone to a sports psychologist, acupuncture, and everything left and right, but I've still had no success. My main issue is that I am so motivated during the season to train harder than ever, change my eating, stretching and whatnot. I do all the work and feel so confident that this is going to be the season I crush my goals, but the days before and even moment before I have to swim I lose all of that confidence. I don't know what to do. I have my goals posted everywhere, in my room, on my ceiling, mirror, and even on the background on my phone. I want it so bad but can never reach it.

My mental attitude isn't as bad as it sounds. I know I need to be positive, focus on the little things, the feel, the perspective, and most importantly believe in myself, but I can't. I say I do but I never deep down actually believe I can. There's always that nagging thought that I won't do it. I know that when I'm having fun I swim fast, but when I need to swim fast, I can't, it's like I'm forcing it. I know my list is extensive, but I've struggled with this issue for so long and I really could use some thoughts from your vast knowledge of swimming. Thanks for listening. 

-A lost without but lost within swimmer




You need a new goal.

You’re so fixated on breaking a minute, you’re working yourself into a frenzy. You’re thinking throughout the season, “I will break a minute. I will break a minute! I will break a minute…” that you don’t realize during championship season the doubt that lingers: “But what if I don’t?”

What if you fail? What if you don’t? What if you go 1:01 instead of :59? Does that mean everything was for nothing?

That question — what if you don’t — creates so much fear inside you, you’re actually adding this invisible weight to your swimming. Imagine this fear as being a huge 100-pound weight set on top of your back during your butterfly race. That’s what fear is. It’s weighing you down.

Seasonal goals are good, I think. If you have a breaking-a-minute goal that motivates you to do everything right (and you’re doing so much right), like staying positive, working hard, changing your diet, stretching, posting goals, etc., that’s good.

But when that goal begins to become an obsession and dominate your thinking, that’s when goals turn negative. That’s when goals work against you. You’re so fixated on a goal that the goal distracts you from what’s important, which is swimming to the best of your ability. The goal begins to siphon off your energy: “What if I don’t achieve this goal? Should I quit if I don’t achieve this goal? Is what I’m doing even worth it?”

If a goal gets you out of bed in the morning, great. But once that goal begins to feel like that 100-pound weight, get rid of it. Free yourself. Find another goal. Or don’t. Sometimes, when I was a swimmer, I found it more helpful to imagine failure than to imagine success. Why? Because, like you, sometimes I was so scared of failure, I let that fear control me. By imagining myself losing, I became comfortable with that fear. I sat with it, I savored it in my mouth like a piece of candy, and I let it fade away. By imagining my worst fear — losing — I began to control that fear.

Try it out. If you can’t shut off those doubts and that fear, sit with it a little bit. Stick that fear in your mouth like a piece of candy and see what it tastes like. It might not taste as bad or as scary as you think.

Then spit it out and let it go.

Easier said than done, of course. But know this: Goals don’t have to be time-based. Time-based goals are easy to digest, and yours is especially monumental (to break a minute). Time-based goals may help you get out of bed for those cold morning practices and may help push you through the pain of practice.

But goals can also be attitude-based. They can be effort-based. They can be strategy-based.

My advice? Use that minute-barrier as motivation to practice harder. But as you approach championship season, find a new goal. Don’t be scared of failure, and more importantly, don’t let that fear control you. Try to find a goal that’s something you control — an attitude, an approach, a strategy.

A goal shouldn’t feel like a burden.

If it does, let it go.

When you let go, you’ll be amazed, Lost, how quickly you can find yourself.



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