Setbacks as Part of Practice

Setbacks as Part of Practice

By Mike Gustafson//Contributor  | Monday, September 17, 2018

Every Monday, I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have a question, please email me at


Hi Mike,


For the past 10 years now, I've been doing what I love the most, swimming. For the past 2 years though I've been going through some pretty rough patches with swimming.

I don't feel like I'm good enough, or fast enough. Whenever I do start to feel fast or good about swimming, I get another injury or another illness. After dealing with these occurring injuries/illnesses, I start to think to myself, “Is it still worth all my time and energy to keep working at a sport I'm not really improving at?”

I have taken days to a week off from swimming and let me tell you, it was like hell. I honestly can't see myself without swimming. But why do I still think so negative towards the sport I love? I have tried thinking positive and changing my mindset, but nothing I've tried has seemed to work.

I have read your articles and they are very inspirational to me. So, I would like to ask you, is there any ideas on how I can get out of this constant negative mind set?

Greatly appreciated,

Negative Mindset Swimmer




Dear Negative Mindset Swimmer,

I had so many similar experiences as an age group swimmer — your email is like reading my personal diary. One step forward, then a stumble. One breakthrough, then a breakdown. One good season, then a season filled with setbacks.

I frequently got sick or hurt throughout the season… sometimes before the biggest meet of the year. I was beyond frustrated. I was angry. Angry with my body, my mind, my experience. Angry that I felt so out of control. Angry that I couldn’t just have one perfect season — a season of perfect health and perfect physicality.

Then, after so many colds and sore knees and sprained ankles and broken fingers, I had a mental breakthrough: What if injuries and illnesses were part of training? What if a broken finger was part of practice? What if a cough was part of the training I had to endure?

I’m not saying to look forward to setbacks. I’m saying, setbacks are part of the journey. Before the biggest meet of the year, you can hurt your shoulder. Before the big relay at the end of the season, you can have a stomach bug. Before the biggest race of your life, you can get the flu. And if you’re like me, chances are, something will happen. In my experience, there is no perfectly healthy season.

These setbacks happen all the time. It happened to me. Before my last race ever, I popped my shoulder. I had searing pain throughout warm-ups. Couldn’t lift my shoulder above my head. What was I to do? Scratch? Quit? Give up? Before my last ever race?!

Because I had a career of illness and injury, I was used to it. I was used to overcoming setbacks. I practiced overcoming it day after day, season after season. I was used to dealing with the flu and temperatures and popped shoulders. Not at first. But after so many seasons derailed by some kind of break or breakdown, I was used to pains and struggles and attempting to swim my best even when I didn’t feel my best.

In my bag of mental tricks, I had a few mechanisms to employ at the Big Ten Championships. I visualized. I breathed. I put things in perspective. And, to use a phrase my grandfather used to use all the time, “I played the hand I was dealt.”

Play the hand you’re dealt. Visualize yourself getting healthier. Sleep as much as you can. Eat well.

Often, that’s all you can control. That, and your attitude. And if your attitude is to realize that setbacks happen (instead of agonizing over setbacks) over time you will learn how to overcome these setbacks. Or at least deal with them. Because when you’re dealt a less-than-stellar hand, you have two options: Fold your cards, or keep playing.

I hope you push in those chips and play the best you can.



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