By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Wednesday, September 26, 2018
The other day, I read an interesting quote: “Life is a staircase. One step at a time.”
Generally, I shy away from “life is…” quotes since life can “be” just about anything — including boxes of chocolate and, I suppose, staircases. But as I reflected on my own age group swimming experience with Septembers, getting in-shape, and how hard the swimming year can be, this “life is a staircase” quote resonated. And it reminded me of a word I’ve heard a lot lately: Process.
“Process” is today’s mantra, just as “mindfulness” was a few years ago. The other day, LeBron James, minted in his Los Angeles Lakers uniform, discussed his season’s expectations: “For me, it’s all part of the process.” That word again. He spoke of ups and downs experienced along a season’s journey. He’s beginning a new journey with a new team. Rather than fixate on championships, he spoke about committing to the daily “process.”
Swimming, like all sports, follows a similar journey. But enjoying the process can be hard this time of year, when the weather gets colder and the practices get harder. Many swimmers in September leap into cold pools for morning practices and want to fast-forward to their end-of-season podiums, expected time drops, and relay championships. I know I did. Instead of focusing on 500 freestyle repeat sets, I dreamt about the high school state championships, making finals, standing on the blocks, and racing. Those fantasies kept my heart beating through autumn doldrums. Those imaginary championship scenarios — thinking about a 200 IM coming down to the final stroke — kept that passion alive.
We need those dreams, and it’s okay to want to fast-forward to March.
But we also need to be like LeBron and enjoy the daily process. Unlike so much in competitive swimming, “process” is something we have control over. “Process” is something we can manage. “Process” has nothing to do with time barriers, podium spots, or roster selections. Process is about attitude, commitment, and focus.
Call it process. Call it mindfulness. Call it “enjoying the journey and not the destination.” Call it whatever you want. The goal should be the same: Every day, dive into swim practice and focus on getting across to the other side of the pool, turning around, and getting back. Focus on stroke technique and effort. Focus on improving one thing…. Over, and over, and over.
Over time, I stopped wanting to fast-forward to podiums and instead tried to enjoy every swim practice. Sounds like I was hypnotized, or cursed, or possibly under some kind of spell. How could anyone enjoy every swim practice? How could anyone enjoy icy cold pools before the crack of dawn? Learning to enjoy the process is like learning anything — it’s a skill. Many of us are not born with it. We learn it through practice. You don’t suddenly decide to love 400 IM repeats and 7,000 yard morning workouts. “Enjoying the process” has to be learned like the back-to-breaststroke turn.
Practice enjoying the next swim practice: Pick one thing to work on. Write it down. Think about it. After practice, analyze: Did you improve that one thing? Then, pick another thing to work on at the next practice. Then another. Over, and over, and over. Every day, pick one thing to improve, work on, and try to improve.
That’s “process.” It’s as simple as that.
So, this September, as the air chills and leaves change, if you’re feeling like the mountain top is a little too tall, a little too big, and a little too high, don’t look into the clouds. Don’t squint your eyes for something you can barely see. Instead, stare at your own two feet and the teeny tiny step in front of them.
“Life is a staircase. One step at a time.”
And swimming is a process. One stroke at a time.