By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Monday, October 1, 2018
Every Monday, I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have a question, please email me at email@example.com.
What do you do when you don't know what to do anymore? I have been pushing myself so hard to reach a point where I want to be. I improve during practice, but I haven't improved during meets in over a year. I'm so tired of doing bad and I don't know what to do about it anymore. I've gotten to the point where I'm just numb after a meet. I'm lost, and I have no idea whether I'm supposed to give up or keep pushing myself.
What you’re experiencing is probably the hardest thing in competitive swimming — and it is also very common. I know many teammates and friends who tried their best in practice for years, improved practice times, but meet times stayed flat. I had plateaus as well — once for three years and another one for four years. It is so discouraging. I hear you.
What’s really aggravating during these time plateaus is that you’re doing everything right: You’re trying hard in practice, you’re working on all the little things, you’re staying as positive as you can, and you’re listening to your coach. Even with all that, the time drops don’t come. It’s the hardest thing to experience in sports, besides, perhaps, injury.
One particularly cruel lesson I’ve learned through competitive swimming is that the day will come when we all stop dropping time. That day may be when we are 21 and in college and at our last meet. That day may be when we are 16 and we’re swimming at a dual meet we didn’t even care about. But the day will come.
So, what to do? Obviously, we all want that day to be delayed as much as we possibly can. Obviously, we all want to drop as much time as we possibly can. Obviously, we will never know when that day comes, until it comes.
The best thing to do, given my own experience with time plateaus and looking back over an age group and NCAA swimming career, is to simply re-define why you’re doing this sport. Re-define why you practice, re-define why you compete, re-define how you interact with it.
In other words: If you define yourself by your best time, one day, you will be disappointed, no matter what you do. (Unless you’re lucky and the day you retire is also the day you perform a personal best time.)
However, if you define yourself by the actions you control — actions like having a positive attitude, being a leader, self-improvement, learning about your body and your mind and your soul — you control your own definition of success.
For example, when I had a four-year time plateau, I considered quitting, but instead I didn’t stop trying. I thought, “While I’m not dropping time in races, I’ll work on something else. I’ll have the best final pull-out I possibly can in the 200-yard breaststroke.” And I began to work on it. Not for weeks. Years. Every last set, every last length, I focused on that final pullout. Why? Because I had faith that one day I would have the opportunity to break through a personal best time, and when that race came, I would have the best final-length breaststroke pullout I possibly could.
My advice is to stop focusing and fixating on racing times. It’s sort of like fixating on personal wealth. If you fixate on it, you’ll always feel poor. You’ll always feel like you never have enough money. Same thing with racing: If you fixate on your personal best time, you’ll never feel fast enough. You’ll always feel incomplete somehow, like you need to drop more, and be faster, faster, faster…
But if you focus on things that you can control — like having perfect race execution, for instance — you can have success. You can feel fulfilled. You can feel like you had the best attitude and were the best possible team leader you could be. Or that you were the first into the pool for practice every morning. Or that you tried and gave your all — win, lose, or draw.
In life we will all be faced with this circumstance: We try our best, and we fall short of our expectations. However, if you put all your expectation and focus into something you can control, you will always feel like you put your best self into your activity and at least have that knowledge that you fought valiantly. That, to me, is a feeling better than a personal best time. It is the feeling of knowing you gave your whole soul to something, and you fought, and raced, and threw yourself into the ring, no matter what the outcome.
I hope this helps.