By Olivier Poirier-Leroy//Contributor | Monday, April 22, 2019
Swimmers are a unique bunch. We perpetually smell like chlorine, eat like dump trucks, and get a tad defensive when a non-swimmer implies that our sport isn’t a “real” sport.
Beyond living the lifestyle and daily routine of the competitive swimmer, we each have our own ways of identifying within the sport:
- I’m a distance freestyler.
- I love doing big kick sets because I’m a good kicker.
- I am stronger swimming short course because I have great turns and breakouts.
- I can swim forever with a pull buoy between my legs.
- I’m the kind of swimmer who loves to race anytime, anywhere.
But just as often, there are the things we identify with that we are not so awesome at:
- I’m the kind of swimmer who does well in practice but not in competition.
- I’m not a long course swimmer because my walls and breakouts are my strengths.
- I always die at the end of my races.
We all have weaknesses in the sport.
Most of our weaknesses are irrelevant. A distance swimmer probably doesn’t put too much weight on how fast she can sprint a 25 off the blocks, and as a result can safely ignore this “weakness.”
Other weaknesses, however, are super relevant. A sprinter with a slow-as-the-leisure-lane reaction time off the blocks would have himself a highly relevant weakness.
But as we will cover, working on those relevant weaknesses can produce outsized benefits.
Why are you ignoring working on your weaknesses?
Plenty of reasons.
We gravitate towards the things we are good at.
The things that come more naturally to us are more enjoyable to do. If we are good at something, we tend to get a kick out of it. The things we are good at solidifies our confidence.
Simple as that.
If you consider yourself a good puller, odds are high that you are stoked when a big pull set comes up at practice. If your kick leaves much to be desired, I bet your face scrunches up and you sulk to the back of the lane when the main set is almost entirely kick.
If we are good at it, we tend to like doing it. Mastery is fun.
We don’t like the struggle that comes with not being good at something.
Because it’s a weakness, it requires work. Which means failing, being sloppy at the outset, and having to go full-blown struggle-mode with no guarantee of mastery.
Why bother struggling when we can just stick to what we know and what we are comfortable with?
For you perfectionists out there, this is a particularly vexing situation. Your pursuit of excellence demands that you fix your weaknesses, but that same high standard keeps you from performing the necessary flailing to master a weakness.
We downplay the impact our weaknesses have on our strengths.
We view them as being separate, or we tell ourselves that if we just keep doubling down on our strengths that this will overpower the weak areas in our swimming.
Example: Oh, my kick isn’t that good? I’ll make up for it by doing twice as much pull work.
But weaknesses typically present the biggest opportunities for improvement.
One of the things that happens when you get really good at your strengths is that you realize that getting better is progressively harder.
The faster you get, the harder it is to improve.
When you are a newbie swimmer, the improvements come fast and furious. But as you get older, more technically awesome, and faster, those massive gains start to dwindle.
This is the reality of mastery—the more proficient and awesome you get at something, the harder you have to work for progressively smaller gains.
On the other hand, we all remember the thrill of how fast you improve when you start something new.
Your weaknesses provide a bunch of opportunities to ride the lightning of improvement and make big swaths of change and improvement.
Weaknesses often act as a ceiling for your strengths.
Those relevant weaknesses are industrial-grade parking brakes on your performance.
We can ignore them all we want, but they aren’t going anywhere, and no matter how hard we work in other areas, it’s not going to budge that parking brake.
For example, no matter how hard you work in the pool, you can’t really out-perform bad sleeping habits and poor nutrition. No matter how fast you are in the water, if your start isn’t quick and crisp, you are always going to be starting your races below your potential.
Our strengths and weaknesses aren’t compartmentalized.
They interact with each other.
By spending some time and effort on improving the soft spots in your training and racing, you are actually giving your strengths more of an opportunity to blossom and overpower your PB’s.
Weaknesses are just undiscovered strengths.
Here’s your challenge for the week.
What is something you have been avoiding in the pool or even in your lifestyle? What is something that you would be willing to spend ten minutes a day on? No goals, no expectations, just ten minutes with a “first draft” mentality?
Don’t set any expectations beyond spending the full ten minutes on it.
Maybe you want to devote ten minutes to improving hamstring flexibility.
Or meal planning your dinners.
Or swimming in and out of the flags without breathing through the turns.
Search through your swimming to find something that if you could do a bit better, would send an explosive ripple of improvement across the rest of your swimming.
Start with ten minutes, each day for a week, and let me know how it goes.
Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer and contributor to USA Swimming.
He’s the author of Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High-Performance Mindset, a 300-page workbook that gives swimmers the tools and knowledge necessary to bulletproof their performances in the pool.
He also writes a weekly mental training tips newsletter for swimmers and coaches that you can subscribe to for free here.