Swimming with Courage

Feature by Tonya Nascimento, Swimming World intern

TALLAHASSEE, Florida, November 5. IMAGINE you are running for your life. As you dart through the wilderness, you rapidly approach a precipice. As you get closer, you notice you will have to leap across a gap more than 6 ft. across to make it to the other side. If you fail, will fall 100 feet to the rocky valley below.

Choose your own result:

1. Terror overwhelms you. Fear makes your knees buckle. Your doubt slows your steps just enough that you do not have the momentum to make it. You miss by mere inches.

2. You tell yourself to speed up and go for it. Fully committed to the movement, you jump the gap. Your feet hit the other side just inches in from the ledge.

Although the situation is unlikely, it illustrates the paralyzing grip of fear. In high pressure situations, the caution that results from fear also often results in just missing the desired outcome. At championship swim meets, holding back can mean the difference between first and eighth, or even more places between racers in the shortest races at the top level.

So what are swimmers afraid of? In general, the fears into two categories: fear of failure and fear of success.

Overcome the fear of failure.
Fears of failure are the "what ifs." Because the outcome of a race cannot be guaranteed, it can be scary to step up for a very important race, put everything on the line, and have the possibility of it not turning out the way you want. Worries might plague your mind.

The first stop to overcoming the fear is to recognize what is behind the fear. It could be a strong desire to please your coach or your parents and make them proud. Maybe you dread the thought of letting them down. It could be that you want to prove yourself to your teammates or your friends back home; you want attention and recognition. Perhaps you feel like a loser unless you win. Maybe you fear putting it all on the line and not succeeding, thus confirming the fear that you are not as good as you want to be. Maybe you want to make a qualifying time for the next level, and fear having to stay home during that meet again. Perhaps you believe you must succeed or all the sacrifice of the previous months has gone to waste; you fear a lack of purpose in your life. What do you fear?

If you can pinpoint the fear, then you can work to counter the devastating effects. Although it is no fun to stay home when you believe you belong at a meet for which you were just short of qualifying, you can use the setback as motivation, and there will be other meets where you can swim fast. It is natural to want attention, recognition, and to make others proud, but you will still be loved and you will still have worth without the faster times and without the wins. It is completely normal to feel as if the months were wasted after a poor championship meet, but do not forget the many reasons you love the sport of the swimming that has everything to do with the day to day process and little to do with the outcome at the championships.

Before the race occurs, go ahead and answer the "what ifs." What if the worst you can imagine came true? The result may be painful, but likely more rewarding than if you had never taken a chance at all. Even if the result is as bad as you imagine, it can be just what you needed to succeed in the future. J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, in her address to the graduating class at Harvard in 2008 addressed the liberating effects of failure:

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security…Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected…

…You will never truly know yourself…until [you] have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won…

…personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of
acquisition or achievement…Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone's total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

As J.K. Rowling puts it, she "failed on an epic scale," but by failing, her fear of the worst was over, and she was set free to ultimately succeed.

All great athletes fail.

Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, said, "I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over in my life. And that's why I succeed."

Babe Ruth had more strikeouts than anyone at the time, but also more home-runs. Mike Barrowman used his "failure," as he defined it, in his first Olympics to propel him to the Olympic gold and world record in his next Olympics. Mark Spitz did the same things from the 1968 to 1972 Olympics.

Michael Phelps went into his second Olympics in 2004 with the pressure of breaking Spitz's record 7 gold medals in one Olympics. He didn't. That made his 8 golds in the 2008 Olympics even more impressive. He'd failed at it once and used it to motivate him to success the next time. Failure is one of sports biggest motivators!

When you put all you have into a swim, you risk failure, but you also set up the possibility for success. When those moments of success happen, that's what you, and everyone else, will remember. The many times you failed will be overshadowed and forgotten by others. You will remember, but it will make your success more sweet. Let go of the fear of failure. If it happens, it happens. Be fully committed to your performance no matter the outcome. By doing that, you are much more likely to succeed.

Overcome the fear of success.
Some swimmers fear succeeding. With success comes higher expectations, harder standards to meet, more pressure, and more attention. With success, you might move up into a new, harder practice group or you might be put in the anchor position for a relay. If you fear success, lurking behind the success is the fear of failure. You are afraid of succeeding this time because you might not be able to keep it up. And more eyes will be on you to see if you do.

The thing is, as with the case of Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, and Michael Phelps, we remember the success of others much better than the failure. If you succeed on a grand scale once in your high school career and do not come close again, everyone is still going to talk about the success. What you do cannot be taken away. (Just be careful to always be looking forward to the next goal in your life. Living in the glory of past success leads to feelings of failure later in life.)

Michael Phelps succeeded grandly at the 2008 Olympics; his eight gold medals is the most ever one by any athlete at a single Olympics. All eyes were on him in the meets that followed, waiting to see if he was beatable. Lo and behold, he is. Phelps dominated every event he swam at national and international meets (though he was beaten at smaller meets) following the Olympics until Ryan Lochte beat him in the 200 IM at the U.S. National Championships this past August. Phelps' second-place finish was reported all over the country. The thing is, Phelps seemed like something other than a human and getting beat reminds us that he is, in fact, human. Phelps reportedly responded, "Losses motivate me." Phelps, unlike most of watching him, realizes he will not always win. However, he embraces the success and uses the losses to keep him working hard.

Let's just imagine you have the ability and opportunity of Michael Phelps. The question to ask yourself just before the 2008 Olympics is if you would like 1) to be the winningest Olympic swimmer of all time, and then have enormous expectations from the entire world at national and international meet from then on, or 2) let a fear of success overcome you, win "only" 6 of the 8 races at the Olympics and stay at the same level of expectation you had before the Olympics.

If you decided on 1, then just keep going for it. No one can take those 8 medals away. If you win not another race in your entire career, most would agree your career was a success. Remember, you definitely won't get 8 golds if you are afraid of success and, therefore, never even try!

If you decided on 2, then take some time to figure out why. Review the previous section on failure and decide if a cautious life is what you really want. Will you regret it?

For most us, the scenario is not the same as Phelps. When most of us succeed, we do get more attention, recognition, and higher expectations, but all this fades, only to spike again the next time we succeed. Even for Phelps, most of the population that paid attention to him during the Olympics has not given him another thought since.

By nature, we pay much more attention to ourselves than almost anyone else does. In other words, we notice our actions and categorize them as failures or successes, good or bad. We subjectively know how many times we've failed or succeeded. Others look at us a little more objectively and may not place the same interpretation on events as we do. Others may not have the emotional attachment to our swimming as we do and therefore don't attach our personal value of success to our achievements. So, what we see as a failure on our part might not be interpreted as a failure in the eyes of others.

Today, make a resolution to choose to succeed instead of fearing success or failure. As long as you keep track of the successes (i.e. improvements) along the way, even if you fail to reach your ultimate goal, your journey, and subsequent knowledge of yourself, will be a success.

Remove all self-handicaps.
Self-handicapping is a process where the athlete makes excuses or obstacles known to others and thereby validates those excuses or obstacles to him/herself. This is a way of rationalizing, and therefore believing, the fear is valid. It is giving you an "out" before the event even begins. For example, rather than stepping up and going for it during the finals, or stating how well you are going to do, you might let other know that you are sick, tired, or not in shape, or your bad shoulder is acting up. This gives you a safety-net. If you fail, it wasn't really your fault but a fault of the circumstance.

The excuses might be legitimate reasons for performing less than your best, but making sure others know about it, and reflecting on it yourself just before the race is a method of self-image protection. Instead, use the condition as a challenge. Use the weariness, aches, pains, or whatever it is, as a challenge to overcome rather than a reason to slow down. Resist the urge to create a safety net.

Think of the opening example of this article. If there was a safety net strung across that 6 foot wide gap, you wouldn't be so worried and it wouldn't really matter if you failed or succeeded. The net would catch you. You likely wouldn't give the effort you would give if the net wasn't there. You might not even make a decision, but rather just "see" if you can make it (i.e. "try" instead of "do"), and thereby give it a half-hearted effort. After the net catches you, you can always say, "Well, I could make it if I really tried, or really had to." This thinking represents fear or a lack of confidence. Don't give yourself an out; don't give yourself that safety net. One way to do that is to choose love over fear.

Fill yourself with love for swimming.
Fear and love counteract each other. If you concentrate on how much you love the sport of swimming, fear is going to have difficulty seizing your thoughts. One way to do this is to change your language from "having to" swim the tough set or race the event to "wanting to." When you have to, it is a burden, and the pressure is from outside of you, bearing down. You have to swim in order to please your family, coach, teammates, or make a time that feels imposed. When you want to, it is a joy, and the reasons are internal and more fun. You want to swim because you love it! You want to reach the goal.

When you are faced with a set or race you don't feel like doing, you can blow bubbles and remind yourself about what you love about swimming (see Swim Psychology: The Basics) and you can choose to say to yourself, "This is good." Follow up that assertion with all the reasons why it is good. For example: The hard set of 10 x 200 fly will make one 200 fly in a race seem easy. The 200 fly race will help speed up your 100 fly. If you can take this set, you can take anything. Challenging yourself is what makes you better.

Once you recognize your fears you can strip away the power they have on you. Rather than anticipating failure on a set, you can attack it with thoughts of how it's helping you. Rather than giving in to fear at a meet, you can choose to step up with no thoughts, just feelings of love for the sport and excitement for the race. You can choose to swim with courage.

Tonya Nascimento is a doctorate student in the sport psychology program at Florida State University. She was a competitive swimmer for 20 years, during which she swam for FSU. She also coached Maverick Aquatics for eight years and the Niceville High School swim team for four years.

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