Burnout and Frustration: High Schoolers’ Perspectives

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Photo Courtesy: Matt Rubel of Rubel Photograph

By Bryan Gu, Swimming World Intern.

In honor of my impending finals, and the stress and utter sense of hopelessness they will bring, I have decided to dedicate this week’s article to the age-old struggle of burnout.

It’s not an unfamiliar feeling, burnout – you feel like you’re going nowhere and you begin to question why you’ve dedicated so much of your life to this ridiculous sport. You wonder why you even swim. You lose motivation. Swimming becomes nothing more than meaningless laps in a cold pool. 

Finding myself unable to vocalize my own experiences, I decided to talk to some swimmers from my high school, in the hopes that their stories and struggles could help shed some light and help others through an otherwise bleak and hopeless time:

Jeremy

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Photo Courtesy: Tennessee Athletics

Jeremy is a bright-eyed freshman who has shown great success at the state level. He talks about how an unforeseen illness helped place him into perspective:

“Last year I was diagnosed with Grave’s disease, which is basically an overproduction of hormones that caused me to lose a lot of sleep and muscle. I was unable to finish practices and I  began gaining a lot of time. I was really frustrated because up until this point I’d always just dropped time. That summer was really tough for me because it felt like I couldn’t really do anything, and it was really hard for me to get myself into the water. What was the point if I wasn’t seeing any results?

I ultimately found that sometimes you have to focus on the smaller things in order to get past the bigger problems. I focused on the happy times I had with my teammates, on nailing the smaller components of my swims, like my turns and finishes, and I just focused on finishing one day at a time. Once I started dropping time again, everything else I missed about the sport just fell back into place.”

Derek

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Photo Courtesy: Brooke Wright

Derek is a high school junior looking to one day swim DIII. He talks about the daily mental challenges of practice:

“I’m pretty fast, but neither my parents nor myself have ever put a lot of pressure on me to succeed. I swim purely for the love of the sport and the thrill of the race. I’ve never had a period of time where I’ve felt dejected, but I find it often gets tough for me during practice, especially when I get beat by a lot of the younger kids. There’s just so much young talent, and when you see what some of these kids can do, I really begin to question my own commitment to the sport. How can I be successful when these kids are doing so much more with so much less?

But sometimes you just have to put your head down and finish the set, because when it’s all said and done it’s the only way you’re going to get better. You can mope and pity yourself all you want, but you’re not going to win any races if you don’t put in the time to practice.”

Clementine 

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Photo Courtesy: Heidi Torregroza

Clementine is a high school senior who will be swimming DIII next fall. She talks about the pressures of recruitment combined with the misfortune of illness:

“Up until junior year, I had never hit the plateau many of my teammates experienced. Freshman and sophomore year I dropped time consistently, which made working hard at practice really easy. It’s not difficult to be enthusiastic about swimming when you are doing really well.

When junior year came around, I knew I had to continue dropping time to look good to college coaches. In theory, short course of junior year is the most important season if you’re looking to be recruited. As if the timing couldn’t be worse, halfway through January I got pneumonia and subsequently sinusitis. In the past, I had always been really healthy, so this prolonged sickness (which ended up lasting six weeks) was something I had never faced before. The constant fatigue and breathing problems I experienced as a result of the illness, in addition to the various academic stresses of junior year, made it much harder to stay motivated.

Not surprisingly, I wasn’t dropping time. I also put a lot of pressure on myself to do well during the championship season. As a result, swimming just wasn’t as fun as it had been in the past. Since this was during the college process, I started questioning whether or not I really wanted to swim in college.

There were schools I was considering academically that I would not be able to swim at, so I had to decide whether I wanted to seriously consider applying in the fall or not. I continued to talk to college coaches, but also to play it by ear. I took some time off before long course season, got healthy again, and when I got back in the water in the spring I realized why I loved the sport so much. In the end, I realized I didn’t want my senior year in high school to be my last year competing.”

Conclusion

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Photo Courtesy: NC State Athletics

Each of their stories were different, in terms of both severity and impact, yet they shared fundamental similarities. Burnout, or that general feeling of despair, is normally preceded by some sort of setback or illness – something that makes the swimmer feel inadequate. Coupled with the drive of competition and the pressures of success, the resulting mix of negative emotions would cripple even the most steadfast swimmer.

Yet the fundamental driving factor, the force that always brings them back to the pool, proves not to be a desire to race or a need to win, but rather a simple love for the water. Each of these swimmers, and I suspect each of us, get back in the pool everyday because they love to swim. They love the rush of the start, the feeling of the water in their hands and, most importantly, the thrill of the race.

So my advice to any high school swimmers, who have ever felt down or dejected, is to take some time to look back on all the small moments (or the big ones). Remember conversations by the deck, shenanigans at meets or, best of all, the best time flashing on the clock as your hand touches the wall. Remember these moments because they are what keep you diving into that cold water day after day – these moments make up all that you love about this crazy sport. Ultimately that’s all that really matters.

Note: For the sake of anonymity, new names were given to each of the swimmers.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.