Hit The (Pool) Deck: Lessons Gleaned From Swimming Competitively

  1. You get out what you put in. As results-driven and goal-oriented person, one of my favorite aspects of swimming was seeing results that were proportionate to the amount of work I put in. Goals unmet, technical mistakes, loss of power in the water – all on me if I didn’t put in the work. Conversely, if I did put in the work – I got the results I wanted. This is true to life – relationships, career, health goals, education – broadly speaking, you get out what you put in. Make a list of goals, break them into manageable steps, and go for it. Leave it all in the (proverbial) pool.
  2. You are the only one that will get yourself up for 6am practice. Swimming taught me self-discipline that has carried into every aspect of my life. Because swimming is a zero-impact sport, and the marriage of an endurance sport and power sport, you grind all the time. Day after day, year round. Between 6-10 times a week, you’re in the pool, on the pool deck completing “dry-land” workouts (plyometrics, isometrics, calisthenics, med ball/resistance band strength training…), and in the weight room. In life, you need resilience, you need persistence, and you need the self-discipline to do things that are hard – mentally, physically, and emotionally. You learn to keep forging ahead when you are tired, when the results are coming slowly, and when you face adversity.
  3. You have to make sacrifices to reach goals – both short- and long-term. Swimming requires an extraordinary amount of sacrifice to get to a certain level. Sleeping in, weekends, parties, hanging out after school, summers of relaxation – all not going to happen if you swim competitively. When working on a big work project, finishing a degree, training for marathon (or any physical pursuit), raising children, raising pets, being in a committed relationship…you make sacrifices. Swimming was a great lesson in having to juggle competing priorities and learning to feel a little left out at times in order to achieve a goal. Just like life – if you want a certain lifestyle, goal, etc. met – you learn where to make sacrifices and you do it knowing it’s a choice
  4. How to take constructive criticism. I think any athlete who has worked with a coach knows how important constructive criticism is, but I think it’s difficult for most people because no one likes to feel like they aren’t good at something or failed in some way. Having to learn to hear constructive criticism (and sometimes not so constructive criticism) over and over helps you get used to it, and learn how to use it as a tool to for tremendous improvement. Learning to take constructive criticism and channel it into productive forward movement will take you far in life – in your career, in your relationships, in your parenting, in your education… It is not always an easy lesson to learn, but learning to not internalize it and take it both at face value and to heart can bring extraordinary gains.
  5. How to fail graciously. I’m now saying the opposite of my first point, but sometimes, you put in all the work and something happens and you miss the mark. You could be grossly sick for your biggest meet of the year or overtrained and unable to perform. You can miss a turn and add vital tenths of seconds, get psyched out when someone else false starts, miss your event because you weren’t paying attention to the meet schedule, you could just have an off day or off meet. No matter how much you prepare, train, visualize, go through your pre-race rituals, and put in – sometimes things will go just wrong. These things are often completely out of your control, unexpected, and, all too often happen at the least opportune times. I swam through the final championship of my career with a 103 degree fever, totally unable to perform and devastated to end on that note. I’ve missed races because I was socializing in the bathroom. I’ve missed the wall on turns that cost me a place or a championship qualifying time. I’ve been disqualified for the most elementary technical errors because I lost focus for a one-hundredth of a second. I hate messing up. Hate it. I inherently have zero grace when it comes to failing, that is something I’ve worked hard on and continue to work on every day. Swimming taught me to not only cope with not hitting the mark I’d trained for, but to use that as motivation to keep going, rather than quit. Just like in life, just when you think you have everything perfectly aligned, when you have ticked all of the boxes and planned down to the most minute detail – life has another plan for you. This is where you have the choice to either accept what life throws at you and move forward or focus on what went wrong. We can’t choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we react to it. 
  6. Pushing limits. Swimming will beat you down. For months on end, you are exhausted, sore, cannot seem to eat often enough or big enough quantities, don’t want to do anything other than eat or sleep, and yet you continue to train multiple times a day while traveling to swim meets every weekend. All while still juggling school, family, social obligations, etc. on top of this demanding training and competing schedule. This is life. We are all juggling countless things day in and day out, we pack our weekends and evenings with activities and commitments, we even pack our vacations with “must sees” and schedules. But we persist. We forge ahead, despite the failures and the unexpected set-backs, despite the criticism and the missed turns. We forge ahead despite uncertainty and self-doubt, despite life not looking like we planned for it to look – our neatly defined constructs of adult life fading and bleeding into a picture we didn’t previously see. We push the limits of what we never thought possible because human resilience is extraordinary. Never forget you can always eek out just a little bit more. Never stop surprising yourself.
  7. Treat yourself well. I remember being as young as 8th grade when I started to make the connection between what I put into my body and the quality of sleep I got and how hard I was able to train and race. It is so easy for us to treat those we love well – making sure they have the best food, get ample sleep, are loved and taken care of – yet we often neglect ourselves. We don’t get enough sleep. We don’t always choose nourishing, whole foods, or, we beat ourselves up for eating something “bad”. We use substances to numb and dull the daily stresses of modern life. We tell ourselves the most cruel things that we would (hopefully) never say to a loved one… Start by treating yourself with compassion. Practice self-care. Unplug and go to bed when you’re tired. Get outside, preferably in nature, and move. Eat nourishing foods and stop beating yourself up for something you ate. Practice patience and forgiveness on yourself – you’re human. No matter what you need and want to put energy and focus into – whether it’s being a parent, going after a promotion, or training for your first 5k – treat yourself well and you will increase your chances of success as well as your quality of life and overall feelings of well-being. Besides, you’re worth it. You are the best person to take care of yourself, treat yourself like you would a loved one.

Run on, my friends.


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