When was the last time you had a perfect season?
Conquered every swim practice?
Felt great in the water, every meter, of every day?
Precision-drilled your races, swimming a best time and world record every time out?
Sounds goofy when you read it aloud, right?
And yet, that is the expectation many of us have. That things will go well, all the time.
But that sure isn’t reality, is it?
We misjudge a flip-turn and break our foot heel-striking a cement pool gutter. We get pneumonia two weeks before the biggest meet of the year. We have a bad night of sleep, eat a past-best-date burrito and have a lousy workout.
Oh, and then a worldwide pandemic streaks across the planet like a wildfire in a hurricane.
But if you have learned anything from your time in the water, it’s that adversity, discomfort, and outright failure happen.
I know… It feels unfair.
But the way you weather the storm can lead to your greatest victories.
It’s the swimmer who can find the silver linings, motivation, and new routines in the face of adversity who reap the benefits of the storm.
I am not talking about sugar-coating the seriousness of what you are experiencing.
Or pretending like everything is perfectly fine when it clearly is not.
This is about having a clear mind and a full heart so that you can tackle the struggle like J.J. Watt without undue stress and anxiety.
Here are some ideas for how swimmers can work their way through tough times.
1. Lean on your support system.
Your friends, family, coaches—they are there to provide unconditional love, psychological safety, and to remind you that you were made for this.
They are the sounding board to your fears, the backstop to your goals, and a voice of reason during turbulent times.
Talk out how you are feeling. Voice your concerns. Put together a battle plan with your coach to emerge from this stronger. You don’t need to go at this alone.
There is a lot of good that can come from one person chasing greatness, but when a group of people chase it together, excellence is inevitable.
2. Be there for others in tough times.
Ever notice that you can give great advice to a teammate—Don’t give up! Focus on your technique! Try not pulling on the lane rope so much!—but have difficulty heeding that advice in your own life?
Instead of getting caught up in the endless cycle of dwelling of how your season is toast, or how your swimming has suffered, be strong for the people in your life.
Be a great teammate. Encourage, mentor and support younger swimmers. Be a good friend.
Be the rock, be the reason someone else’s day got better, even if you feel like the waves are close to coming over your head.
3. Journal out how you are feeling.
On days where you are feeling frustrated and helpless, journal out the whirlpool of fearful thoughts. Barf out your anxieties and fears through the tip of a ballpoint pen.
Putting your feelings and emotions into words and seeing them on paper helps you work through them. Often the act of just seeing how you are feeling written out gives the perspective you need to calm those fears.
4. Routines are your friend.
It’s easy to lose track of our routines and good habits when the results don’t pan out, or injury, illness, or a worldwide pandemic up-ends them.
Because we aren’t in our “regular” schedule our worst impulses quickly take over: Can’t train in the pool? Welp, better throw down on pizza pockets, doughnuts, and video games for the rest of the summer!
Even though we may complain about the early mornings and the long workouts, there is a great deal of comfort in the routine of these things.
Without them we can feel unmoored, latching on to new, less productive habits and routines.
Goals change, but your routines don’t have to.
Set a routine or process for yourself that you can build on each day.
Simple things, like going for a walk, waking up at a specific time, or making your bed won’t magically make tough times go away, but they will provide small anchors from which you can inflict positive change.
5. Emphasize gratitude.
Gratitude is a proven way to decrease anxiety and lend perspective to the turmoil in your life.
Yes, the outside world is scary, you worry for your parents, you are frustrated over your lost season—but you are healthy, you are able to spend more time on hobbies, and so on.
Keeping a daily gratitude journal isn’t about papering over the bad things in the world or dunking your head in the sand; it’s acknowledging the good in your life so that you have a clear perspective when it comes to dealing with the challenges ahead.
6. Focus on the things you control.
Be real about the things you control, and the things you don’t.
When you find yourself drifting into the arena of things you don’t control, stress, anxiety and frustration go up.
Can you make the pool reopen? Can you make the season come back on-line tomorrow?
But you can exercise in your basement. You can eat healthy. You can make the most of the time spent with your family. You can log off social media.
7. This moment is your chance to rise.
In the story of every great athlete there are moments that defined them.
- An injury that side-lined them for three months (and they bounced back stronger).
- Burning out and retiring (and coming back a decade later and swimming faster than ever).
- Goggles filling up with water during the final at the Olympics (and leaning on their stroke count to finish the race in world record time).
These are the character-defining moments where they were tested and rose to the occasion.
When you feel frustrated, or doubt is climbing the back of your throat, sit down with a pen and paper and write the answer to this simple question, “How can I make this the best thing to ever happen to me?”
This is the beginning of a new chapter of your life and your journey in the water.
Decide where the story will take you.
About Olivier Poirier-Leroy
Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer and the author of the books YourSwimBook and Conquer the Pool. He writes all things high-performance swimming, and his articles were read over 3 million times last year. His work has appeared on USA Swimming, SwimSwam, STACK, NBC Universal, and more. He’s also kinda tall and can be found on Twitter.