Last weekend (Mar 23-25) TOEST athletes headed out to Nepean, ON for the Masters Swimming Ontario (MSO) Provincial Championships. Overall, the team scored 188 points, finishing in 17th place out of 45 teams from across Ontario. TOEST athletes came back as Provincial Champions in 8 events, taking a total of 17 podiums, while setting 23 personal best times (some age group, and some all-time masters PBs!) in the process. No small feat for the group of 6 who represented the team, especially when you consider that there were over 360 athletes at the meet.
With time to reflect on the meet, on the effort of all the athletes, a number of lessons stand out that I believe are important to point out. Especially when there is one last meet – the Milton Masters Spring Splash – being held on April 15th which will close out the indoor competitive swimming 2017-2018 season.
The value of a swim meet to competitive swimmers may be obvious, but I believe there is as much value for triathletes to participate in swim meets. Here’s why…
(1) One athlete comes to mind in regards to this first point… an athlete who is relatively new to swimming (they learnt to swim 4 years ago) and has been training and competing as part of a masters swim team ever since. This particular athlete identified well ahead of Provincials that starts are a source of serious anxiety when it comes to competing.
Starts are not simple, there are numerous components to executing a dive start effectively, in fact there are numerous components to executing a simple wall push off effectively: maintaining balance while standing up on the blocks, achieving the appropriate starting position so as to securely grip the block to obtain a powerful start, reacting quickly once the start beep goes off, entering the water at an angle that is neither too shallow (and hitting the water hard) or too deep (and ending up deep sea diving), maintaining a streamline position to maximize distance at top speed, all the while hoping that goggles don’t fill up with water or end up getting ripped right off.
In the past, this athlete has performed block dive-starts with varied success, and has also performed in-water starts. Since Provincials is a significant meet, this athlete wanted to focus on her starts to ensure that she had a consistent start, a start that she was confident in, a start that would not cause a problem which would prevent her racing from being an accurate reflection of all her training.
INCORRECT STRATEGY #1 – HOPE
Hoping is not a strategy for success. Hoping is a form of gambling… the best of the best don’t hope, they train to maximize the probability of success, and by putting in the work, the best of the best gain confidence in their ability to execute. When we fail to put in the work, when we show up at an event ‘hoping’ that everything will work… there is no reason to believe it will, hence no reason to wonder why we become anxious. If there isn’t knowledge of the training that was put forth then there is no response available when anxiety, doubts, fear creeps into our thoughts.
INCORRECT STRATEGY #2 – WISHING
Thinking happy thoughts, thinking positive thoughts when there is no training to back up those thoughts is called wishing. You can think all the happy positive thoughts you want, but there is no foolin’ you when you stand at the start of an event: either you’ve put in the training, or you have not. Wishing is a strategy for failure not for success.
This athlete was not interesting in hoping or wishing that her starts would work out at Provincials… she committed to making sure her starts would work at Provincials. This athlete asked for weekly coaching on her starts, she trained her starts for a minimum of 30mins every week, and did so for close to 3 months in the lead up to Provincials. Starts were trained by breaking them down into their components with each component trained individually, then they were fitted together into the whole using drill progressions from beginning to end.
SUMMARY: all events come with known-knowns, constants which have a 100% chance of occurring. For example… swim meets have starts, triathlons have in water, beach, or platform starts… its a guarantee! Instead of hoping that they don’t happen (which is putting faith into an impossibility), instead of hoping that luck will be on your side and you will figure it out on the fly (which is gambling: putting faith into the chance that things will work out all on their own), or wishing (which is based on as much empirical or tangible evidence as a belief in unicorns) why not TRAIN instead of planning to fail by failing to work.
OUTCOME: the athlete planned to succeed which meant that starts were part of their weekly training. At Provincials, this athlete swam personal best times in 5 of her 6 individual events, was able to enjoy the swim meet because starts didn’t cause undue stress, her training built confidence, resulting in a great experience at MSO Provincials. And that’s whats it all about… isn’t it? Its about having a great time!
(2) Another athlete who competed at Provincials provides a different point about the value of a swim meet, both for competitive swimmers as well as triathletes. This athlete learnt to swim 14 months ago. In the lead up to Provincials, they participated in smaller meets and tested out for themselves both dive-starts and in-water starts. By trying out a dive-start from the blocks and ending up diving so deep off the blocks that they added at least 5m to their 50m event (if you dive 2.5m down, and then have to come back up 2.5m… no one subtracts that distance or time from the event) they learnt that dive-starts are not as easy as they appear when performed by swimmers who rank as best of the best. Plus, having spent so much time underwater at the start of the event, they were exhausted by the time it came to swimming the last few meters.
For Provincials, the suggestion for this athlete was that they don’t do any dive-starts whatsoever. Instead, the suggestion was that they do in-water starts only (i.e. when the referee blows the whistle calling all athletes to start positions… while other athletes climbed onto the starting blocks, this athlete would get into the water and hold onto the wall in preparation for the starters ‘beep’).
By doing an in-water start did they stand out from the other athletes? Absolutely!
By doing an in-water start did they stand out as the novice in the event? Absolutely!
You know what happened as a result of not doing dive-starts? The athlete took all the pressure off themselves from having to execute a skill which they had not trained at all prior to the competition, they took all the pressure of themselves from having to recover from a dive-start that didn’t go well, they eliminated any concerns that they would fall off the blocks, fall into the water and flop, or dive too deep, or worse lose their goggles as a result of a poorly executed dive-start, and most importantly they massively reduced the anxiety of each event allowing them to focus on what they had trained all season… their stroke.
As a novice its not an uncommon belief that to perform at one’s potential requires only to ‘look’ like a pro athlete. In triathlon, this typically translates into novice athletes spending thousands upon thousands on apparel and equipment in order to look like the pro athletes thinking that apparel and equipment makes peak performance happen. In competitive swimming, novice athletes often will purchase top of the line Speedo or Arena racing suits, thinking that its the suit that will yield fast times. It applies to apparel, to equipment, but it also applies to executing sport specific technique. Novice triathletes sign up for 70.3 and full iron-distance triathlons thinking that if they crawl across a finish line of one of these events… that means they are an accomplished athlete, when there is nothing further from the truth. In competitive swimming, novices dive-start from the blocks and do flipturns thinking it makes them a “swimmer” instead of realizing that simply swimming at a swim meet means that they are a competitive swimmer! But because they lack the skills they fail to execute the dive or the flip leading them to adding massive amounts of time because they end up out of breathe, drinking half the pool, getting water up their nose… resulting in a swim which fails to reflect all the training they did do (because they focused on what they haven’t trained…yet).
Give Yourself Permission to be a Novice
No, no one wants to look like a novice, but I ask you to consider… why not? What is wrong with looking like a novice with being a novice athlete. Why put all the pressure on yourself to look like a pro, to act like a pro when its 100% obvious when an athlete is not a pro, when an athlete is a novice?
I believe that if you look like a novice, and more importantly give yourself the opportunity to be a novice you take all the pressure of performing like a pro off of yourself simply because you do not look like a pro. Look like a pro and spectators expect you to perform like a pro. Look like a novice, and spectators will expect you to perform like a novice. Isn’t that a freeing notion?
Its typical at Masters swim meets when an elderly athlete competes… no matter how long it takes, and sometimes its a while before they finish… they typically get a standing ovation from everyone and I mean everyone in the stands, on deck, everyone! Why? Because its clear that they are elderly and if they have the guts to show up at a meet where they are probably the oldest if not one of the oldest and still willing to compete (and they are not trying to look younger or make themselves into something they aren’t)… it gains everyone’s respect. Why? Not because they swam fast, but because they swam… period. The priority was doing their best whatever their best was going to be.
The obsession with looking like a pro eliminates any chance of being celebrated as a novice. When you are a novice, every time you swim is a personal best because you have no point of reference, no prior time. There is so much to celebrate when you are a novice, but we get stuck into thinking that we have to be pros, or look like pros in order to be celebrated. I believe its the exact opposite. We expect pros to deliver pro level efforts and pro level performance, hence why its not easy being a pro… so why as a novice do you want that pressure? Be a novice and you will be respected as a novice. Pretend to be a pro, and you will bring pressure upon yourself, pressure no different than pros experience… pressure that has the potential to break even a top pro. Who needs that?
SUMMARY: Sport is supposed to be fun, so give yourself permission for sport to be fun… it starts with you giving yourself permission to be a novice. I believe this is especially critical for children. There is so much pressure on kids to perform like pros, to be pros before they even know how to swim, to dive, to do flipturns that we should not be surprised when they develop anxieties, fears of performance, of competing, of competition. Kids are not afraid of competing, they are afraid when adults require kids to be pros at competing without ever being allowed to be novices. Its us as adults – their role models – who are screwing them up by showing them that its not ok to be a novice, yet the real fun and freedom is by being a novice, and being OK with being a novice.
OUTCOME: the athlete swam in 6 individual events and on 1 relay team and was the lead out swimmer on the relay team at Provincials. In doing so they set personal bests in all events because they were all new events, and they even managed to take the podium in their age group in an event. Not bad for a novice!
(3) The last point applies to all athletes, from novices to experienced athletes: competing is a skill set all to itself. Competing is stressful because it is a test. There is no doubt about it, competing and competitions are stressful. Consider Michael Phelps in Beijing… the stress of winning 8 gold medals, of eclipsing the record of Mark Spitz, the stress of putting to the test not just years but decades of training… all on the line, and in events that often took less than a couple of minutes.
For some odd reason, athletes seem to think that competing is no different than training… its just a hard training day I’ve heard some athletes say.
Really? I disagree.
I believe training is like homework from school: you get to do it on your own time, at your own pace, you can make mistakes, you have the time and the opportunity to fix errors, check your work, have it reviewed by someone with more experience and get it done well in advance.
I believe racing is like a test, or perhaps more like exams, maybe even final exams. This is it! Its an evaluation of how much homework you did, how much you learnt from doing your homework, from doing endless repetitions of math problems, solving physics equations or reactions in chemistry, memorizing terms, verses, plots, characters and themes from novels studied in English. At a predetermined time, for a predetermined amount of time or in the case of sport, over a predetermined distance, you are required to deliver a performance on demand.
There is definitely value in doing homework, doing enough homework, learning from homework, but there is equal value in learning how to take tests, prepare for tests, learning to manage time during tests focusing on questions where there are significant marks and not getting bogged down on questions worth little. You need to learn how to manage the stress of going to a test, waiting for the test papers to be handed out, learning how to remaining focused, calm, chilled out, in the same state in which you performed homework… the state in which you learnt all that is about to be tested.
Like any skill… becoming proficient at taking tests – at competing – requires repetition, and as with all things that we repeat we are often bad at them until we get enough repetition to be good.
We have no choice when we will have to take academic tests. When a teacher says there is a quiz, a test, a mid term or a final exam… its in the calendar and there is no option not to take it.
Yet when it comes to tests in athletics – as in meets, races, events – athletes tend to shy away from participating, citing that they aren’t ready, that they need more time, that they need more training, that they haven’t perfected everything.
Is there ever, or will there ever be a time when we are 100% ready, 100% perfect, 100% prepared? No.
So why do we shy away from testing out our training? Because we are afraid of the stress of competing.
But avoiding competing – i.e. fear avoidance behaviours – are known to not minimize, but magnify our anxieties.
We end up in a negative feedback loop: by shying away from competing, deferring it to when we are “ready” (without ever objectively defining ‘ready’, simply leaving it to a subjective ‘ready’) we build the stress of competing making it more and more difficult to register for a competition in the future. We make it harder and harder on ourselves instead of making it simpler and easier.
The athletes mentioned above demonstrate that there is no need to delay participating in a swim meet. If you are waiting to have all the skills that Phelps has then you will not compete… ever. Approach a swim meet as a test of what you have trained, not what you haven’t and you will learn to eagerly engage in competition. This is critical not only for adults, but especially for children. Children need to learn how to compete because as adults… that is all that they will do: for entry into post secondary education institutions, for employment opportunities, for advancement, for contracts, for business. If fear of competition can be learnt, then we can also learn how to not be afraid; we can learn to eagerly engage in competition with ourselves, with others.
Competition overwhelms when its used to evaluate of skills we HAVEN’T trained.
Competition empowers when its used to evaluate skills we HAVE trained.
Its important for athletes of all abilities to start competing as soon as they have obtained sufficient skills and sufficient proficiency in those skills that there is something to evaluate. Competing not for times, not to race others, but to be exposed and to learn how to show up to a competition, how to give yourself permission to be a novice, how to test only that which you have trained and not evaluate skills you have still to learn, how to appreciate the skill level of others and enjoy their effort without having to immediately compare yourself to them.
The skill of competition teaches athletes first and foremost – when used appropriately – to learn to respect yourself, and by learning to respect yourself, you will gain a respect and appreciation for the effort that others have put into themselves training for years, sometimes decades. You will gain respect that success is not a point in time, its a process and as long as you are in the process then you are succeeding, and you are a success.
Failure and failing only happens when you pull out of the process, when you pull out of living life. This is why competing, why testing is critical… it keeps us humble while opening us up to seeing the opportunity of ourselves, encouraging us to continue to pursue our potential.