What does it mean to care about swimming? What is the barometer for determining whether or not a person actually really does genuinely care about their swimming and what they want achieve within the sport? Is it determined by how they feel emotionally towards those things? Or, is it determined more by their actions, how they carry themselves, and the things they actually go out and do?
In other words, which one speaks louder: Actions or words?
In sport, the idea of emotions being determinate of how much a person cares about something is deeply engrained. So much so that it’s really become a kind of dogma, in fact. We’re essentially conditioned to believe that how a person feels towards their sport is what determines how much they care about it. It comes from being bombarded by phrases like these time and time again:
“Getting nervous before you race is great! It means you care!”
“Being angry with yourself after swimming badly is a good thing! It shows you care!”
“Just talking about swimming makes him get emotional! That proves that he cares!”
The problem is that very rarely do people ever take a moment to stop and examine this way of thinking to see if it’s actually really even true or not. We’ve heard it for so long and been surrounded by it so much that we just accept it as truth and don’t really question it.
Well today, we’re going to question it. Not only are we going to question it, we’re going to break it down and get rid of it, because for me, the idea that how you feel towards swimming is what determines how much you care about it is totally false. For me, it’s really simple: Your feelings don’t determine whether or not you care about your swimming. It’s your actions that do.
Let’s take a look at each of the previous 3 phrases, examine them, and see if they’re really as true as people tend to think they are.
1) “Getting nervous before you race is great! It means you care!”
A few weeks back, I was in Athens, Georgia working with the Florida Gulf Coast University Swimming & Diving team at their CCSA Conference Championships. It was a Thursday evening and the first night of individual event finals. As we got off the bus and started walking to the natatorium, one of the swimmers I work with regularly started a conversation with me:
“For some reason, I don’t feel nervous for tonight at all. I feel completely relaxed. I’m kind of worried about that. Shouldn’t I be at least a little nervous?”
“No! No you shouldn’t! If you’re not nervous, that’s awesome. Keep it that way.”, I said to her.
“But people always say that being nervous before a race is a good thing. It shows you care”, she said to me in a sarcastic tone.
“Non-sense”, I said. “What determines whether or not you care about how you swim this week has nothing to do with how you feel. It has everything to do with what you DO. Your actions determine how much you care about your swims this week, not your feelings. If you care, then SHOW that you care.”
She swam three individual events that week. In her first event, she swam the A Final where she finished 1st with a personal best time. In her second event, she swam the A Final where she finished 2nd with a personal best time. In her third event, she swam the A Final where she finished 4th with a personal best time. And you know what? She cared a lot about her swims, despite not being nervous at all.
You know how I know she cared? Because of her actions. She prepared herself adequately by warming up and warming down properly before and after each race. When she got behind the block, she got herself mentally prepared to swim like we practiced doing all season long. During her races, she gave it absolutely everything she had. She pushed herself as hard as she could possibly go and threw herself towards her physical limit. She was ruthless in the water. That’s how I know she cared. She proved that a swimmer doesn’t need to be nervous to care about their swims and succeed in the water.
2) “Being angry with yourself after swimming badly is a good thing! It shows you care!”
This one drives me up a wall. I hate this phrase! It’s so, so wrong. I’ll let you know why by giving you two contrasting examples.
Michael has a really bad swim, and boy is he not happy. He’s visibly angry. He takes his swim bag and tosses against the wall. He starts berating himself and insulting himself, saying that he’s a terrible swimmer and that if he’s going to do that poorly in the pool then he should just give up and walk away now because he’ll never be good enough. He goes to sit in a corner by himself and spends the next 10 minutes continuing his self-bashing and self-criticism. He does nothing to try and learn why he raced so poorly. He doesn’t go to his coach to figure out what happened and get some advice. After the meet, he doesn’t analyze his swim or log notes on his swim so that he can try to pinpoint his weaknesses and improve them. The next training session that Monday, he doesn’t work hard on improving what went wrong to try and fix things for his next meet.
Matthew also has a bad race. But instead of getting pissed off and angry, he kind of smiles and laughs to himself. “Man, that was really kind of pathetic wasn’t it?”, he says while laughing. After he’s done warming down, he goes to his coach to find out what he did wrong and get his advice. When he goes home that night after the meet, he gets out a notebook and writes down the things he did well in the race and the things he didn’t do well so that he can identify specific things he needs to work on in his next training session. The next training session on Monday, he’s determined to make things right and he works hard at improving what he missed at Saturday’s meet.
Who cared more about their swim, Michael or Matthew?
Lots of people would applaud Michael for his reaction and think it’s a good thing because “it shows he cares.” Him getting angry, frustrated, upset, despondent, and down on himself is a wonderfully noble thing because “it shows he takes swimming seriously.” They would say he cared more because of how he reacted emotionally. Those same people would also say that Matthew DIDN’T care. Smiling and laughing after having a bad race? He obviously didn’t care about the fact that he swam badly! He doesn’t take his swimming seriously enough!
Again, total non-sense.
Michael’s had that bad swim, and he’s gotten super angry and frustrated with himself for doing so poorly, yet he never took any meaningful action to learn from it and make it better. On the other hand, Matthew was able to smile and laugh it off, and on top of that, he took action to learn, improve, and become better to prevent it from happening again in the future. Matthew clearly cares more about his swim, despite the fact that he was smiling and laughing after he swam poorly.
Now, some people will say, “But a person can both get angry for swimming badly AND take action to make it better.” Well, the only thing that is actually of any real help is the taking action and making it better part. If you’re going to do that, then why not just leave out the getting angry part, a behavior that provides nothing of any real value or provides any meaningful help? The fact is, there’s nothing noble or virtuous about getting angry when you fail in the pool. You don’t need to get pissed off and upset in order to take action and improve. Despite what people may try to tell you, you’re not doing yourself any favors and you’re not helping yourself in any meaningful way.
Doing well, improving, getting better, and growing as a swimmer doesn’t require you to get angry and self-loathing when you fall short of your expectations. You can get as angry and upset as you want when you fail. If you don’t take any productive, meaningful action to improve it, you don’t care about what’s happened. You know what kind of person will laugh off failure without beating themselves up? A person who is strong, confident, resilient, and self-assured. That kind of person doesn’t need to get angry with themselves or beat themselves up in order to take action and move forward. And, not only do they care a lot more about their swimming, they care a lot more about themselves as well. People who genuinely care about themselves don’t attack and berate themselves when they fail.
3) “Just talking about swimming makes him get emotional! That proves that he cares!”
As a mental coach who works with swimmers, whenever we reach the end of a season, I always do one final session to have a conversation with them about how they felt their season went; the things they were happy with, the things they were unhappy with, the things they improved on, the things they need to continue working on, and most importantly, where they want to go next season. For example, when working with a college swimmer, the conversation may go something like this:
Me: “So, where do you see yourself next season? What are the things you want to experience? What are some of the things you’d like to do and what are the things you’d like to say you were able to achieve?”
Them: “I want to get personal bests in all of my events. I want to get on the podium at Conference. Most of all, I really want to qualify to swim at NCAA’s. That’s the biggest one of them all and something I really want.”
Me: “Well, what’s your plan for making that happen? If you want to go to NCAA’s, are you willing to do what it takes to achieve something like that? Is that something you really care about, or are you just SAYING that you care?”
It’s one thing to SAY you care about qualifying for Districts, or States, or Junior Olympics, or US Nationals, or NCAA’s, or the Olympics. It’s another thing entirely to take meaningful action and SHOW that you care about them. If you spend all day waxing on about how much it means to you to qualify for those meets, but then you don’t put in the necessary amount of work, dedication, commitment, preparation, and most importantly, sacrifice, to make them happen, then you don’t care about qualifying for those meets as much as you say you do because your actions don’t align with your words.
Are you willing to train in your off season? Are you willing to keep eating clean and keep a strict diet? Are you willing to continue going to the gym? Are you willing to stay in on a Saturday night instead of going out because you have to get up at 6am on a Sunday and go for a run? Are you willing to put down the TV remote and go watch videos of the best swimmers in your events so you can learn from them and emulate them? Are you willing to ask your coach for training exercises that you can do in the pool on your own over the summer?
In swimming, your actions will speak louder than your words, and it will be those actions that will prove whether or not you care about your swimming as much as you say you do.
Thank you for reading, and all the best!