Can You Swim Faster By Caring Less?

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer based out of Victoria, BC. In feeding his passion for swimming, he has developed YourSwimBook, a powerful log book and goal setting guide made specifically for swimmers. Sign up for the YourSwimBook newsletter (free) and get weekly motivational tips by clicking here.

Can we try too hard in the pool? At which point do we invest too much of ourselves, mentally trying too hard to be the swimmer that we want to be, being excessively passionate about goals that we begin to see diminishing returns, insofar as getting completely burned out?

Every coach dreams of having swimmers that are passionate about their swimming. Swimmers who are passionate about the sport are more consistent, more engaged, and make for coachable athletes.

And yet, recent research would indicate that not all passion is created the same.

While one form of passion creates swimmers who produce results while drawing joy and satisfaction from the task, there is another type of passion, obsessive in nature and in name, that actually ends up being more limiting and a frequent cause of burnout.

OBSESSIVE VS. HARMONIOUS PASSION

In 2003 Robert J. Vallerand, a professor of psychology at the University of Quebec at Montreal, conceptualized the Dualistic Model of Passion. The model, and the preceeding research, shows that passion is not created equal.

Vallerand noticed that there were two types of passion that each had its own characteristics, outcomes, and psychological traits.

Obsessive passion is generally marked by a nearly uncontrollable desire to work on or improve something. While this type of relentlessness and determination can be largely seen as a good thing, the difference is made where the swimmer is emotionally dependent on the task.

One specific question from Vallerand’s questionnaire sums it up rather nicely, “My mood depends on me being able to do this activity.” Even if a workout goes well, the obsessive will still feel irritated or even shameful that they aren’t doing more, and are unable to flick the off switch and enjoy activities outside of the pool without experiencing guilt or shame.

Perhaps most importantly, the obsessive draws a large part of their self-identity and self-worth from how they perform in the pool. A bad practice tends to undermine the swimmer’s sense of identity. The persistence and doggedness originates from a desire to protect their ego, and not because they are drawing intrinsic joy from training hard.

Here are some indications that a swimmer is exhibiting obsessive passion:

  • Your self-image is completely tied to how you do in the pool. If you have a great workout you are riding high; but if things go somewhat okay, or worse, terribly, than you are down in the dumps for an extended period of time. The self-talk that comes along with setbacks is merciless and unforgiving.
  • You define yourself solely as how you do as a swimmer. You identify yourself as a swimmer and nothing else. There should be other things in your life with which you can define yourself; student, entrepreneur, brother/sister, volunteer, coach, etc. Your identity is tied almost exclusively to how you perform in the pool.
  • You “must” or “need” to train hard. When you use that self-directed voice in your head, what kind of language are you using? If you are consistently telling yourself things like, “must”, “need”, or “have to,” than you are almost sitting in the obsessive side of things.
  • You feel a ton of pressure to get things done perfectly in the pool. Because an overwhelming amount of your identity is tied to swimming, you place a ton of pressure on yourself to perform. Practices are to be done perfectly, or not at all. There is no middle ground with how you train. As a result, you don’t actually feel all that great about the training you do in the pool, even when it does go what could be considered well.

Harmonious passion, although it sounds like a boy band from the 90’s, derives chiefly from intrinsic pleasure. A swimmer experiences it when they have a sense of power and sway over their training.

Their swimming fits in well with the rest of their life, and they are able to disengage from the sport when away from the pool. Although they don’t obsess about the sport, or feel guilty about themselves when they are away from the water for not training more, they are still remarkably passionate about their effort and involvement in the pool.

This athlete is dedicated to their goals on the water, but their identity and sense of self-worth doesn’t ride on it.

You are experiencing harmonious passion when—

  • You don’t take bad practices personally. You know that sometimes things just don’t click, even though you prepared yourself as best you could for the training session. While disappointing, a poor practice doesn’t ruin your day.
  • You frequently enter a state of flow. You know those magical moments in your swimming where everything just seems to come together? Where the water bends to your will and you are able to perform at a high level without having to coerce the awesomeness out of yourself? Where time starts to fly by? That is “flow,” and it is something those who like what they are doing and are able to apply their skills and talents towards it frequently find themselves in. (We’ll certainly be touching more on flow in the future, so stay tuned.)
  • You meet your training sessions with a positive attitude. Going to the pool and swimming out of your mind is something you kind of look forward to. You take it as an opportunity to improve, to challenge yourself. You view it as a rewarding mixture of work and play, and as such, meet it with relative enthusiasm.

IN CLOSING

At the end of the day, those who work with harmonious passion consistently are more likely to achieve long term success. Getting all harmonious-like means you appreciate the challenge, enjoy it, and as a result are able to avoid the vicious burnout that comes with obsessive passion. And ironically enough, when you stop obsessing over every little detail in the pool you’ll find that anxiety levels will go down, and your performance will trend upwards.

While I can see the appeal that obsessive passion would have at the beginning of the season or training cycle, using it as a kickstart is fraught with risks. The downsides of it are too numerous to give it serious consideration: lack of flexibility, unwillingness to have balance, and a compulsiveness that is unsustainable (and frankly not a lot of fun).

Instead, seek to find the intrinsic value in what you are doing in the pool.

What type of passion do you find yourself using to get yourself to the pool on a daily basis?

Let me know in the comments.

Originally published Nov 2015

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29 Comments on "Can You Swim Faster By Caring Less?"

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One of the best articles I have read in a long time. Incredibly accurate and I’d like to see more written.

Thanks for the feedback, Coach Joe. If there are any topics in particular you’d like me to hit let me know,

Older and Wiser
Interesting read. Unfortunately, it took me until my senior year of college to really embrace the PROCESS of training, and not focus so much on the result. It was kind of liberating to realize my swimming career was almost over, and I wasn’t actually going to become Poseidon. An example: Looking at each practice as a necessary step toward your goals. That hard set comes up, and you can’t make the interval. This is not moving toward your goals, this is moving AWAY from them! You don’t want that! You refuse to fail. Buuuuuut… if you’re not trying 100%, you can’t actually fail. Dog the rest of practice. Another example: Looking at practice as “I’m stuck here for the next… Read more »
Very interesting article! A lot of people I swim with (including myself) had the same thing. When you are a younger age grouper there is a lot of pressure to perform and, without real life experience you can definitely find yourself thinking that swimming is everything. I know I felt like quitting a number of times after poor swims. It took me until University to relax and enjoy it more and suddenly I was seeing an end to a plateau I had been in for years and dropped 2 seconds from my 50Backstroke time which was unexpected (i was filling in for a friend who didn’t make his race so had no time to get nervous/put pressure on myself). Now… Read more »
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About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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