It was Allison Schmitt, an 8-time Olympic medalist for Team USA, who said a very important swim-quote that I think all swimmers need to really listen to and absorb. She said:
“Swimming is such a small part of life. Yes, I love it. But at the end of the day, it’s just a sport. Whether you finish first or last, you’re still loved by the same people and you still are who you are.”
A perspective like this isn’t always very-well accepted within competitive sport, even swimming. It’s seen as “soft” or “not intense enough.” The common perception is that, to be successful in something, one must treat the sport as if it were their very existence – the sole reason they wake up each day and the absolute most important thing in their life. It has to be an obsessive passion. While having a passion for swimming is certainly an important, and even necessary, ingredient to excel at it and do well, even too much passion is a bad thing.
Psychologically, there are two different forms of passion. And, these two different forms of passion comprise what is called The Dualistic Model Of Passion. Let’s take a look at these two different forms of passion, and we’ll start with the first one:
Obsessive Passion – When your passion for swimming becomes all-consuming. You have difficulty pulling yourself away from the sport and your identity as a person is tied to your swimming. It is fueled by external motivators and an unhealthy desire for external success/material success.
Scientific research on the effects of obsessive passion are well-documented and thoroughly studied, and have yielded the following results:
- Tying your sense of validation and self-worth to the results of your swimming.
- Becoming more passionate about the results of your swimming rather than the pleasure and fulfillment of swimming itself.
- Developing an extremely harsh and debilitating self-criticism towards yourself and your swimming.
- Failures & setbacks are seen as personal attacks against you rather than simply obstacles to overcome.
- An unhealthy, never-satisfied attitude for more; more medals, more records, and more validation.
- A far-greater tendency to consider cheating or other forms of unethical behavior in order to attain external success, no matter the cost.
Obsessive Passion is passion taken too far, and it can lead to these kinds of awful negative side-effects that breed an extremely unhealthy mindset and will inevitably lead a swimmer down the path to physical and mental burnout and walking away from the sport.
However, as I mentioned previously, passion is still a necessary ingredient for performing well and succeeding. So, how does one have a passion for swimming, while at the same time, not allow that passion to devolve into something that’s all-consuming? By cultivating what is called Harmonious Passion:
Harmonious Passion – When your passion for swimming is in a healthy, balanced state. You’re able to disconnect yourself from the sport when necessary and your identity/self-worth as a human being isn’t tied to your swimming. It is driven by internal motivators and healthy desire for both external success and internal fulfillment.
Just like with Obsessive Passion, the effects of Harmonious Passion are thoroughly studied and well-documented, and yield the following results:
- You become more interested in the joy and satisfaction the activity of swimming itself gives you rather than the external rewards it can give you.
- You increase your overall levels of happiness, health, and overall life satisfaction.
- You’re much more likely to continue in the sport over a prolonged period of time and are far less likely of experiencing physical or mental burnout.
- You experience greater internal fulfillment from your growth and improvement as a swimmer.
- You’re able to voluntarily pull yourself away from swimming when necessary and have a life outside of swimming.
- Your sense of self-worth and personal validation is not tied to the results, rewards, outcomes, or goals you achieve or don’t achieve in swimming.
THIS is the kind of passion you want to have as a swimmer – the kind of passion that gives you the emotional drive and commitment to perform and succeed, while at the same time, providing the mental and physical balance you need to maintain a healthy, happy mindset and not burn yourself out.
If you think your passion towards swimming is a bit too all-consuming and leaning more towards the obsessive side of passion, here are some things you can do to help foster a more Harmonious Passion towards your swimming moving forward:
1) Use Positive Language Towards Your Swimming.
We’ve all heard phrases like, “Ugh, I HAVE to go to practice at 6am tomorrow morning” or “I HAVE to get my dry-land work in this afternoon”. It may seem like no big deal, but the language being used here really can make a difference. When you tell yourself you have to do something, it gives off the implication that you’re having to force yourself to do it against your will, and the moment swimming starts to feel like something you have to force yourself to do rather than something you want to do, you’re in trouble.
Instead, be mindful of the kind of language you’re using when talking about swimming and try to transition to phrases that are more positive and empowering. For example, instead of saying, “Ugh, I HAVE to go to practice at 6am tomorrow morning”, switch that to, “I can’t wait to go to practice tomorrow morning” or “Tomorrow morning, I get to go to practice and continue improving at this sport I love.” That’s a BIG difference, and will allow swimming to feel like something you choose to do rather than something you feel like something you have to force yourself to do.
2) Leave Swimming At The Pool.
I cannot stress too much just how important this one is. It’s so easy, when you’ve had a bad day at the pool, to drag that home with you and let it have a negative effect on the rest of your day, and sometimes beyond that. As a consequence, you suffer, the people around you suffer, and your levels of happiness suffer. When you’re done with swimming for the day, especially after a really bad day at the pool, always make sure to leave your swimming at the pool. Disconnect from it as best as you can and don’t carry that baggage home with you. When a practice or meet is finished for the day, leave it behind you and allow yourself to enjoy the other areas and people of your life outside of the sport without constantly dragging swimming around with you.
3) Have Other Hobbies & Do Other Things That Aren’t Swimming Related.
One of my swimming clients loves to read about ancient history in her time away from the pool. One of my other swimming clients loves to go kayaking when he’s not swimming. Justin Ress, a US National Team member and former swimmer for NC State, loves to play Fortnite and stream it on Twitch. Caeleb Dressel, one of the best swimmers on the planet, loves to play Mario Kart! Whatever it is you love to do, it doesn’t matter. It’s simply important that you have something outside of swimming that you can enjoy doing and allow yourself to use as a mechanism to help you disconnect from swimming. This helps to keep your motivation levels sustained and does a really great job at staving off burnout.
Love your swimming. Be committed to it, be disciplined, be dedicated, and give it absolutely everything you can. Be passionate about it. However, balance those out by always remembering the following: You are not a swimmer. You’re a human being that swims. That distinction is very, very important. You’re not just a swimmer. You’re a valuable, amazing human being that does swimming. As Allison Schmitt said, it’s an important part of your life, but it’s only part of your life.
Thanks for reading, and see you next time!
About the Author
Will Jonathan is a sports mental coach with an extensive amount of experience working directly with swimmers and swim programs. His clients include Age-Group National Champions, NCAA All-Americans, Senior-Level International Swimmers, and Olympic Swimmers, as well as having worked with various NCAA Division 1 nationally-ranked swim programs such as Florida State University. He gives talks and presentations on the mental aspects of swimming to swim programs all over the country, and is the author of the book “The Swimmer’s Mind: Mastering The Mental Side Of Swimming” which can be found at both Amazon, and at Barnes & Nobles online.