You have a big swim meet coming up, and you have a month until the meet arrives. You want to do as well as you can at that meet, so you go all out in training and in your preparation to do everything you can to be as prepared as possible for that meet. You train hard, eat well, sleep great, and taper effectively.
“I’m ready for this meet. I put so much into this season and getting ready for this meet, so I need to get good times. Otherwise, all this work will have been for nothing.”
The weekend of the meet, you struggle. For whatever reason, you just can’t seem to pull your swims together and get the times you were hoping to get. You end up performing well below your expectations and swim well off your personal best times, not coming close to breaking any of them like you thought you would.
After taking so much time to prepare and get yourself in as good of a position as possible to do well at the meet, you’re enraged with yourself for performing so badly and getting such bad times. After the meet is finished and you get back home, you throw your things down on the floor and sit down on your bed. Tears well up in your eyes. As you’re sitting there, you start to re-envision your bad swims again and in doing so, some very harsh thoughts begin to creep into your mind.
“I am such a joke of a swimmer. I don’t even know why I’m even wasting my time with this sport if I’m going to do this badly. I might as well quit now because I’m never going to be good enough to make it anywhere in this sport if I’m going to be this terrible.”
Too many swimmers are too harsh with themselves when they don’t do well. Perhaps you struggle with the same thing. Unfortunately, this kind of attitude towards losing or failure is fairly common. The expectation they place on themselves and the desire to achieve whatever targets they have causes them to attack and turn against themselves when they fall short of those expectations and desires. Even more unfortunate is the fact that, often times, this kind of attitude is glorified and thought to be necessary in order to succeed, when in reality, not only is it not necessary to succeed, it’s physically and mentally harmful.
Scientific studies have conclusively shown that self-criticism is awful and it leads to a number of terrible side-effects: feelings of unworthiness, inferiority, failure, guilt, constant and harsh self-scrutiny and evaluation, fear of being disapproved, fear of being criticized, fear of losing the approval and acceptance of others, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, bi-polar disorder symptoms, and psychosomatic symptoms where mental struggles manifest in physical problems like fatigue and pain.
The reason self-criticism is often glorified is because it’s seen as a swimmer “being hard on themselves.” And, being hard on oneself is seen as beneficial and necessary for success because of this false idea that it’s somehow noble and virtuous to be overly self-critical and angry when you fall short. Let me be clear: There’s nothing noble, virtuous, or advantageous about beating yourself up when you don’t do well. Being hard on yourself is the kind of overly exaggerated self-criticism and self-attacking that I described in the earlier example. The “hard” aspect isn’t constructive or sport-focused in any way. It simply involves berating yourself and talking yourself down when things don’t go well.
There’s a difference between doing that and being demanding of yourself. Being demanding of yourself is more constructive and sport-focused. It actually provides something constructively beneficial rather than just giving you an outlet to attack and berate yourself, which provides no real benefits in any way. And, here’s the best part about being demanding of yourself rather than hard on yourself: You can get the same perceived benefits that you think you can get from being hard on yourself, but you can get them without needing to attack yourself and be overly self-critical. Instead of coming down on yourself, you’re simply honest about your performance and results instead.
This is where Self-Compassion comes into the picture. Much, much better than self-criticism is self-compassion; the act of being understanding, caring, and compassionate towards yourself when you don’t do well as opposed to attacking, berating, and insulting yourself.
Here’s an example of self-criticism – “I did so bad this weekend. I’m such a terrible swimmer.”
Here’s an example of self-compassion – “This weekend didn’t go as well as I would have liked, but that’s ok. Bad meets are part of the process, and they’re going to happen from time to time. I’m going to look at this meet, see what went wrong, and get back in the pool on Monday so that I can keep training and keep getting better.”
Notice the big difference between those two. They’re both saying the same thing in that your performance was not where you wanted it to be or needed it to be. However, the first approach tries to accomplish that through negativity, self-deprecation, and insults. The second approach does it by taking the emotion out of the equation and replacing it with objectivity. The first approach isn’t constructive or sport-focused in any way. It’s just insults. The second approach is constructive and sport-focused, not using insults to try and solidify the point.
I’m going to tell you something, and the sooner you accept this fact and learn to be at peace with it, the better you’re going to be as a swimmer: You’re imperfect. You always have been, and you always will be. You’re going to mess up from time to time. You’re going to swim terribly and get awful times here and there. You’re going to fail miserably at different points. But, that’s fine. Messing up, swimming terribly, getting awful times, and failing miserably isn’t what matters. What matters is how you react to those things.
You can react to those things one of two ways. You can be overly self-critical, beat yourself up, insult yourself, berate yourself, tell yourself you’re no good and that you’ll never be good enough, and throw yourself into the emotional sewers. Or, you can be self-compassionate. You can be understanding towards yourself, caring towards yourself, and compassionate towards yourself. You can try to lift yourself up and encourage yourself when you fall short. I know how I’d rather treat myself.
When it comes to self-criticism vs. self-compassion, I want you to think of it this way. Imagine you’re at a meet and you’re watching one of your teammates swim. They have a terrible race, they get a bad time, and when they get out of the pool, they’re beside themselves. They’re extremely upset and sad. If they came walking over to you in that situation, what would you say to them? Would you berate them, tell them how awful they are, that they’re never going to be good enough and that they should just give up now? Would you say to them, “That was so bad! What the heck was that? You’re so terrible! You should just stop swimming now because you’re never going to be good enough!”
Chances are you wouldn’t react that way at all. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’d react completely the opposite. I’m willing to bet you’d be supportive. I’m willing to bet you’d be positive and encouraging. I’m willing to bet you would try your best to lift that person up. I’m willing to bet you’d maybe give that person a hug and try to make them feel better about themselves. I’m willing to be you’d say something like, “Hey, you did everything you could to swim your best and get a good time. No one is perfect and everyone falls short sometimes. You’re not alone in that, we all have. It doesn’t make you a bad swimmer. Keep your head up and keep going. You can overcome this. You’ll get it the next time!”
Having said that, here’s the real question: If you’re willing to treat your friends and teammates that way, then why can’t you treat yourself that way? If you’re willing to lift other people up, inspire them, encourage them, give them a hug, and try everything you can to make them feel good about themselves when they swim badly and fall short, then why can’t you react the same way towards yourself when you go through similar experiences? There’s absolutely no reason why you can’t treat yourself the same way as you do others, and you should.
If you struggle with being self-compassionate, here are some exercises you can do to help you improve and start being more self-compassionate towards yourself when you fail or fall short.
1) Self-Compassion Conversation
As you’re competing in swim meets and performing, whenever you experience some kind of failure or inadequacy, be mindful of your reaction to that experience and work to craft a self-compassionate response to that failure or inadequacy by talking to yourself in a self-compassionate way. “Switch on” your brain and your inner voice and control how you speak to yourself. Create a self-compassionate inner dialogue with yourself and talk yourself through the experience in a strong, confident, empowering manner. For example, if you have a bad race, take control of your self-talk and say to yourself, “Bad races are going to happen from time to time, its fine. It’s part of the process. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad swimmer. I’m going to put this behind me and look forward to my next race. I know I can do great the next time.”
2) Self-Compassion Journal
As you’re competing in swim meets and performing, whenever you experience some kind of failure or inadequacy, keep a log book or journal of those experiences by writing about them. Whether it’s having a bad meet, falling short in training, or making a mistake during a race, write out what happened and then write out strong, confident, empowering, positive, and self-compassionate response to that experience. Lift yourself up, encourage yourself, and inspire yourself. For example, you could write: “My meet today didn’t go very well. My technique just wasn’t there and I couldn’t pull my races together. However, I know I’m not perfect and I’m going to have bad meets from time to time. I’m going to use this as fuel, get back in the pool on Monday, and keep working hard to get prepared for next weekend’s meet. I’m excited to get going again and keep moving forward.”
Remember, your chances of making progress towards your aims, achieving success, and improving as a player are far higher when utilizing self-compassion instead of self-criticism. You don’t need to be hard on yourself and beat yourself up in order to attain those things. You can do better!
Thanks for reading, and all the best!