At every level of the sport, swimming is partially an individual sport and partially a team sport. From the early years as an age-group or summer league swimmer through the collegiate and post-grad level, you compete as an individual, but for a team. Any swimmer will tell you that your teammates are the people you rely on to push you through practice when the pool is the last place you want to be.
Every athlete is motivated differently. Some can train by themselves everyday and are successful. Jason Lezak, for example, was able to train by himself without a coach for years and still managed to swim the fastest split ever recorded in the 4×100 freestyle relay at the 2008 Olympic games. Lezak, however, is in the minority. The majority of athletes need to be both internally and externally motivated. To be successful, an athlete before anything else, needs to have an internal drive to succeed and get better. If a swimmer is not motivated to be a better athlete, then encouragement from coaches, families, and teammates is meaningless. It holds no value to the swimmer. However, if the swimmer is motivated, encouragement from others can make all the difference in the world. I have finished sets that I know I would have never been able to finish without my teammates in the water with me.
Every swimmer shares a special bond with their teammates. Swimming is a very unique and misunderstood sport, it requires a lot of determination, time, and effort. You stare at a black line on the bottom of a pool for 40+ hours a week, pushing your body to the limit, until you are physically incapable of moving any more. To the non-swimmer, it sounds crazy to hear what a swimmer goes through all year long, in hopes of dropping tenths of a second in a few short races at the end of the year. Nobody understands all that you go through better than a teammate. Your teammates go through the same practices, hear the same speeches from the coaches, are just as tired, and know the pain that you are feeling every single day. Swimmers all over the world know what it feels like to go through a swim season, but only a few share the same experiences that you have.
Your teammates can have a huge impact on how you swim. They hold you accountable and you can push each other in practice to new levels. You are expected to give everything you can at practice, not only for yourself, but for your teammates, just as you should expect them to do for you. When you have a team with this mentality, the quality of training dramatically improves. Teammates will compete during sets at practice. This appeals to the competitive nature of swimmers because no body wants to get beat. As one swimmers pulls ahead, his or her teammate will have to go faster, which in turn motivates the swimmer that is ahead to stay ahead and swim faster as well. Every athlete has different strengths and weaknesses, some will be great at kick sets, others will be great in distance sets. Either way, there will always be someone to chase down or run away from if everyone is motivated.
It is great to have teammates, but how does the team dynamic change when you have to compete against your teammates. Does it encourage training and make everyone faster? Will it make the relationships on the team tense? Someone has to win and someone has to lose, is there a correct way to handle the situation?
There are several ways you can choose to look at the situation, but you have to approach it the right way.
It is a great feeling to be able to beat your teammate in a meet. Nobody likes losing, so wanting to beat your teammate can be a great motivator. Everyday in practice, you learn the strengths and weaknesses of the teammate you will be racing against. When it comes down to race day, you know where you can pull away and where you need to pick up the pace. You have raced your teammate so many times, you know exactly what to expect.
However, if a swimmer walks into the race focused solely on beating their teammate, the relationships on the team will become very tense and uncomfortable. No two swimmers are alike, and everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses that they have to work with. In order to maintain a positive training environment, the focus need to be on swimming your own race. Swimmers constantly hear from coahces that they “have to keep their heads down and swim their own races.” That phrase becomes cliche, but it holds a lot of merit.
If you did everything you could to prepare all season long, and were focused on your own race, then there is nothing more you can do. Whether you win or lose, you gave it everything you had. If you can make excuses at the end of the race, you did not do everything you could have done. As the stakes get higher, however, it becomes harder to accept that the best you had was not enough to win. It is conflicting to look up at your teammate, ahead of you on the podium, because you wanted to be where they are so badly. At the same time, you are proud of how well your teammate swam. Matt Grevers talked about the mixed emotions he had on the podium for the 100 backstroke at the 2008 Olympic games . He finished second behind his teammate, Aaron Peirsol.
Grevers was very happy with how well he and his teammate finished, but he knew how bad he wanted to win the Gold medal. He was able to adjust his training after 2008 and ended up winning the gold medal at the London Games in 2012.
There is always something that can be adjusted. Going into the next season, you have to figure out what adjustments are necessary moving forward. Michael Klueh is someone who has benefited from a positive training environment and team atmosphere. After just barely missing the 2012 Olympic team, he made an adjustment and began training at the University of Michigan. There are several elite level swimmers training at the University of Michigan with Mike Bottom. Klueh’s teammate, Connor Jaeger, qualified for 4 events at the 2013 World Championships in Barcelona.
If the focus at the University of Michigan was on beating their teammates, Jaeger would have kept all four races. Instead, Jaeger scratched his fourth event, the 200 free, to make room for his training partner, Michael Klueh, on the World Championship roster. Klueh was not mad that Connor made the team, instead he was happy for his success. Klueh was able to benefit from their positive relationship as teammates.
Thank you to Paul Weisser, the Head Coach of PRO Swimming, and Matt Bos, the Head coach of the IUPUI Men’s and Women’s Swim Teams, for providing me with coaches’ perspectives of the situation.