Courtesy of Jon Beardsley, a swim coach of a small and developing, but relatively high performing club in the UK. (Featured image: Michael Phelps, in-season, 2008)
Being a very late bloomer in the pool and a very logical guy (MMath), I am insanely optimistic about people. I genuinely believe that anyone can do anything they want to do. In the pool, there’s a big long checklist of things to do if you wanna be the best. Some start with lots of boxes ticked: this is as far as I personally take the word talented. All swimming is movement patterns: with the right training, stretching and strength work–and blah blah blah–anyone can tick any box they truly want to. But that’s just it –most people don’t seem to. I still train, compete and coach, so this morning I’ve decided to write the definitive mental checklist of someone who will be successful. Unlike the physical list, this one isn’t for part-timers. In order to be truly successful, you get 10/10, or you get 0. Not everyone can be an Olympic gold medalist, but you can swim some incredible times.
Where do the performers come from, and why do so many people underachieve?
What do those people do that are kicking butt do that you aren’t?
What do you need to live by to get there?
Chances are this applies to most people because most people aren’t as successful as they want to be.
1) Connect each session to the last. Pick up where you left off. Be consistent.
How many people turn up at the pool every day and just chat, with a few crappy armswings? Beware of the quiet guys that arrive early and stand in the corner warming up, doing activation, strengthening their external rotation, getting their shoulders ready, rolling, stretching. They aren’t doing that mindlessly, they’re quietly contemplating what happened last session, what improvements they made and what they want to do today.
Most people turn up every day and just more or less forget what progress they made last time. The guys that move forward unstoppably like Robocop live their swim life as one long swim session. They pick up exactly where they left off. That 15 minutes they spend each session adds up to probably 90 hours a year.
You can’t match that with a few armswings. Bring your band and tennis ball and roller and, if you’re not early, you’re late. Talk after the job is done. The quote here is from American author Robert Collier:
“Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.”
Most people don’t.
2) Excel in each area individually, just for the sake of doing so.
When you get to college or high school and you start learning to squat and clean and all those staple things, aim to be good at them. Not good for a swimmer, not good for your team, look up the best in the world and copy them. Make your squat great because it should be, not because it might help you swim faster. Make your clean great because why do it badly? When you’re planning your diet, make it great because it should be, not because it’ll help you swim faster. Make your technique great because that’s what you’re there to do. Be awesomely flexible because why stop at OK? That’s what it means to be a professional. Anything can be broken down into a sum of its component parts. Excel at each one and you will excel overall. The quote here is by Thoreau, a philosopher and I heard it from Alex Meyer (US Open Water national champion/Olympian):
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”
Most people don’t.
3) Train like the swimmer you want to be, not like the the one you are.
I’m going to get this onto my club’s new merchandise, then I’m going to get a huge rubber stamp and slam it into people’s stomachs. We are in the UK and it more or less contradicts the traditional British attitude of: “Well we’re not good enough”, “We can’t do that”, “We haven’t got a 50m pool so we can’t be good at long course” etc. I’m glad Winston Churchill didn’t have that attitude in 1940, when the UK was the only European country left unconquered: “We can’t possibly win.” Their attitude was “We will fight because one day we will win” and that’s the same attitude winners have: “I will train and act like the athlete I want to be.” Don’t wait until you’re getting decent before you’re worrying about diet, or sleep, or stretching. Do excellently what your coach gives you. Inflexible? Do extra stretching. Weak? Do extra basic strength bits. This powerful quote here comes from my favourite motivational speaker Eric Thomas:
“The slaves said ‘We will live because one day we will become.’ So today, although we slaves, we gon’ act like we free, and one day our children will be free.’ We will live, because one day we will become.”
Most people don’t.
4) Listen to your coach (and fellow swimmers).
Find a coach you trust and let them set the path and you manage everything. Be in the moment, obsess over one thing to improve it and move on. And by listen, I mean listen once, act indefinitely. When your coach says “You gotta tighten up you streamlining” and they come back a week and you’re still not doing it – what have you achieved? With my best swimmers we go through something once. It might take them a while to perfect it but I see effort at it from the word go. I give them tools and a direction, and then I go away. I come back a week later and it’s done. Box checked. Progress made. Step forward. They can do that on each stroke and turn concurrently. They improve so fast it leaves the losers with their heads spinning. A lot of swimmers hear what their coach says but they don’t listen. My favourite quote here is from Michael Phelps‘ coach Bob Bowman
“…and he [Phelps] came back [from World Champs. 2007] and he was training brilliantly. Every day I would give him something, he would do it, he would get better. Every day he was getting better.”
Most people don’t.
5) Accept that being uncomfortable is the norm when making those huge changes. Winners expect a path of resistance, losers expect the path to be easy.
Sometimes you gotta take a step back to move forward. Sometimes you gotta take 2 steps back to take 4 forward. Sometimes you gotta go to the back of the lane and struggle and go slow for a while. Talk with your coach, let them know what’s going on and make sure you have an understanding. Make sure you understand clearly what you have to do and how you’re going to achieve it. Ignore your team mates when they take the mick (UK slang for jibes) with the knowledge that you’re developing something bigger – yourself. With real problems, the ones people don’t fix because “it’s too much effort” – what’s that about? Surely the pain of doing it wrong and poorly every day adds up to the pain of just fixing it once. The quote here is from Eric Thomas again:
“Pain is temporary. It may last for a minute, an hour, a day or even a year – but eventually it will subside, and something else will take its place. If I quit however, it will last for a lifetime.”
The winners don’t quit on strokes or things they find hard. They find a way to move past it. There is no I can’t. Most people don’t.
6) Don’t look for a pat on the back from someone each time you get it right. Don’t have a strop when you don’t get it. Set your own minimum standards and earn your success.
If you need a pat on the back and a well done after each little step before you’ll move on – you’re gonna progress very slowly. Your coach has 19 other people to look after. Do it because you choose not to suck at it. Give yourself the pat on the back if you have to. Let’s take flip turns as an example. I notice two distinct groups of swimmers: the successful ones who have a minimum standard for themselves and the ones that don’t, the ones that “drop through the floor” as I say. That is, when things get tough, some choose to still kick a minimum number of times underwater, streamline, breakout smoothly – and some just get worse and worse. The breathing and and out starts, kicks get worse, then stop, then the streamlining goes, I’ve even seen some go to a touch turn.
Technique time? Turn time? It’s every time. I hear people ask “Can we do technique today?”, “Can we practice turns?”. Whilst drills are awesome, you just swum a 3k set and that gave you 3k to practice technique and 120 turns to practice. Something I believe as a coach is that there ain’t no substitute for doing it when you’re swimming. I’ve done weeks where we’ve done perfect and awesome15 freestyle turns every day stand-alone and nobody turns got one bit better. 15 right vs. 120+ wrong – which is gonna win? This applies universally in the sport. The winners know where the lower limit is and they don’t go past it. The quote here is from Michael Jordan:
“You have competition every day because you set such high standards for yourself that you have to go out every day and live up to that.”
Most people don’t.
7) The words luck, hope, won’t, don’t and can’t aren’t in their vocabulary. They’ve got a plan.
The word will is all powerful. Winners don’t turn up and practice and hope for success, they have a plan they believe in. They don’t deny themselves it by saying “I can’t” or “I won’t”. I rarely say “good luck” to someone before a race – unless it’s a tight final. Decide that one day you will achieve it and you’ll do whatever you need to do. Once you accept this in your mind you will make progress. It took me 5 years to go from a ~47 to a ~33 50 breaststroke and I’m still going. When I started everyone told me “Why are you bothering?” & “You’ll never do it, focus on something else.” But whether it took me 5 years or it took you 2 it doesn’t matter when all is said and done. The quote here is one of mine:
“Every sentence that starts with ‘I can’ once started with ‘I will.'”
Most people don’t.
8) Be your own biggest critic. Acknowledge the good and the bad, and stay grounded. Stay on top of yourself.
The “I wish you were my coach/I was at your club!” brigade can have a quiet word themselves here. You know who they are, you see them on social media from time to time writing on some post saying “I wish you were my coach!”. Why? There’s a chance your coach is doing a fairly decent job, obviously there are good coaches and bad ones. But if your swimming sucks so bad and you care os much, why haven’t you got your parents to film you at a swim meet? Why haven’t you sit down by yourself and watch it in slo-mo alongside a video of someone good. Watch it by itself and ask yourself if you’re OK with how things are looking. There’s infinite resources out there about technique, flexibility, whatever you need. Google it. You’re not remote controlled. It’s not your coaches job to develop you. You have to do that yourself. You gotta take responsibility for your performance. If you’re still struggling, ask your coach to meet you after or before practice with your iPad and talk you through it. Meet them before morning practice if you have to. Don’t ask – tell. You lay on the bonnet of their car so they can’t leave. Then you work at what they say obsessively all season. Work in the gym, on land and in the pool. Work at it for years. You quit once you’ve done that. You quitting and you ain’t even tried yet!
The quote here is from Dr Cox, JD’s supervisor, on NBC’s Scrubs (S1E8) when he asks JD to do his own evaluation. JD flaps about and doesn’t do it properly because he can’t be tough on himself. When he eventually forces Dr Cox to do it, hoping for a glowing report, he meets him after work and in anger he says:
“Did you even wonder why I told you to do your own evaluation? I wanted you to think about yourself, and I mean really think: what are you good at? What do you suck at? And then I wanted you to put it down on paper and not so I could see it or so anybody else could see it but so that you could see it. Because ultimately you don’t have to answer to me, you don’t have to answer to [Dr] Kelso. You don’t even have to answer to your patients for God’s sake! You only have to answer to one guy, newbie, and that’s you!”
If you know anything about the sport you know who is good and you know what good looks like. So get on your own back and stop looking for somebody else to do it for you. Most people don’t.
9) Show me passion and rage. Apathy and self pity is a disease.
If you’re someone who is having a crap season, there’s probably a reason why. Deep down, you know what it is but you’re just self pitying away from it. Nobody’s pity makes you faster. Be proactive against those rougher bits, like if you’re a developing girl, get into land training early, make sure you’re eating well and sleeping well. Sometimes it’s gonna be tough. You can generally see who is motivated by the reactions after a bad race. When the winners don’t meet their expectations you see them throwing kit down, tears, shouting, swearing. The losers just come back and flop down on poolside and sort-of look at you and say “How was that?”. You know how it was, do your own evaluation. I’ve told you a million times to X Y Z in training every day, but have you done it? No. You’re the same swimmer you were last meet, and the meet before that.
The quote here isn’t really attributable, but I saw it on an Instagram fitness motivation page:
“If it was easy, everyone would do it, but that’s what makes it greatness.”
Most people don’t.
If you read this article and “click” onto it, you’re going to leave people behind. Don’t let the losers hold you back. When you start to stride forward and they still keep looking to others and hope for success, you gotta break away. No need to be mean to them but at points when they’re skipping laps and you’re red in the face – write it off. If they ask you for help, give it to them but until they come over the light side of the force, there’s a limited amount you can do for them. Maybe show them this. Don’t try and do everything at once, build up, build in consistency in small bits and build up when you’ve made a habit out of it. This applies to literally everything you can think of in relation to the sport.
If you’re not sure whether you not doing something is “skill or will” use the £10/$10 note test. Whatever you’re supposed to be fixing: let’s say not breathing in/out of your turns. If I gave you £10/$10 for each time you got it right, would you get it right every time? What about for kicking well underwater? What about every time you got your catch right on freestyle? Hmm. Seems very different now doesn’t it? If you can do it for money, you can do it without. Eric Thomas again “Listen to me, you will never be successful until I don’t have to give you a dime to do what you do.” Winners don’t need bribery, they do it because they refuse to be bad at it. If you read this and you’re confused or start picking fault with it, go back to the top and read it again.
In the UK we have a phrase for these people that moan and complain about every set and every lap and every stroke and everything. Ones that consistently blame the coach or what someone else is or isn’t doing. Why they’re allowed to suck. The ones that drag everyone else down: drainers. It can be applied to wider life whenever someone just takes a lot of effort to be around. Spread it, and the phrase “You’re fully draining me” like wildfire in the US and send the credit straight over to me. Peace out.