After his final medal winning performance at Canadian Summer National Championships, friend to this blog, Matthew Swanston has finally hung up his goggles and has decided to move onto something else. I asked him to write a piece, exclusive to this blog, detailing 5 lessons that he had learned through 17 years of swimming. Please join me in congratulating Matthew in his retirement and wish him luck in whatever he does next.
Meaningful Lessons Swimming Has Taught Me
up the suit and goggles, I took some time to reflect on the lessons I learned
during my 17 years swimming – lessons I’ll tuck in my back pocket for the next
stage of life. When Mike asked me to write this article, I decided I wanted to
avoid rehashing the conventional wisdom; of course I could write endlessly on
the importance of perseverance and dedication, but we’ve all heard it more
times than the Frozen soundtrack. Although the following ideas may not be
ground-breaking or relevant to everyone, I hope they strike a chord somewhere.
1) Highs Don’t Exist Without Lows
At times we’re
miserable, and that’s okay. Anyone who pretends they never have a bad day is
lying; how could you know what it’s like to feel on top of the world if you’ve
never been in the pits? When training gets tough and your life energy is
depleted (I’ve shed the odd tear into my goggles and projectile vomited
mid-pool), it’s important to remember that sacrifice pays off during taper,
travel, and competition. What’s the alternative, constant monotony? Swimming
has offered me moments of pure joy, exhilaration, fear, heartbreak, and pride
that are unparalleled. It’s no secret that sport gives us access to some of
life’s deepest emotions, but they require sacrifice. It’s the exact same in all
of life’s arenas; the bad times help us appreciate the good. After all,
overcoming the low points in life is what defines us, and it’s the high points
we live for.
2) Sometimes Less Is More
brutal honesty: the amount of effort I put into training didn’t always
translate to results at meets. When I was swimming obsessed, I didn’t
necessarily race faster than when I had other priorities. I came to realize
that 1) allowing swimming to consume my life without checks or balances was
self-destructive and 2) more work doesn’t necessarily equate to faster times;
what’s important is being smart in race preparation, both in and out of the
traditional heavy workload for elite swimmers, comprising
roughly 9 to 11 weekly practices with an ungodly amount of metres in the pool
and intense weight sessions in the gym has a proven track record. But is this
workhorse mentality, which still rules many Canadian and American programs,
outdated? Could a reduced and more finely-tuned workload produce the same if
not better results? As an example, a friend of mine swam 5 times a week for a
year (rarely ever exceeding 5 km per session), independently lifted weights,
and went on to win multiple events at US World Championship Trials in 50 and
100 metre distances.
Of course this
training regime couldn’t possibly pay off for everyone (see my next point), and
especially not for distance swimmers, but perhaps it’s worth some
consideration. While I’m not arguing against hard work, I do think excessive
training does more harm than good – it discourages young talent from continuing
in the sport and perhaps even limits performance potential. I’m a believer in
efficiency, minimalism, and simplicity, all of which have application beyond
sport. In life, like in swimming, sometimes less is more.
obvious, but it’s easy to forget that there’s no standard formula for success
in the pool or otherwise. We all have unique body types and training styles,
unique goals and mental dispositions, and unique tolerance for breaststroke
kickers in overcrowded warm-ups. Just because a certain lifestyle works for a
competitor doesn’t necessarily mean you should eat, sleep, or shave your
armpits the way they do. You have to “do you.” Watch cartoons between heats and
finals if they calm you; don’t watch The Maury Show if it horrifies you. Enjoy
an occasional slice of pie before bed if it induces euphoria; don’t open a tub
of ice cream if you have no self restraint. The same logic applies to more
significant decisions, like choosing a university; while you should heed the
advice of family, friends, and coaches, don’t let anybody deter you from going
to school in your hometown, or from going to school on the other side of the globe.
To be clear I’m
not advocating snobbery or entitlement, but when boiled down your decisions
should reflect your desire to create an environment that’s not only conducive
to performance, but conducive to happiness (and I’m not saying those things aren’t
correlated). Otherwise, what’s the point? It’s your life – make it compatible
with your own uniqueness.
4) Politics is Unavoidable
teach you this lesson; I studied political science in university but it was
through swimming that I learned its real-world application. “Politics” swims in
the lane next to you, marches around the pool deck, watches from the stands,
yells from the lifeguard chair, operates from an office miles away, and stares
at you from your computer screen at this very moment. It’s everywhere. Even in
the seemingly objective sport of swimming, scored using cut and dry time
comparisons, politics reigns supreme. Everybody has their own ideas, and many
believe theirs to be superior. Plugging into the political system is
unavoidable – learning to survive in it is invaluable. Rather than whining or
rebelling, the best course of action is usually to roll with the punches.
However, there is a reason we generally support democracy and free speech:
politics isn’t always fair. Sometimes expressing discontent is justified.
Knowing when it is appropriate to keep quiet and when it is appropriate to
raise hell is difficult to judge, but at the very least it’s important to
accept the fact that politics is unavoidable and it will affect you, both in
the swimming world and beyond.
“We don’t see
things as they are, we see them as we are.” – Anais Nin.
One of my
favourite quotes couldn’t be more true; life in its entirety is perceived and
experienced through a lens called the brain. Sport is merciless, and swimming
in particular is unforgiving in the way it tests mental stamina. How you handle
and respond is completely in your control; attitude is a choice. There are
multimillionaires from Beverly Hills living in absolute misery and impoverished
kids from the slums with smiles on their faces. Although it’s cliché, it must
be said: if you don’t like something about your life, and you can’t change it,
the only remaining option is to change your attitude. Otherwise, you’re doomed
to be unhappy. I’m not claiming to be relentlessly positive; I’ve already
admitted to being miserable at times because it’s so easy to get lost in the
midst of the daily grind. But a healthy dose of perspective goes a long way.
Swimming, with all its trials and tribulations has taught me a crucial life
skill: how to stop, take a step back, and change my outlook. At the risk of
sounding nauseatingly sentimental, the truth is this sport has given me so
much, and for that I’m grateful.