The Problematic Minimalist Mindset
By Matthew Swanston
There’s a lot less competition in that event. I’d be better off training for that.
I’ve been guilty of thinking this myself, and I’m not the only one. It’s natural for swimmers. The endearing possibility of qualifying for a travel team encourages us to compare ourselves to our competitors in multiple events, to figure out what our best chances are. Based on the selection criteria and the depth of competition, there will inevitably be gaps, events where it might be a little easier to squeak onto the team. Some swimmers have the attitude that they’re only good at one event, so the prospect of branching out is null. But for those willing to perform in multiple strokes and distances, it’s efficient to figure out which events are weakest.
This process happens at every level. Age group swimmers gauge the easiest way to qualify for a training camp the same way national team members evaluate their best shot at making the Olympics. Maybe it’s swimming freestyle instead of butterfly because there are more relay spots, or jumping up to the 200 instead of the 100 in a given stroke because there’s less competition. For the individual, it makes total sense. We have world-class swimmers in Canada; Ryan Cochrane makes it awfully hard for other milers to qualify for national teams, so anyone training to swim the 1500 may be encouraged to find a shorter event. Since there’s not too much depth in Canadian Swimming, this is achievable. The mile is just an example, but in general swimmers are intrigued by events that are easier to make teams in, even if it’s not their best.
As I said earlier, I’ve been guilty of having this outlook. Of course I gravitate towards the 200 backstroke, my best event, but at times I wonder if I would do better in Canada in a different race. The 200 back and the 100 fly are next to each other in the national lineup. I can’t do them both, but in the past I’ve considered swimming the 100 fly rather than my best event because there’s arguably less competition in butterfly. I’ll repeat that it makes logical sense for swimmers to consider their options in this manner. One could also argue that it equalizes the depth over all events. However, if I did give up the 200 back and qualified to swim the 100 fly internationally, would I be doing any good for Canada?
I discussed the implications of this attitude with my teammate Lindsay Seemann over coffee, and we came to realize this minimalist mindset is hurting Canadian swimming. To give credit where it’s due, it was Lindsay who pointed out that while it may benefit the individual to find the easiest path to winning or making a travel team, the country suffers as a result. In Canada, it’s possible for a swimmer to stop focusing on his or her best event in exchange for a better shot at the podium, whereas this can’t happen as much in swimming powerhouses like the United States. Even though Phelps and Clary made it hard for Americans to qualify for the Olympics in the 200 fly, if the 200 fly was your best event you had to stick with it because there’s a lot more depth across the board. Switching to a weaker event and being more successful is unlikely in the US. This fosters a different attitude; to qualify for teams, the only option for Americans at all levels is to train hard to make it to the top of their event, rather than taking an easier path. For them, there is no easier path.
When Canadians drop their best event to focus on a weaker one, Canadian swimming falls short of its collective potential. Let’s invent an example. Suppose the 200 breaststroke is your best event but it is incredibly stacked in Canada. If the 100 breaststroke has less competition, you may decide to focus on that event instead. It makes sense, but this mindset is minimalistic and undermining. Minimalism is an attitude of doing the least possible and getting away with it. Rather than figuring out how to overcome the best 200 breaststrokers, you’d be figuring out how to achieve success without putting in extra work. It’s this fundamental attitude that distinguishes many Canadian swimmers from American swimmers. The difference is the availability of an easier road.
Canadians need to remind themselves that the best are still human. They can be beaten. If all Canadian male swimmers stopped swimming the 1500 because Ryan Cochrane is too good, then he may be less motivated on a day-to-day basis because there is less threat of getting beaten at home. Swimmers at the top are not invulnerable; they keep an eye over their shoulder. More competition in an event means more motivation, and this fuels overall improvement in Canadian swimming. To raise the bar, it would be ideal for everyone to work really hard at the events they’re best at. Even if certain events become stacked and others are weak, Canadian swimming would still perform better. Rather than wasting talent on filling weaker events, this beat-the-best attitude would thrust Canadian swimming to greater success at the international level. We know that there’s no easy road at the Olympics, so why practice it within our own borders?
What we’re left with is an interesting dilemma involving conflict of interest. If there’s a weak event in Canada, there’s an incentive for swimmers to focus on that event rather than their best event. All I can say is, the best can be beaten. Even if it seems your event is too competitive, set your goals high, and fight for the top of the podium. One day you may find yourself there, and Canada will thank you.