Thursday, July 31, 2014

5 Meaningful Lessons Swimming Has Taught Me

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.

5 Meaningful Lessons Swimming Has Taught Me
Matthew Swanston

After hanging 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
Here’s some 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 pool.
Yes, 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.

3) Everybody is Unique
That seems 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
School can’t 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.

5) Attitude is a Choice
“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.