Wanna know a secret?
There’s no magical formula to becoming an elite…anything. Even blogging requires a tireless commitment to wearing sweat pants and waking up at noon.
But swimming? Swimming is unique. As an individual sport that also thrives in team situations, swimming gives young athletes opportunities to pursue their passion in their own way. A supportive team environment is always handy to have at your back during competition.
But even then, teammates can only do so much.
Talent takes two different forms, physical and mental. Physical talent is either acquired naturally (my parents were famous wearers of sweat pants, for instance) or achieved through practice and skill development. You don’t need webbed hands to be considered a talented swimmer, but some measure of taste for life in the water and an ability to comprehend different strokes at a young age is essential.
Swimming is about perfection. Again, the mental aspect is as important as the physical - swimming requires countless hours in the pool perfecting unique strokes. Without the attention spent on honing skills, a swimmer is only as good as…as… well they just won’t be very good. Water flows in and around every inch of a swimmer, so practicing specific movements over and over again will mould each stroke to its most efficient level.
Tennis has power players and tactical players. Hockey has different positions. Baseball has hitters, pitchers and Prince Fielder. Swimmers normally learn various strokes at a young age, but when it comes time to achieve elite status, it helps to employ a speciality. Focussing on your strength not only gives you your best chance of winning, it’s easier to concentrate on one specialty during the long winter months spent doing lanes over and over and over again.
Some of the best stories I’ve heard from swimmers of varying ability come not from winning medals, but from the experience of competing with a team. Typical swim meets are long and tiring, but they’re a lot easier to get up for with an encouraging set of teammates in it with you. Sure, once you hop in the water, your performance is all that matters, but picturing the impending high-5’s of your teammates once you finish is one of the strongest motivators an athlete can have.
Practice, talent, specialties and teamwork are great and all, and they’re certainly motivational factors for young swimmers trying to reach the next level, but there’s one element that’s more powerful than any of them, a factor that will ultimately determine whether elite status is even possible.
Because of course it’s easier to work hard when someone is breathing down your neck. Of course it’s easier to come to practice when you have a fun team with whom you enjoy practicing.
The ultimate key to swimming success is how hard you compete when no one is watching.
Those who judge themselves harsher than any coach or any teammate are those who rise above the adversity, with natural and unforeseen. Doing chin-ups in the basement because it might give you the slightest edge is a lot more powerful than performing just because all eyes are on you.
But someday those eyes will be on you, elite swimmer, except the only eyes that will truly matter are your own.