Pain, Empathy and Swimming Your Heart Out

I had an epiphany standing on the pool deck this past Saturday in Houston. The swimmers in the water were rehearsing their races, and as such they were swimming hard. I’ve been “out of season” for some time, and at first felt myself taken aback a little with the ferocity with which they churned through the water.

When they finished, their faces were contorted with agony. Any swim coach knows- swimming hard hurts. Swimming fast hurts the most.

That was not the epiphany. I realized that the dominating feeling in any swimmers mind is whatever their “go-to” emotions is in times of pain. Pain is not an emotions but it is about as powerful an emotional trigger as you can get. I hear a lot of conventional wisdom that “you have to love being in pain” or “pain tolerance” or other weirdly toxic phrases.

When I talk to athletes, one of the most important things they can understand is the gap between their emotions and the thoughts and actions that follow. Because emotions emanate from the unconscious part of the brain, and thoughts and actions form in the conscious part of the brain, we often trick ourselves into thinking that we are rational actors.

I suppose there are people that “love” pain out there, although there is more than enough evidence to suggest that associating love or happiness with pain is linked to past abuse.

Many people will emotionally react to pain with a negative emotion. So when you are in pain, it is even easier to be pessimistic than it normally is.

Every coach has experienced watching a swimmer put in a good performance, then approaching them with positivity, only to be met with a seething or sullen response. These kinds of interactions can be incredibly damaging to the relationship, because there is a missed opportunity for empathetic connection.

Coaches need to recognize that the pain of swimming fast is real and can trigger real negative emotions. Acknowledging those emotions instead of dismissing them as “inappropriate” can be a pathway to building a different reaction from the swimmer.

Coaches are not having close to the same experience as the swimmers racing. Swimmers need to recognize that coaches are having an emotional reaction as well after the race, although it comes from a different experience. They have invested emotional energy in helping another person.

They may not have the same visceral pain (or any at all) and want to share something positive with the swimmer. They need to be ready to receive that.

So thanks to the University of Houston Cougars and coaches Ryan Wochomurka, Hannah Burandt and Bob Gunter for giving me the opportunity to learn something.