My entree into the world of “elite” swimming was the 2008 Olympic Trials. It was the first national level swim meet of any kind that I had been to. I was accredited media along with Garrett McCaffrey, my friend and then the man behind floswimming.
The meet was eight days of blowing my mind, interspersed by Garrett and I talk swimming, life and the future. One argument we had early on was about the process for the best athletes at the meet. Garrett frequently noticed how much the top swimmers, like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, would comment that they were dutifully following the instructions of their coaches.
He wasn’t wrong, it is what they were saying. But in my ears it felt deeply wrong. There had to be a better way than “coach says, swimmer does”. And yet I have seen this manifest itself across many more conversations with coaches and swimmers. The swimmer that does exactly what you ask of them is bound to be pleasing to a coach. I have definitely fallen prey more than once to the ego boost that such a swimmer gave me.
Given some time for deeper reflection, I think that most coaches actually don’t want to have this kind of relationship. Because a swimmer who follows instructions to the T is missing the autonomy and motivation that really leads to them assuming their true potential.
This past weekend, I had almost too much fun working with Washington State University just a few days away from their conference championship. One thing we talked about was self-evaluation, and very specifically having expectations for yourself that are firmly divorced from results or the expectations others place on you.
Being able to look at a list at the end of the day and say “I did these things” is very powerful. Some of them may even (gasp) involve not following the precise instructions of your coach. Where I see athletes often feel trapped is that they disagree with the expectations set for them, but don’t form a clear idea of what they think would be better, go after it and actually prove their case.
Instead they often complain about the coaches, chafe against the expectations stay in their corner. This only makes coaches want to tighten their grip a little more.
You also need your own expectations because when you’re trying something really hard, you need to force some perspective. On your way to achieving something ambitious you will fail a lot and quite naturally lose sight of progress, or the base of good things that you’ve already accomplished.
Naturally self-critical people can get pretty far by being extremely tough on themselves, but at some point they need to acknowledge their own strengths and small accomplishments, or their self-criticism will make everything they attempt into a soulless grind.
I’m looking forward to seeing the team compete this weekend at PAC-12s, and may be filing another blog from the meet any insights I get from my new “don’t watch the swimming” perspective.