By Michelle Brafman (www.michellebrafman.com)*
Periodically a fellow swim parent will ask my advice on how to encourage his/her child after a disappointing race. They inquire because I am a former competitive swimmer, not because I am an aqua-Yoda. Far from it. Only this morning, I said the exact wrong thing to my own child after a swim, and as a competitor, I never managed to scale the towering wall of demons that stood between my potential and performance. My goodness, I could have enjoyed this sport a whole lot more.
Since I’m clearly ill equipped to impart much water wisdom to parents or their kids, I decided to write a letter that I wish someone had written to me when I was a young swimmer.
- Find your sweet spot. I once heard a sports psychologist say that athletes perform best when they experience an optimal level of stress. Before a race, if you are too tense, your muscles tighten up and you’ll fight the water and yourself. If you’re too relaxed, you won’t produce enough fuel to launch your rocket. Are you the kind of swimmer who needs to crank your favorite psych-up song to fire you up—this dates me, but you really can’t go wrong with Springsteen’s “Born to Run”—or do you need to meditate to settle into yourself?
- Tidy up the starting block. The gorgeous and scary part about this sport is that only you control what happens in that water. So when you’re up on those blocks, make sure you’re standing alone. There is no room on that small slanted platform for the parent, teammate, or even coach who, intentionally or not, zaps your mojo. Imagine them climbing into a big red hot air balloon; now wave goodbye and watch the clouds swallow them up. That’s better. You’ve just dropped a couple of hundred psychic pounds. Now fly.
- Race like a beast. Sometimes it’s hard to race a friend or maybe a sibling, and for a second you surprise yourself with how badly you want to beat him/her, how the lines blur between the intimacy developed from logging hours together in the pool and something more vicious. I always found myself a little vexed by this, so I imagined all of my opponents as the boy in my fifth grade class who used to call me names and spit at me. It worked. For those a bit more evolved, think about the pure joy of swimming a relay. Your goal is to catch the other swimmers or stave them off, and it’s that simple. That’s all you really need to think about in your individual events too. Racing.
- Believe in Abundance. You will have teammates who don’t come to as many practices as you do and will touch you out of races and bump you off relays, or you might have one of those unfortunately timed birthdays. You could expend endless energy detailing such inequities. Don’t. You are likely faster than another swimmer who works harder than you do simply because God gave you greater ankle flexibility, lung capacity, or natural strength. If every person in your swimming universe were to bundle their gifts and challenges into a big recyclable Whole Foods bag, you would not want to swap sacks with any one of them, even if you think you do. In author Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” column, she wrote, “People who don’t give up believe in abundance rather than scarcity. They’ve taken into their hearts the idea that there is enough for all of us, that success will manifest itself in different ways for different sorts of artists (or athletes). . .” Choose to be one of those people. Earnestly and loudly, cheer for all your teammates and celebrate their victories.
- Times are not the only way to measure success. Maybe you stunk up the pool in your first event but managed to swim a decent second or third race or finally nail that bucket turn. Maybe you are adding time in every single race, but you are learning to get out of your head by encouraging a younger swimmer or simply realizing that the world is much bigger than a few lousy swims. And another thing, don’t spend too much time memorizing cuts and psych sheets. You do NOT need to know the seed times and rankings of every swimmer in your age group, both genders. Besides, lasering in on a time can cap your potential. Maybe you can swim a faster time than you’d ever imagined.
- Have fun and be grateful. Last summer, the graduating seniors from my kids’ summer team were asked to say a few words of advice to the younger swimmers. Practically all of them said, “Have fun.” You won’t understand this now, but your swimming years will be over in a nanosecond. In thirty years, but more likely thirty minutes, you won’t remember your rough swim, but you will regret not appreciating this moment of your youth. Please thank your coaches and parents for this gift.
- Trust. Trust your training. Trust the map your body, mind, and heart charted to your sweet spot. Trust that you can find the tools to wear a groove in this path. Trust that a bad swim only rules your next race or meet or season if you let it. But don’t trust me. You’ll have to learn this on your own. Trust yourself to do so. Trust yourself.
* Michelle Brafman (www.michellebrafman.com) is a writer, teacher and former NCAA All American swimmer. She is the author of “Washing the Dead” and “Bertrand Court” and is hard at work on a third novel set in a fictitious local summer swim league. An earlier version of “An Open Letter to a Young Swimmer” had been published in the former Reach for the Wall website operated by the Washington Post.