I recently had a conversation with a swimmer who thought he was working hard, but had openly expressed his personal goals. Just a hint, there’s a reason Michael Phelps rarely reveals his goals.
When athletes set goals, there are a couple mistakes that commonly take place; 1) They express them openly, as in, talking about it in public to their teammates, friends, or announcing it on swimming websites, etc. 2) They’re usually LOFTY goals, meant to impress others with their ambitions. While in reality, some of this is needed, and there’s absolutely NOTHING wrong with lofty goals. Heck, if your goals aren’t somewhat lofty, they’re probably not really goals. Truth be told, in my own swimming career, I only reached a "time" goal twice. Maybe my goals were too lofty, but chasing them sure kept me on my toes.
When you decide what your goals are, make sure you have some understanding of what it’s going to take to accomplish them prior to making them public. Watching the great swimmers such as Jason Lezak, Eric Shanteau, Brendan Hansen, Aaron Peirsol, Margaret Hoelzer, Fran Crippen (shall I continue?), people get infatuated with the success and sometimes simply decide, "Hey, I’m gonna do THAT!" without having an understanding of what it took TO do THAT! If you had the opportunity to sit down with any of the above listed athletes and talk to them about "what it took" to reach their level… they’ll eventually get to the point of the unbelievable amount of focus and work that went into the preparation.
We also have to realize that this sport is very different from so many others. It’s a very lonely, introverted, selfish sort of sport. If you really think about it, it’s all on YOU… the athlete. The drive, desire, ambition HAS to come from the inside, and NO outside force pushing you will impact you more than your own personal desire to succeed. With that said, there is only so much someone can do on their own.
If you have lofty goals, if you’ve made them public, if you’ve put yourself in an uncomfortable place by openly stating what you fully expect you can accomplish (but have never accomplished), and if you risk even the smallest amount of humiliation by falling short of your goals… then you’re going to need some help in accomplishing the task. That help is only a lane away, or swimming up behind you.
The swimmer who initiated this post is a very good swimmer, but still not the best swimmer on his own team. Because of that, the answer to "how to reach the goal" was simple. "Just win."
How can those two words carry so much weight? "Just win" doesn’t mean win what you want to win, it means WIN EVERYTHING, ALL THE TIME. If you want to be the best, or simply get better, then you need to know how to race, how to dig deep to pass or stay ahead of people you normally wouldn’t.
If you’re a poor kicker, win the kick sets. If you’re a breaststroker, win the backstroke swims. If you’re a distance freestyler, win the 100s in practice. If you swim with a stellar athlete in your own event, someone better than you, lead the lane. If you train with someone who already IS a success, and you say, "I’m going to lead this set." chances are, they’re going to come get you. If they’re good, they didn’t get there by letting people step on them; they’ll fight you. What’s the worst thing that can happen? They’ll get faster, which means you’ll have to get faster to continue to… Just win.
I was talking to my good friend Jeremy Linn about this recently, and said that if this athlete was so far ahead of his team, like Michael Phelps, the conversation would have been much more complicated because he can win everything anyway. Jeremy responded… "no it’s not any more complicated… just make him go 10 seconds back on everything and then make him… Just win." What a stellar idea, and it shows the understanding of the mindset of an Olympic Champion. Jeremy was faster than everyone he trained with, so he very quickly understood, and found a way to challenge even the fastest swimmer on the team.
Never ever, ever, ever forget… ultimately, this sport is about racing. We all hope that some day, all of you swim a race in which time simply has no meaning, no value, no worth, that all that matters is what place you get. Those are the best races of your life, the ones that come with the most pressure, the most reward, and…yes…often with the most disappointment. In order to win those races, you’d better develop an understanding of what it takes to "Just win." To win when you know you shouldn’t. To win when you’re not expected to. To win when you yourself don’t think you can. The way to learn this is to start practicing it today.
Will you win all the time, and do you have to tell people what you’re doing? No and no. In fact, you’ll probably win only a few times. If you ARE a poor kicker, you’ll probably not win the kick sets, but maybe you can win from the wall to the flags, or from the wall to halfway, or from the wall to the first 25. If you’re a breaststroker, you’re probably not going to win the backstroke sets but, darn it, win the push off… win the turns. Pick somebody out on every length… and WIN SOMETHING. Can you win warm-up? Absolutely. Can you win cool down? Yes. It really doesn’t matter what you win, it only matters that you’re doing everything possible to win something, to get a positive experience every time you get into the pool.
It’s probably also not a good idea to tell everyone you’re trying to win everything. Chances are, you’re already going to have a seriously positive impact on the rest of your team. Like it or not, you’re surrounded by athletes, and athletes love to win. Someone on your team is going to step up each time, and try to stop you from winning. You know what you do to that person? THANK them. CONGRATULATE them on a great set. HIGH FIVE THEM for making you get better.
Wanna reach lofty goals? "Just win" everything you can, every time you can. The plan is so simple it’s ridiculous.
Now go get ’em.