Although this article will deal with the dilemma of moving up in age groups for younger swimmers, some of the feelings and sensations will be experienced at any age.
If your ambition is to become better than you are right now, then you must ultimately challenge yourself by racing people who are faster than you are. Notching up the level of competition is a great way to test your training, your technique, and, most important (for the sake of this posting), your psychological outlook on the sport.
I use the example of a 13-year-old boy, simply because this is the age when most young boys start to mature. If you visit a local USS meet or country club meet, and watch the events for age 13-14, you’ll see young BOYS racing young MEN. From one block to the next, you can witness the advantages of early maturation, and the psychological effects it has on those "late bloomers."
Racing in swimming has a lot to do with timing. As swimmers age up, they are presented with new challenges, one of the toughest being…overcoming annihilation.
I’ve watched tremendous age-group swimmers — kids who dominate many races in their peer group. They get used to winning. They get used to controlling the race, and the result. When they are in control, they are seen as unstoppable. They don’t die, the never tire, their turns are sharp… just about everything they do has this sense of Olympic appeal. Then it happens. They get put into a situation that they can’t control, where they’re one of the smallest swimmers on the block rather than one of the biggest, and reality sets in.
The strategies and tactics that always worked in the past, suddenly DON’T work. The swimmer takes it out nice and smooth, just like in the past, but this time instead of being slightly ahead of his competitors, he’s slightly behind. The swimmer starts to turn it on in the usual place, but somehow the extra effort gets him no closer to his competition. They’re still RIGHT THERE. Nothing’s working like it should, and suddenly his powerful arms feel like lead. His competitors aren’t fading like they usually do. Heck, they’re ATTACKING!
Witnessing this from inside the swimmer’s eyes is confusing, frightening and painful, both physically and psychologically. You don’t really know WHY it’s happening, but you know there’s really nothing you can do about it. So you panic.
You panic because you know how much pain you’re already experiencing. And you know that the harder you try RIGHT NOW, the more pain you’re going to feel. And you know that if you try REALLY HARD right now, you may die at the end of the race. What happens is that your FEAR of pain makes you tentative and weak. Sorry to sound like a drill sergeant here, but this is what happens. I’ve been there.
As a competitive swimmer losing ground to someone older, bigger, stronger, taller, you can see and feel the momentum shift from one stroke to the next. Someone in the stands or on the pool deck doesn’t quite get it. But in the pool… you know what’s going on. From one stroke to the next, if you’re catching your opponent, you’re on FIRE… you’re excited, you feed on it, and you just keep going faster and faster. If you’re on the wrong end of that momentum shift, and your competitor is pulling away, just a bit on each stroke, the inexperienced swimmer can start to panic, spin, shorten the stroke, and try to react too quickly to these small, and subtle shifts.
If the adjustments don’t pay off, which they usually don’t, then panic can lead to paralysis. All of a sudden your arms tighten, the air seems harder to find, and you feel this incredible numbing, burning sensation in your thighs. And it just keeps getting worse from lap to lap. You can only hope the wall comes to you at this point, and you pray for the race simply to be over.
If this sounds scary, it is. But, in my opinion, it’s going to happen at some point or another to every swimmer — boy, girl, man, woman, no matter what the age — if you care about your performance. If you put yourself OUT THERE… if you step up to a challenge that may be too high of a mountain to climb (at least today), you’re going to experience some panic, pain, and fear of even more pain.
Without realizing the level you have to step up to, you can get lulled into a false sense of accomplishment, and become complacent in your training. You can think you’re really on your way to achieving your goals. But if you never race people who are bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, and more well prepared than you are, you’ll never know what you have to do to reach that level.
While teaching yourself what this is all about, this stepping up a level, you have to remember one very important thing: You have NOTHING TO LOSE! You can EXPECT to get beat, but it’s HOW you get beat that will show your mettle. What counts is the fight you put up, and the tenaciousness you show in the race.
Oh, and that panic that starts to set in? Enjoy it. Look forward to it. Get used to it. Learn how to manage it, psychologically, and put it to good use. Panic helps to create the element that will be present in just about every race you ever swim… PAIN. It just makes it more acute. Great races involve GREAT PAIN. It’s just that, when you win, you forget the pain much quicker than if you lose. Pain is not something to be feared, it’s something to look for. If you’re not hurting, you’re probably not going very fast, so… the equation COULD go… the MORE pain, the FASTER you’re swimming. That is, of course, as long as you’re able to hold your stroke together.
Long story short (I know… too late): Learn to win tomorrow by getting beat today. Learn what the next level is by experiencing your competition’s strengths, and discovering your weaknesses. This takes great effort, and a little Braveheart in each one of us.
Oh, by the way…if your competition starts to pull away from you, and you want to react, the best place to make a move is at the wall. Try to accelerate a bit into the wall, and get off that thing AS FAST AS YOU CAN, into a PERFECT pushoff, a PERFECT breakout, or a PERFECT underwater pull. Maintain as MUCH speed as you can coming off the next wall, and you’ll see a little momentum shift in the other direction. Now GO GET ‘EM!