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Mike's Mailbag: Pushing Past a Plateau

10/28/2013

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Every Monday I answer questions emailed to me from swimmers around the country. While you should take this advice with a grain of salt, I’ve seen my share of “swimming problems,” as a competitive NCAA swimmer, swim instructor, coach, and swim columnist. If you have any questions, please email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com. 

Hi Mike,

I'm a senior in high school. I've been swimming since I can remember. However, I'm starting to hate it because I can never drop time. For over a year I haven't gotten near my best time in the 100 breaststroke and I don’t know what to do. I work hard, I go to every practice offered, I talk to my coaches and fix what I need to, but I just get slower. I get so nervous before and beat myself up big time after.

What do I do?

—Plateau Swimmer

Hey Plateau Swimmer,

Every single swimmer goes through a plateau. It is part of the process of being a swimmer. If everyone continued to drop time every race, everyone would eventually break a world record. Unfortunately, sometimes, at some point in your life, you will just stop dropping time.

I understand that it’s really painful to stop dropping time. I was a breaststroker, too. In high school, I didn’t drop time from my freshmen year of high school until my senior year of high school. Three long years. I worked hard, went to all the practices, did everything I could, and just couldn’t drop time. Breaststroke, of all the strokes, is an especially finicky stroke. Sometimes you grow and the timing of the stroke mechanics gets re-wired, and you have to practically re-learn breaststroke all over again. Or other times, it’s just “off.” This happens often with younger swimmers, especially in breaststroke.

The bigger thing is to put best times outside of your head. I believe we have a culture in our sport that worships “race times” too much. I get it: Swimming is about personal bests, and if you don’t swim a personal best, that means you’re not doing something right.

Right?

Wrong.

We’ve all seen teammates who work harder than they ever have in practice, put 100% into the season, competed, raced, and swam slower. We’ve all seen teammates who put more effort into a season, and gotten “less” out of it—i.e., not scoring a personal best time at the championship meet.

The thing is—and I know some coaches won’t agree with me here—at some point in your life, you will stop dropping time. Hopefully this doesn’t happen as a competitive swimmer until you’re 60, 70, or 80 years-old. But it will happen. And when it happens, what does that mean? Does that mean you’re not “trying” hard enough? Does that mean you should just hang up your goggles and quit?

Seriously. That decision is up to you.

When we go to swim practice, we try to improve. Race times are a very black-and-white measurement of that improvement. It’s sometimes indicative that what you’re doing in practice is working. And, other times, when you don’t swim faster in a race, it could be an indication that you should tweak or change your training, mindset, or practice routine. But so many times, we’ve seen swimmers who practice better, eat better, sleep better… then race slower. Does that mean all that work and effort and daily improvement didn’t matter?

Of course not. It matters. All those daily improvement choices matter. Just because your “race time” doesn’t beat a time you went one or two years ago doesn’t mean that everything you’re doing in practice is without merit.

In life, Plateau Swimmer, you’re going to reach a point when you just stop dropping time. And you’re going to be faced with a choice: Why am I doing this sport? Why do I race? Why am I going through morning practices, afternoon practices, long days, longer sets and butterfly repeats, to not drop time?

I wish Olympic gold medals were awarded based on some system of work ethic, because I know people I’ve trained with who worked harder than Olympic gold medalists who never made it beyond the Big Ten Championship swim meet. They had the heart of a champion, but they, too, experienced a plateau in races. And because of that, they didn’t earn shiny metal awards, trophies, records, or accolades. Even though they poured their hearts into workouts, practices, and the season-long pursuit.

While I know that it’s really, really frustrating to stop dropping time, take a long-term perspective about this sport, if you can. I know you want to race faster. I know that our sport places such great emphasis on races and personal bests because that’s where you can have concrete understanding that you’re improving. That’s where awards are given. That’s where you can earn your team points.

But racing times are one small aspect of this sport, long-term. Enjoyment of the sport is another, and much more important, aspect.

You said you “beat yourself up” after races. I used to do that too. But it was only when I stopped worrying about what happened on the blocks that I started to improve. When I began to place more emphasis on enjoying the “before the blocks” experience, rather than the behind-the-blocks experience, I began to drop time, both in practice and during races.

I wish our sport had greater emphasis on that “before-the-blocks” experience instead of “behind-the-blocks.” Because that’s where 99% of this sport exists – in practices, in workouts, with teammates, doing sets, improving turns, perfecting strokes.

My advice? Swim some different events. Get away from breaststroke, just for a few weeks or a month. Train backstroke. Some sprint freestyle. Some IMs. Do the mile. Get into a nice dryland routine. Take your mind off the stress of “I must swim faster in the 100 breaststroke” and more on becoming a more well-rounded and a better swimmer.

Once you do that, you’ll begin to see that, while it’s frustrating to not drop times during races, it’s not the end of the world. The only things you can control are the things you can control: your attitude, and your effort.

If both of those are at their best, you’ll have a good time, every time, no matter what the scoreboard says.


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