The following blog post is my musings on what motivates us to train and - in some cases - compete. What prompted me to write this was my recent decision to withdraw from the Port-2-Pub 25km Solo swim on the grounds that I couldn't find my reason, something I've never had to deal with before. You may or may not care to know this information or of my life choices, but this is my account of that decision and I hope it helps you in some way.
Whilst this discussion is likely to seem somewhat egocentric, I am hoping that by sharing this open and honest account of the emotions of preparing for a big event, you might indeed be able to solidify your own reason to forge ahead, or, if like me, elect to take a different path and to feel good about that decision in the shortest amount of time possible. Of course, this is likely to apply to many things in your life, not just swimming or the squad!
Knowing our reasons and being positive about them is essential I find to being empowered to pursue a goal; not knowing has the exact opposite effect and that's not a fun place to be.
In preparing this blog, I am reminded of two books that I recently read which are well worth a perusal if you're feeling similar emotions to anything expressed here:
…the subtitle says it all, "when to quit (and when to stick)"
I have spent many hours ruminating over even publishing this post because of: a) being perceived as a quitter (more on that in Book 2 below) and all the negative societal ramifications that usually has; and b) because with exactly one month to go before the Rottnest Channel Swim the last thing you might have expected me to discuss openly was the "Q" word especially when we're innately trained to believe we must never do such a thing. "If you don't quit, you'll make it" is the mantra we are taught to live by at all costs. In talking with several members of the squad though recently, I know that this is very much the point that you are also currently at too - if this serves to help you and you only, then so be it. That'll be a positive outcome for me. Everyone else might not be still reading anyway…! Yawn...
…excuse the profanity in the title!
Essentially this book is all about knowing what to care about and what not - typically what people think of you or what you perceive they do. I think we're all guilty within our peer group and swimming community in general of feeling the peer pressure to perhaps drive forth even if that might not be the best direction for us. Manson teaches us to cut our own path and be happy in our choices and not to worry too much about what people think because at the end of the day, no one really cares but you anyway! Is that an easy way of saying "it's OK to give up and have no drive"? I'm not so sure.
Know Your Reasons: Should You Be Racing For Sheep Stations?
Back in June 2015, you may recall I ran a Q&A for the squad to find out a little more about the demographics of the squad and to also aim to identify what makes you tick. Below is a snapshot of some of that information gleaned from the Google analysis:
Of all the information we collected, to me this was the most intriguing. I have been coaching the squad at Claremont Pool now for nearly 9 years and Swim Smooth itself has just had it's 12th birthday, and yet my perception of reality was totally warped against what the stats were showing. Even being "behind the scenes" of the whole squad operation, like you, I am susceptible to heresy also.
I often hear on the grapevine such things about the squad as "someone has to die before you can get a place!" and "that's a very serious squad, only for the elite!" and yet this information seemed to suggest otherwise - 39.4% of you in fact claim that you're just swimming for fun, fitness and friendship (as simple as that!), 16.5% of you are no longer competitive and are in "retirement", and a further 2.4% have no swimming background at all.
All up then, 57.3% of you have very little inclination to compete or prepare for a big event, instead you are driven by your own innate sense of motivation to be healthy and to simply share some social time with your mates. And that's OK. Perfectly fine in fact. Just not what I was expecting, and not what the international coaches who arrive this weekend will perceive either when they see our "slower" lanes averaging a good 15-20s per hundred faster than their own squads. In fact lane 1 on Wednesday morning averaged 1:52 for a continuous 1500m swim within a really hard 4km Red Mist set. This is always the visiting coaches's biggest collective comment after they spend two weeks with us - how fast you guys and girls all are and how disciplined and consistent you are in your approach. From an outsider's perspective, it's very much a competitively healthy group of people enjoying each other's company and that makes me very proud as a coach indeed.
I just wish I could learn to be like you guys myself as I've been doing it hard lately, coming to terms with the necessity to withdraw from this year's 25km Port-2-Pub race (more on that later).
I draw amazing inspiration watching you every day, taking instructions, following through, ticking all the boxes, sometimes achieving your goals, sometimes not, but ALWAYS coming back for more. I often question how much I must sound like a broken record on the pool deck repeating instructions, listing familiar drills time and again, but still you come. As Rob from Lane 3 (Friday 6.30am) so eloquently put it:
"So where does the black line lead? Not sure but happy to keep following to find out!"
Keep following that black line!
My entire sporting life has been about competition. I was never the best swimmer in our club and certainly not in our county (state), but I always thrived on the competition, trying to beat my own personal bests at every opportunity. I had a dogged determinedness to be the "last to quit" thinking that if I can just outlast my competitor's own internal motivations then ultimately I'd be the only one left and would start to win everything as the competition pool shrank in numbers!
Inspiration doesn't come much better than this - 80yo Barrie Eaves also claims that if he just keeps going soon there'll be no one left to beat. Barrie swims every day of the week and doesn't blink an eye at Friday's 5km Red Mist Endurance session. Legend.
I've always felt the need to have a goal - usually a big flippin' goal at that - to keep me motivated to train, but perhaps this is where I'm going wrong? Perhaps the motivation simply needs to be about the enjoyment of swimming at this point in time. The enjoyment of the swimming community, irrespective of event or placing? My very good friend and whom I owe my entire coaching career here in Australia to (as he relinquished his position at the Stadium Triathlon Club in 2002 to make way for his psychology studies exactly when I was seeking a start), said to me over the Christmas holidays:
"I don't know how you do it. How you keep backing up for these big events. Don't you feel that you have a finite amount of motivation, especially when always training alone? I prefer to stay fit and healthy year-round, enjoying the experience of just being out on my bike, but avoiding the highs and lows of fitness / performance from peaking for certain events."
It should be noted that said friend is actually still incredibly fit and healthy and still backs up and performs well at some big events, he just doesn't devote all his time and emotional energy into it as I seem to be drawn to do*. Could this be you too? Are you the one racing for sheep stations that aren't necessarily even there to be won?
*I have a man crush on this guy's approach to life and his family / work / training balance it has to be said!
I often claim that I (only) swim about 10-12hrs a week (25-40km), but what is most apparent these days with a young family and busy work schedule, is that it's not the swimming duration that's the issue, it's how consuming the whole process of training for a big event - being the "be all and end all" or pinnacle of your training plan - from an emotional and psychological perspective. Or at least this is the case for me - this is where I'm going wrong, this is where the majority of you have it right.
Now don't get me wrong, focus, dedication and commitment which thus leads to consistency, performance and ultimately the ability to finish the challenge of completing an Ironman or swimming across to Rottnest Island is essential - the point is, have you got the balance right? What is your reasoning to put yourself through what you do? Can you simply say why you are preparing for your next event? If the answer is a loose "erm, because I think I should" I'd encourage you to think a little deeper. If you still can't find it and are beating yourself up, then perhaps your goal posts need some adjusting? Could this reasoning be the missing key to your spark and motivation loss at key times or am I just speaking to and about myself…??!! Possibly.
Remember, nothing is permanent - it's not like this needs to be "never again", you could, after all, spin around on a sixpence once you have made some adjustments in both your training volume and emotional approach (if its needed) and come bouncing right back. I know, and can feel already, that I'm going to be able to relight that inner fire now that I have listened and reasoned with myself about what I really want to spend my time and effort doing at this point in time.
Here's some possible (positive) reasons for taking action and sticking with it in no particular order of importance:
- because I want to do what I've never done before
- because I want to experience something entirely new to me
- because I want to beat my mate
- because I want to beat my time
- because I want to win
- because I want to set a world record
- because I want to be a newer, healthier me
- because I want that flippin' number plate!
- because I just want to do it
Note that these are all "wants", not "needs" or "shoulds". I couldn't find my "want".
Regrettably - but now excitingly - last weekend I made the decision to withdraw from the 25km Port-2-Pub solo swim. I've been asked many times this last couple of weeks "how is my training / racing going" but sadly it's never been a positive response. I apologise if you've been on the receiving end of that, or even if I've seemed somewhat evasive of answering the question properly. That's been hard to deal with in itself as I spend my whole life trying to enthuse others to enjoy swimming and yet here I was lower than low about my own.
As per the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Squad Swimmers blog post, my training had been going well leading up to Christmas. Hindsight has shown me that my motivation at this point was simply to get fit again, rather than any bigger picture thoughts of the event itself. But I over-cooked it and I'm an idiot. I was too greedy and pushed that balance button too far in the wrong direction. I burnt out. I was grumpy and miserable to be around. This was coupled with a niggling left shoulder issue I've been dealing with for the best part of a decade now (many, many years of unilateral breathing prior to switching exclusively to bilateral ~2002), but the ultimate issue was that I just couldn't find the reasoning within me for wanting to do the event (as great an event as it is I hasten to add!) and put my body, mind and soul through the sacrifices that I alone place on myself for these events. Fear of my shoulder totally giving in on me and having to then endure months of restorative rehab also just wasn't on my "want radar".
In short, I was racing for sheep stations for the wrong reasons.
I had three open water swims after Christmas and each of them ended in severe shoulder pain and numbness, but the more worrying thing was the zero lack of drive that I had to complete each. I would literally stop mid-stroke and just get out. Something I've never experienced before. It was depressing. The guilt of exiting early and feeling like a hypocrite was compounded by the fact that I then felt guilty about how I could have spent the morning playing lego with the kids or taking the dog for a nice walk - you know, the "normal" things in life.
So I had to make a decision and that decision was to quit. Yes, I'm a fully fledged quitter! Was I worried about how that would be perceived as a supposed leader of positive action? Certainly. Do I feel bad about that? Yes, but only momentarily. The truth is though that I'd already mentally quit this event 4 to 6 weeks before I made the decision to acknowledge it with others, even with myself. I am now very comfortable that I've made a choice to change direction rather than feeling I've simply given up, and there's a big difference.
I was reminded by close friends and family - after looking so down and grumpy - that the last time I looked truly motivated and inspired was when I did the ÖtillÖ race in the Scilly Isles back in June 2016. Why was this so? It was such a new event to me. No pressure. No expectation. Something different. Something which connects you to your environment in a way no other race could. Doing it for a reason above and beyond my own interests. I loved it and I was pumped. I was pumped in exactly the same way I see those of you training up for your first Rottnest swim or an Ironman look every time you pop down onto pool deck. I envy that look. Grasp onto that feeling and hold it aloft! You can do a lot with that feeling. Yes you'll be feeling tired right now. Yes your muscles will be aching and yes you might be nervous and apprehensive about even finishing the event but don't confuse that fatigue with malaise - it's not. Just you watch - you'll start to taper down, you'll freshen up, that mojo will come flooding back and you'll be ready. You'll be excited. You'll be set to take on the biggest adventure of your life and you will do it awesomely well. Just know your reason and then embrace it!
So, rather than wallowing in my own self-pity I've decided to get proactive, to make some changes, and it's been a liberating experience! I've stopped drinking, I'm going to bed earlier, I've cut out sugar, I'm drinking a lot more water (via my new Soda Stream), I'm trying to get my body physically back in balance after years of just swimming, blah, blah, blah...I've replaced the disappointing training sessions with more time with Mish and the kids and it just feels right. I feel "normal". I'm pumped again with the news of the Rottnest SwimRun event on 1st April (https://www.rottnestswimrun.com) and even did an 18km practice session this morning with Anna-Lee from the squad; and when I dusted off the cobwebs of my 8yo Cervelo and took just one revolution of it's beautiful carbon cranks rather than hitting the river for another loop, I knew instantly I'd made the right decision. I was alive again.
Know your reason and then go with it.