Alan Watts was one of the greatest philosophers and writers of the 20th century. Born in Chilsehurst, England, he wrote over 25 books related to Eastern and Western religion and went on to become one of the world’s most foremost authorities on Eastern culture and Zen Buddhism until his death in 1973. He once said this:
“Things are as they are. Looking out into the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.”
If you’re a swimmer, it goes without saying that you have ambitions within the sport; things you want to achieve and successes you want to accomplish. While that’s all well and good, that desire and ambition can lead to one of the biggest traps that can derail progression and foster unhappiness and discontentment – Constantly making comparisons between yourself and everyone else around you.
It’s an easy trap to fall into. You see other swimmers around you achieving the things you want to achieve and finding the success you want to find but that, for whatever reason, you just can’t seem to get your hands on. The longer it goes on and the more you continue to compare yourself and your accomplishments to everyone else, the more feelings of frustration and resentment grow as well – resentment towards yourself, the sport, and even the other people who are managing to succeed while you’re not.
When you look up into the sky at night and gaze at the stars, you don’t spend much time, if any, comparing the stars to one another. You just admire them for the phenomenon that they are and appreciate their beauty. As corny as this might sound, I think the sport of swimming should always be viewed in the same way. Like I said previously, it’s great to have ambition and the desire to achieve. But, if that ambition and desire comes at the cost of you enjoying swimming and admiring it for the amazing sport that it is, then you really have to have a discussion with yourself and figure out if your ambitions and desires are really worth it.
I’ve worked with successful professional athletes who found themselves unhappy even after achieving success that most people would give their right arm for. And, often times, the major reason is because they eventually realize that their approach towards success came at a cost they weren’t actually willing to pay. They reached their desired end destination, but they ended up feeling like they had missed the entire journey there. They spent all their time constantly evaluating where they stood to everyone else and their own expectations, constantly worrying, stressing, and comparing where they were to where they wanted to be that it robbed them of their ability to enjoy the day to day, live in the moment, and genuinely appreciate their time in their sport.
Speaking of which, this reminds me of another great quote from one of America’s greatest ever leaders, Theodore Roosevelt:
“Comparison is the thief of joy.”
If you spend all of your time and energy constantly dwelling on what you don’t have or what you haven’t accomplished compared to the other swimmers around you, then you’re going to rob yourself of the ability to make meaningful progress, enjoy the sport, and most importantly, you’ll look back in your time in the sport with bad memories and realize to yourself, “I spent all of that time worrying and being frustrated when I should have enjoyed it more.” You don’t want that to happen.
You gotta stop constantly comparing yourself and your accomplishments to everyone else around you. To help you do that, here are some things that you can do.
1) Prioritize the process, not the results.
This is a concept I’ve discussed numerous times here at Swimswam, but it’s so incredibly important that it can never be mentioned too much. Competitive and professional swimming is a results-based game like any other sport, but the best way to get the results you want is to care less about the results. It’s a bit counter-intuitive and kind of an oxy-moron, but it’s absolutely true. The less you’re emotionally invested in your results, and the more you’re emotionally invested in the journey itself, the less pressure you’ll feel. The less pressure you feel, the better and stronger your mindset becomes. The better and stronger your mindset becomes, the better you swim. The better you swim, the better results you get. It’s a domino effect. You end up getting all of the results you wanted anyways, but it didn’t require you constantly stressing and worrying over them. Don’t spend time and energy comparing what you’ve accomplished to others and instead focus on enjoying the journey and constantly finding ways to improve into the best swimmer you can be.
2) Follow and trust in your own path.
Katie Meili is an Olympic Gold and Bronze medalist in the 4x 100m relay and the 100m breaststroke. She managed to reach the pinnacle of her sport and win a medal at an Olympic Games. However, her path to the top was really unordinary. She was never a top swimmer. She never made a national or junior national US swim team growing up. She didn’t swim for a big school like Stanford or California. She swam Ivy League at Columbia. She never even managed to qualify for the NCAA Championships until her junior year.
She was a late bloomer. She didn’t begin to realize her swimming potential until after she finished swimming in college. She didn’t swim in her first Olympics until she was 25 years old. Now, compare her path to that of Katie Ledecky. Katie won her first Olympic Gold medal at age 15. By the time she was 21, she had already won 6 Olympic medals and broken 15 world records. She swam for the biggest and best women’s college team in the country at Stanford before turning professional in 2018 at age 21.
They even both have the same first name! However, you couldn’t find a greater example of two different people on two completely different paths to the top of the sport. It would have been easy for Katie Meili to compare herself and her accomplishments to everyone else, realized how far off she was compared to them, and simply thrown in the towel. But, she didn’t. She focused on herself and trusted in her own path. You have to make sure you always do the same.
3) Create your own personal definition for success.
I’ve always tried to teach my clients that success isn’t something you can hold in your hand or point to on shelf. Success is a mindset. It’s a way of thinking and feeling, and you can feel successful every single day, even if you lose every race you swim. It just all depends on what your own personal definition for success is, because whether you realize it or not, you have a specific definition for what success means to you as a swimmer. Most people just never sit down with themselves to figure it out and understand what that definition is. Having said that, is that even important? Does it really matter to understand what your personal definition for success is? Well, think of it this way.
If your definition for success in swimming is based on a result or outcome, then you’re basically telling yourself that you’re a failure until you manage to achieve that. You can’t feel successful until you obtain that accomplishment. And, every time you fail to achieve that result, what happens? You feel more and more like a failure, more and more like you’re unsuccessful, and more and more like it’s never going to happen. Every time you fall short of achieving your definition for success, your optimism and positive mindset gets chipped away at until there’s eventually nothing left and you quit pursuing it, or the sport altogether, because you feel like a failure never having been able to make it happen.
I’m a big believer in that a person’s definition for success should be something challenging, but easily attainable. It should be something you can experience on a daily basis or every time you go to compete. Success should always be something process related, not outcome related. For example, Ian Thorpe, one of the best male swimmers of the past twenty years and one of Australia’s greatest ever swimmers, has famously said the following: “For myself, losing is not coming second. It’s getting out of the water knowing you could have done better. For myself, I have won every race I’ve been in.” Now, Ian Thorpe of course didn’t win every race he swam. However, after every race, he was able to feel successful because his definition for success allowed him to.
By having your own personal definition for success, you’ll stop comparing your material successes and accomplishments, or lack thereof, to other peoples’. You’ll be focused on and satisfied with your own personal success because that success will truly be your own. You defined it and you created it. You won’t feel a need or an urge to compare it to others because you simply won’t care or a see a need to. So, sit down with yourself. Ask yourself, “In order for me to feel like I’ve been successful in _________, what would need to happen?” and create your own personal definition for success that’s process-related, not outcome-related.
Now, in closing this article, I do want to state something clear – There’s nothing wrong with modeling. Modeling is different than making comparisons. Modeling is looking at someone and going, “What do they do that I can incorporate into my own swimming to make me a better swimmer?” It’s actively wanting to learn from others so that you can improve and grow. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s the bad habit of measuring yourself against other people and measuring your accomplishments against other players that isn’t good. Learning from others and modeling things that they do doesn’t require you to compare yourself or your accomplishments to them. So, keep that in mind.
Constantly comparing yourself and your accomplishments to the other swimmers around you is a sure-fire way to guarantee misery. You’ll never satisfy the urge. Once you realize you can favorably compare yourself to one person or group, you’ll seek out the next person or group to compare yourself to. It’ll never end. Focus on you. Focus on your own growth and progression. Be willing to be happy and content with your own accomplishments and your own achievements. Always strive to be better and do more, but do that with gratitude for who you are and what you have. You’ll be so much better off for it.
Thanks again for reading, and I’ll see you again soon!
About Will Jonathan
Will Jonathan is a sports mental coach from Fort Myers, Florida. His clients include athletes on the PGA Tour, the Web.com Tour, Major League Baseball, the UFC, the Primera Liga, the Olympics, and the NCAA, as well as providing numerous talks and presentations on the mental aspect of sport and peak performance to various sports programs and organizations across the country. He’s currently the official mental coach for the Florida State University Swimming & Diving team. He provides private, 1-to-1 mental coaching sessions for swimmers on location or through Skype, as well as providing talks and presentations to swim teams on the mental aspects of swimming.
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