Courtesy: Caleb Howell
Whenever I have thought during practice “Why am I doing so poorly,” it has shaken my self-confidence for the rest of the day. I start to question my abilities, my determination and my will to contribute to the team.
Going through 8 years of an individual sport has lead me to this conclusion; no one can motivate me the way I can motivate myself. In swimming the only person I can listen to (other than my coaches) is myself. So what do you do when you are being hard on yourself, and you feel that you are not able to live up to your expectations?
In this post, I want to highlight five different tips I have found to help motivate myself in swimming, as well as life.
1. Write down your goals
At the beginning of every season, I make it a point of mine to write down all the goals I am aiming to accomplish throughout the season. Whether superficial awards, or goals to make an impact on my teammates and my school.
I have had a small whiteboard hanging up in my room every year since the start of my college career. I hang this board on my door or next to it, that way I am reminded every day what it is that I am working for. Freshmen year I started with goals that would help me adjust to a new environment. I wrote down goals to fit in, gain respect, and enjoy a new team. I also set a goal to be on the scoring team and final at Conference.
Sophomore year and junior year, I decided to aim for higher swimming accomplishments; break school records, win MVP, be all-conference in all my events, and go into nationals within the top 15 in DII. Senior year I wrote down the goals I never thought I could accomplish, All-American, three-time MVP, but most importantly I wanted to be a leader for everyone I swam with.
Every year those goals were accomplished. When practices made me feel drained, physically and emotionally, I had a clear visual in my mind of why I was at practice, what I can do, and that I swim for a purpose.
2. Trial and Error
No one set way works for everybody in swimming. Body types, techniques, and fitness level are all different between each person. What works for one individual may not work for another. Senior year I felt the pressure to become a sprint breaststroke for our relays. However, as a mid-distance swimmer, I found this difficult to achieve, because the styles are so different.
Stroke count changed everything about how I trained. I thought if I swam as fast as I could, with as many strokes as possible, that is how I would drop time. I mean, that’s how other people would swim it, so why wouldn’t it work for me? So I would take three to four more strokes than normal per length, but found I was going slower by doing so. It was extremely frustrating and I couldn’t seem to enjoy what I was doing because of constantly feeling like a failure.
That lead to changing my perspective. I told myself, “if that doesn’t work shake up what you’re doing and find what works best for you.” It took some time, but finally found a stroke count and tempo that worked for what I was wanting to accomplish. That feeling of speed and pride when figuring out what works best for me kept me motivated and I swam breaststroke faster than I ever had in my life before.
3. Take time with the negatives
There will be days, possibly months, where you may feel that you have reached your peak. Nothing you will ever do again will be as impressive as what you have done before. It is all downhill from here.
When negative outcomes occur, it is easy for us to view situations as hopeless. The future may look grim, only because the last effort you gave ended poorly. When unfortunate events or outcomes occur it is okay to feel upset. Many believe accepting only the positives is how you deal with a poor result. However, it can be dangerous to suppress negative thoughts and feelings.
I am a very emotional swimmer. I work hard, put a lot of effort into what I do, so when bad things happen, they are devastating to me. I have a rule for myself when I swim poorly at a meet.
Take five minutes to yourself, and be upset. Cry, say curse words (if you’re 18+), hit something (soft) and let your emotions feel validated. You didn’t do what you dreamed of achieving, you added time, Nationals was cancelled. You are allowed to be upset at whatever level of upset that may be. It is healthy to cry and take time with your negative emotions, it gives you relief and closure to an event that took place.
However, when those five minutes are up, think of ways to improve, cheer up, and look forward to what else is to come. To bounce back, reminisce on past accomplishments that made you feel special, important, and valued. Focusing on positive events helps you stand up, take control of your situation, and remember your worth. Talk to friends or coworkers who may have been where you are. Discover what actions they took to staying motivated after disappointments.
4. Repurpose your nerves
Thinking how much a situation, a practice or an event might suck, leads to negative expectations. I place a lot of pressure on myself. In swimming, I found success which leads to expectations. If I won an event, I was expected to win the same one all over again. If I placed at a championship, I was expected to do just as well if not better. These expectations lead me to fear. The fear I would let my team down, be seen as less than by competitors, and fear I would experience performance anxiety when my swimming mattered most.
Performance anxiety is an issue that I experienced at almost every swim meet of my career. Doing well meant so much to me, my nerves would get so out of control. I hyperventilate, tear up, and shake more than a caffeinated chihuahua. It wasn’t until the end of my senior season that I learned to take those nerves and use them to my benefit. I would repurpose all the feelings of nervousness and change my outlook to positive. I realized it wasn’t just nerves, but adrenaline. I associate adrenaline with a power that helped me realize that what I was feeling was a surge of power. My body was getting ready to do what it does best.
Once I overcame the fear and saw the urgency of my body and mind longing to just dive into the water, I focused on how amazing I would feel when I achieved what I was aiming for. I thought of the pure joy and excitement I would have, the pride my team and their parents would feel for me. When I need to feel self-motivated, I think back to some of the greatest swims of my career and also the careers of others that have impacted me. When I reintroduce my mindset to how amazing accomplishing something major is, I am reminded of what matters most to me and why I am swimming.
5. Love what you do
This tip almost seems too obvious for being self-motivated. Of course, when you love what it is that is going on, you’re going to be motivated. However, I have found out that there is more to loving what you do.
There are days where you simply feel off. Whether you didn’t get enough sleep, your work schedule is overbearing, you’re missing your family or friends, or even what you ate can affect your attitude. I understand, it feels impossible to motivate yourself into caring about how much effort you invest in your tasks. However, it is the love of what you are doing that keeps you going.
One of the only sports I genuinely hear athletes say that hate what they do is swimming. Swimmers have a habit of hating swimming because of how demanding the sport is. There is no offseason. We work almost every day, twice a day to improve our abilities. Therefore, it is easy to hate what is taking so much out of you. When I truly fell in love with swimming (probably my senior year in high school), I embraced the challenges that came with swimming. I began to love working hard, putting in extra time and feeling horrible after a set. That is what lead me to find my personal style of self-motivation. Loving what you do means placing your motives above every other aspect of what you are doing. The overall enjoyment of what you do is the foundation of self-motivation. Without love and passion, you won’t be able to push yourself to do your very best, especially on days where you feel the need to walk away.
Find what is special to you, analyze what it is that draws you in and capitalize on that. Once you fully love what you do, the rest will come naturally.
Caleb Howell is a 2020 graduate from Carson-Newman University, in Jefferson City TN. Caleb swam competitively for eight years, finishing out his career at the NCAA Division II 2020 National Championships. Howell swam for Carson-Newman for four years and specialized in mid-distance breaststroke and individual medley. Howell is a four-time All-American, three-time Blue Grass Mountain Conference Champion, and currently hold six records at Carson-Newman. He is currently working in public relations, social media coordination, community management, and copywriting.