Masters versus Mastery

I just read a Facebook comment from a swimmer friend coming to terms with aging and slowing down in the pool- a return to his Masters Swimming group after many years away (spent swimming impressively in open-water, I believe) where he now found himself in the ‘Middle Lanes”. Interpretation: he got demoted.

What a world we live in (and swim in)! You get demoted because you get older.

I don’t want to pick on Masters Swimming per se, but I do want to draw attention to a one-dimensional obsession with speed in swimming that has created a culture and a system of coaching that ultimately does not serve the heart and health of most people who participate in the sport.

If speed is the only measurement of quality, or how much distance you can squeeze into an hour, and how often you can do it- then you have a very small- and shrinking- universe to train in.

Pools create a situation where swimmers need to be organized and dividing the group up by speed makes sense. It is human (or perhaps animalistic), but quite unfortunate that we then place more esteem on being in the faster lanes. There is so much more to health and vibrancy and success- so much more to LIFE- than the results on a stopwatch. I am sorry that some swim groups would perpetuate a culture that distracts people in those Middle Lanes from concentrating on more productive, energizing and health-giving aspects of swimming skill.

[A side note: Just consider a moment that the modern sport of running did not develop in the confines of a basketball court. Swimming in a pool, with lanes and lines, seems so natural- but really, it is not. It is far less natural than swimming in open-water (and without chemicals). Flip-turns may be a necessary speed skill for the pool but you know nothing about the potential of deep rhythm until you can take 3,000 un-interrupted strokes. Running my regular 10k back-and-forth in a basketball court would be as maddening to me as swimming my 10k in one.]

Speed is an important measurement, but it is only one aspect of excellence, only one LIMITED measurement of skill.  It describes but a fraction of the actual neuro-muscular skill being applied and little about the capabilities of her mind, and tells us nothing about her long-term health potential and longevity in the sport. However, the dominance of this obsession with speed, and the devaluing, or complete ignorance of any other measure of excellence in swimming skill is a tragic indicator of how poor the heart and mind of that swim group is (and of its leadership).

I regularly scan the articles on the popular open-water swimming news and see what gets the most hype. The underlying message is: See what we value most in swimmers. Harder, faster, longer, colder, more dangerous, more torturous. How tough can you be!

As one local age-group coach told me about his system, “There is only one thing that matters to us: Speed!”

I don’t buy it and I don’t sell it.

It’s interesting to note that this coach doesn’t train. I don’t even know if he swims any more at all. And neither do any of his colleagues that I am aware of. They may talk about a passion for swimming but they can’t show it- or they can only refer to the ‘good ‘ol days’ that they won’t dare try to live up to anymore. Why? Because their good ol days weren’t fun. Unsustainable practice: unsustainable for the body, for the mind, and for the heart. And here they are professionally perpetuating more of it in the next generation.

I challenge this with my whole being.

If you come to me I will not merely tell you how to swim faster, farther, smoother, better, longer. I will SHOW you, and swim WITH you. We’ll do it together. I will model the lifestyle for you. And more than that, I will share with you secrets of the heart and the mind that will open up a universe of pleasure and peace that will put speed in it’s place- a great servant of your satisfaction, never a master over it. Once you gain this platform you will have all you need to pursue your potential in speed- go as far as you want. Speed will be available to you easier than it ever would be under the Go-Harder, Get-Tougher mindset. But once you stand on that platform and survey the horizon opened up to you, speed will likely not be the only thing that excites you any more, or even the main thing.

Go get in the water with your Masters group. But I invite you to consider pursuing the identity of a Swimmer of Mastery, rather than a Masters Swimmer. A whole new, multi-dimensional universe of swimming satisfaction awaits you.

It will be a lot more fun getting older in this universe too.

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2 responses to “Masters versus Mastery

  1. Hear, hear! I swim with a masters group where almost everyone has a competition swimming background. Not only do I ignore how much faster they can swim their 100 m or 200 m freestyle, but I even challenge my internal competition instinct by lining up to the next lane, pushing off at the same time, and then focusing completely on my technique regardless of their speed relative to mine. That takes some concentration! 🙂

    • Yes. A lot of concentration and self-control. I think that is the mind we need to have- even when training with others, to swim our own practice, or at least customize each assigned set, each length to what my own person needs at this moment. And to do it according to my personal goal and plan, not the arbitrary expectations of some external pressure. There is a time to use the competitive instinct to push myself WHERE I WANT TO GO, but not be dominated by it, letting it override the better wisdom inside my body. We use external motivators as tools for training, not masters dictating what I should do or not. I could write another whole essay just on the art of training with a group, or as a community. I think the healthiest communities are not made up of followers, but of people responsibly leading themselves, giving room for others to do the same. I might say that a great swim group is a community of swimmers who know how to coach themselves, and support each other on the journey learning to do so. A good coach will offer structure for the group, but also train her swimmers to be responsible for their own development, to think objectively, and leave room for them to customize each aspect of their training, to learn and improve after each set, each practice.

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