Transparent Coaching

How is your training going?

I thought it would be helpful to just be a little transparent about what I am doing and thinking these days on a personal level in my swimming and coaching.

The water and weather are gradually cooling. And it is gradually becoming a little more uncomfortable in the sea. For whatever reason yesterday I could not get my core temperature up to a high level at home so when I went to the sea I wore my 1/2 mm sleeveless speed suit (an alternative name for a super-thin wetsuit). The sea was 21 C on Saturday with sun overhead and I was fine. Yesterday it was 20-21 C this sunny day. I was chilled the entire time and it was a bit of a distraction. Setting the Tempo Trainer at 1.00 seconds for the second 30 minutes of my swim helped my mind focus and improve my relaxation, and subsequently the perception of being cold diminished.

I have a small, thin frame (176 cm tall, 64 kg). When I inquired with my physical dimensions about sizing this Sailfish Edge speed suit the company recommended I get an extra-small one! I could barely believe it. But sure enough they were right. It is so thin it stretches just right and any bigger it would become a drag suit on me.

I’ve always fared better it hot climates than cold ones. I HATE being cold so it baffles my wife why I would even want to do cold water OW swimming! But really, the pleasant effects on the nervous system are amazing, and the fact that I am doing this voluntarily with the eager prospect of warming up with hot tea and a hot heater in the car make the sense of suffering go away.

I’m not eager to put on 20kg to insulate my organs so this Ice Man that can provoke his own metabolism to super-heat himself really appeals to me. I would like to learn some of those meditative techniques. But in the mean time there is a balance between acclimating to the cooling water and reducing the stress level enough so I can actually focus on holding best technique while I swim in it. Hence, the reason I chose to wear the speed suit yesterday rather than uphold some sense of pride about staying naked. (The locals already think I am crazy). From experience I know that even if I wear the thin suit, over a few weeks in consistent water temperature my body will still adjust and I may likely feel ready to take it off again. February will be the biggest test for me in this climate.

I have other injuries and vulnerabilities that I always have to factor in. I allegedly have a torn meniscus in my left knee which has shut down all running and much of my on-land exploration for the last 6 months. It also encourages me to have an extremely fine-tuned kick while swimming so initiate rotation without straining the joint. I can’t go slamming my legs around no matter how cold I feel.

And right now I have pretty bad ulnar nerve pain running all the way up my left arm (I am a left-hand writer, mouse mover, all fine motor touch, etc) which I feel while swimming these days but is aggravated by desk work and originated from a chronic injury I sustained working in highway/bridge construction (for my dad’s company) back when I was 22. It requires that I use extreme care in how I keep the hand/wrist/forearm aligned at all points during the stroke cycle so I don’t pinch or aggravate the nerves further. The cool water can actually help calm the inflammation down, as it did for me yesterday.

This old vulnerability to nerve pain has always kept me cautious about putting myself in inescapable long-distance swimming situations. If that nerve pain were to strike up in the middle of a long swim I care more about my arm and avoiding severe disability that will last months or years than I do completing the stinking swim – its not about being tough, its about being wise. So, if you have ever wondered why I haven’t signed up for some channel swim to prove my stuff, this is why. I will prove stuff to myself near shore before I risk losing my arm on a costly channel crossing. Anyhow, I am fortunate in where I live: I can make a 30km swim along the coast here any day I want to. I am enjoying an exploratory process that is leading me in that direction.

And, when I was 16 I messed up my shoulders from poor freestyle and butterfly technique. I was exiled from the pool for 3 years. Back then I took too much pride in surviving tough workouts on a championship team, felt too little during those workouts (endorphin addiction? or mindless swimming?), and was not mature enough to read the important pain messages for what they meant when I was aching two hours after each practice. Pride literally made me stupid. I have great technique now that allows me to swim freestyle for hours and a butterfly I would have died for when I was 16, but those tendons are still vulnerable to aching when overused – which my resilience to pain always creates a serious danger of. (Hence, my torn meniscus!)

So, you can see that I have my own little issues to factor into my swim training – both physical and mental. If you were to swim with me, some people may be impressed with my skill and speed. Some people would not. I’ve always been too fast to be a nobody and not fast enough to be a somebody. But I am now a very smooth, enduring, and happy swimmer.

Somewhere along the way I quit caring (mostly) what people think. Yeah, for business and coaching credibility people want to see what I can do as proof I can deliver the goods they want. So if that’s you, come swim with me and let’s see.

In the end, I swim for me, not to impress ‘them’, though I still feel the pressure and expectation to prove something to people from time to time. Increasing speed and exploring longer distance and more extreme conditions are part of my preferences. They are metrics that I use to explore new dimensions in mind and body, but not the ultimate goal of the training. My objectives for swimming are explicitly about developing the mental skills and attitude I need to help me live all areas of my life better.

So whether or not, on an absolute scale, my endeavors, my performance, my speed, my resilience to injury, my toughness in cold water is impressive compared to others, I have my own unique set of challenges to work through and so do you. We each have to play the hand we find ourselves with. And that is the point of my own swimming and my coaching. I don’t care if you are scared or fearless, heavy or fat, smooth or awkward, disfigured or perfect, disabled, rich or poor, fast or slow – I am full of compassion for you and your personal journey. I am dedicated to helping you get where you want to be.

If you simply want to be better than all the others then that may be a reason you need to seek out a different coach – I admit I have limits to my experience, but I also have boundaries in my coaching ethics. If you want to take serious risks with your long-term well-being to be the best for a moment in time, I may refer you elsewhere. But if you want to be the best you can be for your own swimming, for your own health and enjoyment (even as it involves winning), with respect for your entire lifespan in mind then I would like to be considered as someone who could really help you well with that. The skills and the tools I will teach you will serve you well outside the pool also. Because everything I  do in training myself and others is focused on that.

Now there a little disclosure for you!


3 responses to “Transparent Coaching

  1. I share lot of the thoughts and attitudes you write about, Even I’ve had my fair share of injuries (luckily they don’t bother my swimming). But I’ve learned to distance myself from the need to prove myself. Yet, yesterday I, again, experienced something that I occasionally struggle with psychologically.

    I swim at our local 25 m pool during times when our lake is too cold for OW. Yesterday I’d decided to take an easy swim work-out. Easy in a sense that I’d focus mostly on technique, less on getting a (physical) work-out. I chose 2-3 focus points that I then practised over a period of 50 m laps.
    I swim with a masters group where most are old competitive swimmers but every now and then newcomers join us. Such was the case yesterday as the lane beside mine was occupied by a woman who did a beginners’ freestyle class earlier this autumn. She’s doin all kinds of crazy stuff with her swimming but for some reason she has extremely good body balance which makes her quite fast, even with her technical faults.

    My problem is this. Despite the fact that I’ve gotten rid of the need to prove something for myself or others, that natural competitive instinct comes out when there’s somebody close by. When I notice somebody close to me, it takes a LOT of mental energy to fight the urge to swim faster, i.e. to compete. This makes it difficult to concentrate on the focus point in question. This problem varies in magnitude depending on who it is next to me (“no way I’m going to swim slower than a beginner!!”).

    Any experience of this, or ideas how to tackle?

    • Oh, I experience that all the time! I might better describe it by saying I’ve deliberately chosen to foresake that pressure, but I still experience it coming against me.

      The question to ask in those moments is “WHY?”

      There is no doubt there may be some social consequence to ignoring that urge. And it doesn’t help that TI has been seen as ‘beautiful but slow’. Our refusal to show our ‘swimming fight’ is mockingly taken as proof we can’t compete. It’s the whole animal side (referring to the part of the brain in which this behavior is activated) of humans that urges us to prove ourselves against one another. That’s why we have sports, and nationalism, and racism and all sorts of ways to prove our kind is better than their kind.

      The pressure is felt in different degrees by people according to a lot of biological and social factors. But I think we all feel it.

      The impulse (triggered by an opponent or competitor or judge) to compete or show my stuff is an instinct, both biological and social. It is a ‘force’ if you will, and we can decide how to channel that force, or ignore what’s going on and let it move us around wherever it will. So the first step is recognizing the pressure to compete as a force and then deciding where you want to channel that energy – toward YOUR goal, or be carried away by it toward some random or opponent’s goal?

      Forgive me if I am too philosophical about it, but this is truly the way I deal with it.

      I choose to drive myself where I want to go and conscious work to not let any other drive me in a direction I don’t want to go. But I have to think carefully about the cost involved with resisting or cooperating with those pressures.

      As a coach with a business I realize I need to know and speak the language of the different kinds of people I intend to help and I have to be willing to step into their world and work with them there and even practice my thing in their way so we can relate and I can gain credibility. So I can go and compete and have a good time of it. But I still know where my favorite realm is and I go back there. The difference for me (and perhaps for you now also) is that I have experienced BOTH worlds and can compare and have chosen which one I prefer, while generally those who mock me or TI have not, and can only speak from their one-sided experience of swimming. The mock what they do not understand.

      But WHY? That is another good question. What do they feel so threatened by that they would trouble themselves to discourage me from practicing the way I want to??? (and we should be careful of judging in the reverse direction).

      As a swimmer it may be more of an issue of whether the swimmer community (those in the pool) will respect your differences of attitude or not and how will that community reward or punish you if you don’t play along with their expectations of you.

      Maybe we only image that others really care what we are doing in the lane next to them? But if I notice them and have judgments, that is usually a reminder that they too might have some about me.

      But here’s another twist, a more practical one. If anyone does in fact want to race then he had had better learn to NOT let the pressure of the opponents (or the person in the next lane) drive him to do anything that does not serve his own calculated interests in winning. It’s classic for new athletes to feel the collective energy and surge of the starting gun and be swept up into a starting sprint that kills them before a quarter of the race is done.

      What is that time in the pool dedicated to? And are you keeping that focus?

      If you’ve set an intelligent plan for training that you believe in and have got important things to accomplish that day, you had better stay focused on what YOU need to do, not what the person in the lane next to you wants you to do (nor what those animal-brain competitive instincts are trying to distract you with at the moment).

      The well-planned, focused, patient and persistent swimmer will steadily progress while those driven by whatever whims and urges of the moment will make a lot of waves, burn a lot of calories but really not move very far in their swimming abilities.

  2. I think most of this battle is going on only inside my head. I mean, I doubt seriously that the beginner on the lane beside me was competing with me. It was a pure instinct from my part.

    But I hear what you say. Just need to keep practising my mindfulness skills, and focus on MY goal.

    I haven’t experienced any hostility or attitude from the rest of the bunch, not specific interest for my swimming style either (and at this stage I can say it is quite obvious TI-style). But should I detect any attitude, I have no plans engaging in any debate on what/whose style is better. I do my thing, and I’m happy to let others in on it should they be interested, but rest of them can do their thing. What they do and how they swim takes nothing away from me.


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