I was asked this morning on Twitter by a friend of mine, “What psychological strategy do you use when it gets tough on a long swim?”
I was going to reply on Twitter, but I realised that it probably needed more than just a tweet, it needed more than 140 characters. So here goes…
I’ve recently joined a virtual team called Team Bear. One of the main reasons that it appealed to me is the motto they have, which is “Suffer but NEVER surrender.” And that is one of the things that gets me through. I’ve never yet had a DNF (did not finish) for all the swims I’ve done and I want to do all I can to make sure I don’t have one.
It’s the old question of, how would you feel the minute after you’ve stopped? If you can honestly say that it was the best decision (and in swimming that can be about health reasons, especially hypothermia) to stop then do so. But if once you’ve retired you realise that maybe you could have just carried on, then you’ll regret it – if I’m struggling I do that analysis… and then carry on.
Another thing I’ve learnt through experience is that I need to play to my own strengths. And although it’s tough in open water swimming I’m a talker, so that’s what I need to do even while swimming. I’m someone that likes to downplay the effort involved, downplay the hardship and make jokes / comments about the trivialities. One of the reasons that I didn’t do as well this year in Windermere was that I was trying to be too focused and that’s just not me.
One thing that did help massively during Windermere was when I took a break and started swimming breaststroke for a couple of minutes. My boat crew leaned over to see if I was ok. I shook my head and explained that I was finding it hard. “Of course it’s bloody hard,” was the incredibly caring and considerate reply. And actually that helped enormously as I realised that that was all it was – a bit of hard work. It wasn’t any more serious than that, it just required me to dig in. Well I could do that, so I did.
Finally, one of the biggest ways to stop yourself struggling in the first place is to feed well. If you don’t, then energy levels drop and if energy levels drop then you can feel the cold more and all of that affects your ‘head’. Just imagine starting the day without your normal cup of tea or coffee, then go to the worst work meeting you can imagine, now think what kind of mood you’ll be in. That’s what it feels like if you’re swimming without proper nutrition. If you can crack that, then most of the psychological battles become minor skirmishes. If you don’t crack the nutrition, then they become full-on wars which you may lose.