Picking up a sport that you did as a kid can be one of the most humbling enterprises in the world. When I went back to playing soccer as an adult after coaching kids for 10 years it was shocking to realize how much coordination had vanished with age. But I persisted for several years, getting nominally better and even scoring a few goals.
That was soccer. Swimming has been an equally amusing challenge at the start. Way back in 2003 I took swim lessons. The only thing I got for that trouble was a lost contact lens that led to another weird chain of events. So I quit the whole swimming thing.
But now I’m desirous of two things. To add swimming as a lifetime activity and to actually compete in sprint and possibly Olympic triathlons.
My return to swimming has involved numerous sessions in which I swim a series of desperately difficult two-lap intervals in a 25 meter pool and sit there heaving on the side between efforts.
Part of that difficulty, I’ve now realized, comes from the basic fact that I was still trying to swim like I did as a kid. I swam for a team that had me do 50 meter sprint races all the time. So when I got in the pool as an adult, that’s how I swam. All out.
Well, that’s like going to the track and doing 200 meter repeats at 35 seconds right off the bat. It isn’t going to work. Not for long, anyway.
If it seems like I should have had better sense than that with all the training I’ve done over the years, allow me to add one factor of consideration to the formula of becoming a swimmer again. When you don’t swim, you sink.
So there’s this weird tension you first get when you go back in the water. It removes all rationality from your thought process. No, I wasn’t afraid to drown or anything like that. But it was disconcerting to run out of breath mid-pool and realize that I had better stop for a minute or life itself my come to an end. Something like that.
Not exactly a constructive thought process. Which brings me to the swim session I joined yesterday. There were eight other people filling up the lanes. I shook hands with the instructor named Whitney and without being too obvious she assessed my general athleticism likely wondering whether she’d have a dead man on her hands any minute.
Fortunately I surprised her. My swim stroke has been reviewed by several instructors and the basics are all somewhat in place. So after a couple laps Whitney pulled me aside and said, “Let’s do this. I want you to not think about anything for the next couple laps. Just swim. And Slow. Down.”
She was spot on with those instructions. My frantic swimming approach caused me to think too much at the same time I was pushing too hard.
Then she had me swim a session of two-lappers with floats between my legs. Finally we got to some technique work in which she encouraged me to reach more with my hands and gain the glide.
All these were things I’d tried before. Yet her low-pressure approach and encouragement seemed to have a positive effect. Perhaps I was just trying too hard? It happens to the best of us. We want to impress the ones we love. Or the people we want to beat. Or compete with those ahead of us on the scale of progress. It’s human nature to want all those things.
But they’re all dysfunctional when you’re trying to learn or re-learn a skill. You must concentrate fully on your own needs and abilities to make progress.
That swimming thing? It’s now going to go much better. I can feel it.