Staying Competitive in Uncertain Times

Scott Dickens London 2012 Olympics Swimmer

For all competitive swimmers and athletes, the current COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions pose unique challenges to their lives. And for those Olympians who have seen their 2020 chance to compete on the world stage in Tokyo, evaporate, the disappointment only compounds these challenges. The postponed Olympic Games may mean they have missed their chance altogether or, for the vast majority of Olympic athletes, it means maintaining their focus and fitness at an elite level for yet another year.

Perseverance through Disappointment

As an elite swimmer, training typically runs in an Olympic 4 year cycle. You set milestones, goals and targets to ensure you are in peak form for Olympic qualification. There is no greater honour than competing for your country at the world’s premier sporting event so you train with this as the ultimate goal.

Now, the Olympic cycle has broken. It has shifted by a full calendar year. Thankfully, the very fact that you are an elite athlete, sets you up better than most to deal with this colossal curveball. More than anything, the COVID-19 pandemic is testing your mental game — your resilience.

As competitive swimmers, you have already experienced the agony and ecstasy of competition. You have won races and lost races. You’ve been injured and rehabilitated. You’ve experienced the intense highs and lows of elite sport and found the resolve to continue and to improve. Now is the time to do the same. It is particularly key to avoid a negative spiral. Any stray thoughts of quitting, despair and self-pity must be replaced by an emboldened outlook, new goals, and a revised training regime. This is what will sustain you through these unprecedented times.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

With all competitions cancelled for the foreseeable future, a key barometer of your progress has been eliminated. With this fundamental extrinsic motivator removed, it will be up to you to find the intrinsic motivation.

Ask yourself, why do I swim? Why do I compete? Do I still enjoy it?

Hopefully, the answers are introspective, revealing and encourage you to push through this pandemic period.

Truthfully, for most elite athletes, the podium finish and shiny medal is only the icing on the cake. Most of the time, the focus is on process and execution. Testing the limits of the human mind and body are rewarding enough to continue. As Scott Dickens, former Canadian Olympic swimmer explains:

Training involves being able to put your body and mind into a state that it essentially does not want to be in. Being comfortable being uncomfortable.

These words have never been more salient — the COVID-19 pandemic adding another level of meaning to ‘being uncomfortable’. Just as we do not know how this will end, nor do athletes know their ultimate potential. This is the time to discover another gear during training and test your limits. The potential to come out of this stronger and better mentally-prepared is significant. Pushing through your limits, beyond previous comfort zones, will strengthen your resolve and enhance your capacity to achieve greater goals. Staying within them only hinders your potential.

Consider, too, that as an elite athlete, you are a role model to many others. To demonstrate perseverance in challenging times like this speaks volumes to your character and to those who admire you. In turn, you pay it forward. Young athletes are more likely to stick with their training plans if you do, inspiring the next generations of Olympians. This should serve as extrinsic motivation right now.

Training Schedule

The silver lining for elite athletes targeting the Olympics is clear — a full year to become faster, stronger and better. Work with your coaches to identify weaknesses. Could you benefit from more strength work, endurance work, sport psychology etc.? Now is the time to spend more time revisiting and analyzing previous performances — yours and your competitors. This will help you identify mistakes and successes that you can build upon and find ways to improve and set new goals.

This is exactly what USA National Swim Team swimmer, Michael Andrew, is doing in a series of YouTube videos he is producing while under quarantine. Here are two helpful videos he published in the last week analyzing previous races and articulating his training plans for the next while:

Take his lead and start reviewing your old races. This is a phenomenal way to learn and gain perspective.

Michael also emphasizes his goal during this time is to become more powerful in general. The main focus for him and most other swimmers will be keeping up with conditioning as many have reduced or no access to their real training ground — the pool. And though it is natural to feel some anxiety about access to proper training facilities, seek solace in the fact that all your competitors are likely in exactly the same boat. This training set back is universal. It offers you an opportunity to get creative and work with your coaches and trainers to develop challenging new strength and conditioning routines to become more powerful in the pool and, perhaps, to even consider open water swimming.

Keep on Swimming

Most importantly, do not focus on matters you can’t control. No one knows what the end of this pandemic looks like so we can’t predict when pools will be open again. So tap into your present and determine how you can leverage this opportunity to improve your dry-land training to boost your strength and overall endurance so when you finally get to take the plunge, your body and competitive spirit will be in high gear, ready for the swim of your life!

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