Triathlon Swimming: It’s all in your head

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by David Wendkos

So, I take my four-year-old son, Evan, ice skating for the first time. We aren’t on the ice for 20 seconds before he starts to get upset and states,

“I can’t do this!”

I lean over and tell him that, of course he doesn’t know how yet, but we will work on it and he will learn. That doesn’t satisfy him. He continues to get upset and complain that he can’t do it. I then tell Evan that I don’t want to hear him say he can’t do it anymore. He may only say he can’t do it yet. He accepts this (it’s part of our dynamic) and immediately says,

“Well, Daddy, I can’t do it yet!”

I reply by asking how he would change that, at which point he starts shuffling his feet, falling, getting back up, and repeating. Over and over. Fifteen minutes later, he pushes me and says

“Don’t stand near me anymore.” Off he goes meandering all around the rink by himself. Within half an hour, he declares he is a great ice skater and Santa should buy him his own skates.

I know this is a pretty typical “my kid” story, but it got me thinking. Some of the most common phrases I hear, particularly from casual triathletes, are “I’m a really bad swimmer”, “I hate the swim”, “I am such a slow swimmer”, and “I hate the swim” (oh, you noticed I said that twice?). This is the same as Evan and his ice skating. Success at any activity in life does not begin in a pool or a lake, on a bike or a road, in an office or a home, or anywhere else. It begins in your head. There are a limitless number of quotes from any number of people that say essentially the same thing – If you think can or if you think you can’t, you are right.

Biking and running have something in common that swimming does not. As we grow up, they are both activities we take part in socially, and often as a part of other activities. Biking to the park with friends. Running around in a field playing tag. They are activities that, at a basic level, we grow up with and naturally become comfortable with. And so, we know we can. Swimming isn’t that way. Oh sure, we go to community pools, or lakes, or the beach, to play with friends, but we aren’t usually putting our heads in the water and swimming from one place to another for social or recreational reasons. Swimming is far more often performed for the purpose of health, fitness, and/or competition. So it is far less common that people grow up with a natural comfort level with it. Leading to a more common sense of inability, or that “I can’t.” However, that simply isn’t correct. If we allow ourselves the opportunity, we can usually learn whatever we set our minds to. Including swimming, and more specifically, the swim leg of a triathlon.

This is triathlon’s off-season. It’s the perfect time to make a dramatic improvement in your swimming. Decide to stop talking yourself down. Instead, tell yourself you are a good swimmer that just needs to develop the skills to become who you are. Then use this winter to focus on your technique, your endurance, and your comfort in the water, and when next spring rolls around, you will be “a really good swimmer” who “enjoys the swim”, “swims fast” and “enjoys the swim” (Oh, I put that in there twice again, huh?).

David Wendkos lives in Annapolis, MD and has over 30 years of competitive swimming, coaching swimmers for the pool, open water, and triathlons. He can be followed on twitter at