Performance and “Caring Too Much” – Tricky Stuff


By Coach John Leonard

There is a paradox in sport. In order to do well, you have to care about doing well. If you care “too much” it pretty much becomes impossible to achieve. This is just as true in age group swimming as it is in major league professional sport. Its an issue for every athlete. For parents and coaches to best help the children they work with, its important to understand this.
It comes in “stages”.

At stage one, Mom and Dad want to get their child “off the couch” and active. The child wants to play games on their phone, sitting comfortably on Mommy’s couch. Dragging them off to swim practice means a highly Unmotivated child first arrives at swim team.

At stage two, as the child makes friends at swim team, they are a bit more motivated to leave the house, but still not “into the swimming fast stuff.” Again, creating “caring about performance” matters. Coaches and parents share responsibility to cultivate that. Small progress gets made.

At stage three, the child leans in and “gets it”. They want to do better they want to swim faster. First, they just want to “win races, win heats, etc.” Win. As they lose more than they win, it dawns on them that “winning a heat” is not entirely dependent on them. It depends on who happens to be in their particular race. In swimming, no one “wins them all.” At that point, the child realizes a lot of this sport is about “beating your best time.” Big step forward. Everyone gets excited. Of course, the child has to KNOW their own best times to beat them. Not the parent knowing, the CHILD knowing. Huge leap. And a critical one. Stage three ending. The child “gets” that improving your performance is what counts.
Now, the Paradox.

Stage Four – Fervently “wanting it” really hurts at some point. You have to “want it” JUST ENOUGH.
What’s going on here? Its in the brain.

There are stages of learning. Conscious learning. (the thought is in your head). Unconscious execution. Your mind is blank, your performance is run by your subconscious from prior (practice) mental rehearsal. ALL BEST PERFORMANCES COME FROM THIS STATE. Its variously called “flow”, “the Zone”, etc.

Finally, there is Subconscious performance under high pressure. (defined differently for different people). Finals at JO’s. Finals at the Olympic Trials, Making High School States. Your first swim meet! Your first “A” level meet. Its all the same. It’s a new and challenging experience. That’s pressure (and life).

So why does “caring too much” get you OUT of the zone? Because the mind can’t be focused on anything like “caring so much” and be operating subconsciously at the same time. Example: Swimmers on the block, thinking fervently about “I want to make my goal”. No, that hurts. That’s called “goal thinking”. What we NEED them to do, is “process thinking” (“to do well, I need to remember to blow air out when my face is in the water, and roll from side to side in my stroke”). Thinking about THE PROCESS HELPS, THINKING ABOUT THE GOAL, HURTS.

Coaches try to give each swimmer a “process goal” heading for the block in every race, every meet. We need parents to encourage their children to do likewise. Not goals, not winning, not any pressure, just “have fun, swim well.” It is a complicated and fine line that the good athlete has to learn to walk. Care, but not care too much.
Concentrate, but on process, not result.

Thanks for reading. All the Best, John Leonard

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