Overcoming Fear In Open Water Swimming

The Mindset Of An Open-Water Swimmer

By no means do I want to suggest that there is a Correct Mindset for an OW swimmer, and that others are wrong. With the variety of humans and sports out there, there are also a variety of motivations and values for why we do all this. I do want to point out though that the mindset you adopt for your favorite sport should serve the outcome you desire to get from it, and line up with the costs you are willing to pay to get there. So to this end I want to make a distinction between the mindsets of Swim-To-Conquer and Swim-To-Explore.

Swimming in open-water to conquer a certain distance or channel of water in order to set a record of some sort, or out-swim competitors is one mindset. Speed is the core value. The challenges faced in open-water are more like obstacles that need to be overcome- both in requiring more favorable conditions lined up and to navigate those conditions better than your competitors- so that the destination can be reached as quickly as possible. In extreme distances speed is not merely a matter of the record but also a matter of being able to finish or survive before the forces become too much for the vulnerable human stroking along in it, however skillful they might be- I think of some places where shifting tides or current or exposure to extreme temperature set a minimum speed requirement for swimmer’s attempting to cross those waters. You must be fast enough in order to even consider swimming in certain places. Swim-To-Conquer is a suitable mindset for these conditions.

I am not addressing the Swim-To-Conquer athlete in these essays though mastering the concepts I present with TI and with my personal coaching advice would be a solid foundation for such Swim-To-Conquer pursuits. I welcome you to start here to learn to swim efficiently and with enjoyment first and then move on to more extreme coaching when you feel you are ready for it.

So what is Swim-To-Explore then?

Swim-To-Explore is to swim with the intent and the skill of getting as much satisfaction and improvement out of every swim experience as possible.

Perhaps we can more easily identify with this mindset if we think of a few other settings where speed is a factor in the fun, but only one of many factors. What if you took a fast convertible Porche for a drive through Glacier Park Montana in early Fall? Or a hike with an ultra-light pack through the Yosemite National Park? Or sailing a trim little boat among the Caribbean Islands? Or spinning a finely built roadbike around the rolling countryside of France?

As when driving that Porche through the winding mountain passes, I want to use speed to increase the thrill, but only where it will increase the thrill in reasonable proportion to the increased danger and exhaustion (of fuel consumption and trying to stay alive from hitting every curve too fast). For maximum pleasure, some parts of the road beg me to drive fast, while others invite me to cruise, some to accelerate and slow abruptly, and some places present a vista I just have to stop at and gaze a while. Speed is there to serve the enjoyment of the journey but not to be the master of it.

As I’ve learned from driving a scooter in chaotic Asian traffic, speed is there to keep me safe, but I have learned when to turn it on (and when I wish I had more) and when to back off in order to reach my destination in the most pleasant fashion- to conserve fuel, to enjoy the view, to slip into the pace which the rest of traffic is fluidly moving along. To fight the traffic is stressful and it can be deadly. When we relate to open-water like a stranger, like a competitor, it too becomes stressful and dangerous. Open-water is presenting forces too big for humans to resist for long. It is far better to learn to work with those forces rather than fight them with a one-dimensional mindset for swimming.

I would like to suggest a superior mindset for open-water swimmers – one that makes enjoyment and satisfaction readily available to us, even as we move past the prime youthful years for peak speed and endurance. We want to be out there in the wild water because we want to learn to be at peace while navigating through an uncertain, often unpredictable environment. We want to enjoy adapting to and working with natural forces that are outside our control. We want to learn to respect our limits as well as discover our surprising capabilities, and develop a superior attitude that allow us to enjoy it all, rather than merely survive and check off something on the training schedule.

What is the outcome you seek in an open-water swim?

Let me suggest some Swim-To-Explore outcomes to aim for:

  • To maintain the best technique that I am capable of for the entire swim
  • To swim farther, or more often, with less exhaustion
  • To get out of the water feeling mentally energized
  • To increase my positive attitude about adapting to challenges (rather than grumbling about them)
  • To enjoy dealing with the unexpected combination of characteristic that nature has cooked up for my OW swim today
  • To increase my skills for problem-solving and adapting to new challenges
  • To explore new terrain (in the water and along side it)
  • To explore new terrain in my own heart and mind
  • To stay within Flow State for the entire swim
  • To enjoy the freedom of choosing to swim where, how far, and how fast I want to swim based on what my heart and body need today (rather than on a training schedule arbitrarily assigned to me for each day)
  • To let my training be led far more by internal motivators than driven by external pressures

The Outcome of all these outcomes is this: Because I love to practice in such a way that accomplishes these goals each time I swim I easily maintain a habitual non-destructive activity that keeps me physically and mentally fit and will extend my physical and mental health farther into my elderly years.

I want to encourage you to race, and to conquer what ever you want to conquer, but consider whether you are injuring your body, your future, your soul, your relationships with others, and your long-term values in order to get there. If the racing causes you to risk violating some of these values that promote a healthier life in the long run then racing has taken on a destructive tone for you. Let racing serve your higher values, not over-ride them.

I paid a relatively small price to learn this, and fortunately a temporary one when I was 16 when severe rotator cuff tendinitis shut down my swimming for 3 years, and then at 21 when a mysterious sharp knee pain shut down running, cycling, and extreme skiing for several more. I’ve recovered from both injuries, yet came out of those years of physical restriction with a shift in my perspective on training. I am became much more long-sighted than my extreme sport peers (back then triathlon was a fringe sport, and still considered extreme), at a much earlier age. I decided that I have one body to work with for all these years I’m on the planet so I’d better start training it in a way that gives me the maximum sustained benefit for the most years. And with the coming of marriage and family I realize more than ever that even more satisfaction comes from living to help others.

It would be much harder to give to the capacity that my heart wants to give if my body had been permanently broken by my mindset that disregarded the price I was paying to go as hard as I was trying to go. I am very thankful I have a second chance (or third, or fourth maybe) to do it again, and much more mindfully. I am literally training for old age now, by training for ‘optimal’ (rather than ‘extreme) performance at the age I am at.

Personally, I may enter a race occasionally, but I don’t train to ‘race’. I am an Opportunist Swimmer. I train regularly so that I am ready on short notice to jump in and enjoy an opportunity when it presents itself. Maybe a friend invites me to go for a wetsuited swim in cold waters while I am visiting on vacation, or while driving to the sea I suddenly get excited about all those waves I see crashing around in the breezy sunshine, or I see some new stretch of beach that I’ve never swam before or wonder how far that island is out there, or I hear of some long exotic swim (like 3 Seas In 3 Days) event that my friends are going to in another country and I’d like to join them.

Set your swimmer’s heart on a vision for being free to swim where, when, and how far you want to swim, and then start chipping away at the excuses and fears that hold you back at each step of the way. Hang out with other swimmers and get training from coaches who share the same attitude and it will increase your vision, increase your knowledge, and increase your courage.

Most fear is a phantom, preventing us from really living. The few reasonable fears that remain are thankfully there to keep us alive. Let’s call the bluff, and get on with life.

This ends Part 9 of 9 in the series Overcoming Fear in Open Water Swimming.

Here are the topics covered in this series:

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