1508 overcoming swimming fears

You may have heard it said something like this: there is no courage except in the presence of fear. Fear is what makes courage meaningful.


The day before the Bosphorus Cross-Continental Race, while sitting at lunch on the boat during our pre-race training and course navigation event, I asked this question of our guests:

If you could be guaranteed to succeed at some ‘extreme’ (for you) sports or skill endeavor, while still being required to do all the intense training for it, what would you choose to do?

(Pause: What would you choose?)

This is what I would chose, without hesitation.

I love this video of Guillaume Nery free-diving in Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas.

I can think of a whole boatload of fears and obstacles that line up in my mind to tell me why I can’t or shouldn’t work on this. But should I let those fears make the decision for me? (My wife would though!)


A courageous act is something done in the face of your own fear. But how to overcome that fear once you face it? Courage gets you willing to act, but you still need to know how to act in order to succeed.

Like with overcoming drag in the water, there are just two ways to overcome fear:

  1. Become stronger than the fear
  2. Reduce the power of the fear working against you

Solutions in real life tend to require a bit of both. Wisdom shows us how much of each, and in which order.

There are those who seem to just push through their fears with brute force, gritting through the flood of intense stress all over the body while they take action. There is the fear itself to be endured, while there may also be the additional shame of feeling fear when others facing a similar situation don’t seem to have so much.

Then there are those who look first for ways to understand that fear in order to undermine it, to deflate its power. I can imagine Sun Tzu (Art Of War), in Chinese accent, saying something like, “A wise commander seeks first to lower the strength of his enemy before increasing his own.”

This topic of courage/fear came up when discussing our channel training plan with my swimmer preparing to do it – he mentioned his ‘stupid fear’ of swimming over deep water. That adjective stupid caught my attention right away because it did not line up with the perspective on fear that I have been gaining from studying neuro-psychology and how the brain works.

I offered a correction to this –  the brain is actually doing a marvelous job of doing what it is suppose to do: keeping you alive. This fear reaction to deep water is not stupid.

As land mammals our brains are programmed for land. Being in the water is not a normal place for humans. Holding breath and putting the head underwater really goes against the land mammal programming. Moving into water that is too deep to touch removes what familiar solid controls for movement the human has left. Moving into water that is too deep and dark to see what might cause harm from below is terrifying to the normal land mammal brain. The brain is originally wired to keep us well away from dangers we don’t have programs for (while higher-level cognitive curiosity draws us close!). We are not originally programmed for big, deep water.

This swimmer, like billions of people on this planet, is feeling a very normal, very practical reaction of the brain to keep him alive and away from dangers he was not originally prepared to deal with. Without specific training most humans will feel a seemingly irrational but extremely strong resistance to exposing themselves to this wild water environment. But it is not irrational from a biological point of view. This is a great protective mechanism for a human when he is missing programs for dealing competently with deep water.

So, the solution is to get some new programs. Programs are skills memorized by the brain, ready to click on and take over when triggered. This is what training is for – to set up new programs for how to recognize and respond to the aquatic environment, to be familiar and comfortable with all the features one may encounter in the waterway he chooses to swim in.

When a new-to-open-water swimmer sees the others who show no fear of it, he might think, “What is wrong with me? Why am I so afraid, while they seem so comfortable?” Let’s re-frame that perspective – those comfortable deep water swimmers are not greater than this guy, they have just acquired a program for being at peace in deep water that is available to him too. Now it’s time to get it for himself.

How do paramedics, pilots, police, military and rescue personnel respond so well under very intense and dangerous scenarios? Training. And not merely training the body for fitness, but foremost they receive training for the brain, training the automatic responses, the filter and focus of attention, and the attitude.

High performance professionals don’t ‘tune-out’ of the pain and fear and ‘turn-off’ their thinking in intense situations – they shift, by trained habit, into high focus and occupy the neural channels completely with filtered sensory input and productive action commands. They are triggered to step into a super-productive programmed mode of action. Their obsessive training has deeply integrated these programs into the brain so that it becomes instinct ready to take over faster than one can consciously decide to do it. Some may make fun of those people who obsessively train their body and mind for some endeavor, but those obsessive people are the ones we want on the job when that critical situation arises. I certainly don’t want my doctor or rescue person to ‘turn off’ so much brain-work in her training because it gets too tough or boring for her. I want the best person on the job, and the best train the brain obsessively. The hardest work is brain work.

We ultimately succeed at working through fear by training the brain, by giving it specific productive tasks to fulfill any time we are approaching fear-inducing situations, or suddenly find ourselves in one. This is not about being ‘tough’ it is about being smart and practical. But don’t worry, this kind of training will make one tough… in that smart and practical way that emergency professionals are. This is precisely what skills we begin to introduce to our swimmers at our open water swim camps, and this is precisely what I help swimmers preparing for more intense challenges develop and learn to rely upon.

It is not stupid to feel fear. It is normal and even good to an extent. But, for those who want to swim past their perceived limitations, it is foolish to not access the training techniques that are now widely practiced and shared by experts in all sorts of professionals fields, arts and sports disciplines. That training fits wonderfully into our context as open water swimmers, where nature can provide all sorts of interesting and potentially dangerous puzzles for us to solve, inside our own body and mind and outside.

Fear is not something to be ashamed of. But it is something to be faced and used for growth as a human – there is plenty of it in this world for our fuel. There is a lot to gain from openly discussing our own fears and to hear the stories of how normal, fear-feeling people around us have faced theirs and gotten past. We would see that all standard-equipped humans seeking greater freedom are obliged to use some sort of technique to face fear and rise above it – by overpowering that fear, by undermining it, or likely a combination of both.

I am a bit suspicious of those who say they have no fear. Either they are not recognizing fear for what it is, they are lying, or they are not really challenging their own perceived limitations. At least, when one claims no fear, he must also admit no courage. What then is there to admire?

A swimmer who is not feeling at least a little bit of fear regarding his goals may not be setting them high enough. Just consider all the things one could possibly feel fear of: failure, set-back, loss, injury, death, exhaustion, rejection, shame, etc. Even a minimal substantial goal should touch a fear-nerve somewhere. Instead of treating fear as a negative thing, we can use it as a positive.

Identifying your fear – putting a label on it – is the first step. Then seeking out some specific technique for removing its (perceived) power is the next step I recommend. Work on that first, before trying to find ways to over-power it. No doubt we will still need to apply some courage, but let it always be combine with wisdom.


If you are interested in more thoughts on this, I wrote a series of steps for Overcoming Fear in Open Water some time ago. And, as survival (and non-survival) is one of my supreme favorite topics of study, I could recommend many books for inspiration and guidance.

Do you have some to recommend to me? I would love to study new insights on the topic.

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