Does swimming attract a disproportionate number of introverts? 

That is an interesting question for which I don’t have an answer. 

Looking back on Mediterra’s activities and events over the years, I recall many seemingly-introverted participants who I believe found our environment particularly comfortable. How much of that was from something special we did, and how much from the nature of activity itself? Does this sport, or do our particular events draw a disproportionate number of introverts? I have not taken nor seen data that would tell us.

But we continue to keep these questions in mind when we design our activities and events.  

The Introversion Strength

I would describe myself as a strong introvert with good social skills. The ‘good social skills’ part means I can act like a comfortable extrovert as needed, but for limited amounts of time. There is sensitivity to group dynamics, awareness of individual need along that introvert-extrovert spectrum and I can attempt to influence an environment to makes room for a wider range of people. But has it worked to create a remarkable different environment, one where introverts can truly relax along with extroverts?

Being a student of psychology I lament the fact that the term ‘introversion’ had been regarded as a problem in the old literature (and hence, in our culture), while in the new the discussion of introversion-extroversion is more about how one is wired to handle sensory information and social stimulation, how one gives and gains energy. Introversion, like extroversion, is scientifically recognized as a trait with significant survival and productivity advantages. There is a theoretical reason why it remains a common characteristic in an estimated 20% to 40% of the human population.

Introverts not only handle solitude, they seem to crave it. Individual endurance sports involve long periods of solitary work. Endurance sports in general, and sensory/social stimulation-depriving activities like swimming (the head is submerged in water after all!) may fit better with those who like solitude and may attract a disproportionate number of these people. Looking back, I think that I was drawn to these at least partly because they allow an introvert like me a solitary process by which I can ‘give energy of one kind in order to gain energy of another kind’. I notice that this has as much of a social dimension for me as a physical one; after a nice, long run or wonderfully exhausting swim, I feel a lot more energy for people. There are likely several personality and environmental factors that drew me to these sports, but I recognize how much my craving for solitude played a part.

Some years ago I was at a multi-day gathering of coach colleagues, and it became remarkable to me that after 3 days together I was not feeling drained and trying to escape the social setting. Then I took notice that all 10 of us in the room were introverts to some degree and somehow we had found each other and spontaneously created an atmosphere that we all felt relatively comfortable in even after a few days. What was it about our profession, our collective style, our principles that drew us together? 

That experience opened my eyes to the fact that it is not a rejection of people introverts are projecting when they leave the party early, but a rejection of the kind of extrovert-designed social events that dominate the menu. We know they are nice and refreshing for the extroverts, but not for us. We need a different kind of gathering, but one we rarely experience or don’t even know exist.

 

My Introvert Expression

I am not certain what unique mixture of personality traits gave shape to my expression of introversion but I will describe how it has manifest in my athletic and coaching life. Perhaps this will encourage some of my fellow introverts to keep tailoring your own training lifestyle to suit your being. 

Of course, spending hours by myself is a pleasure, something to savor. I never feel ‘alone’. I am friendly and kind to myself and I feel connected to others and to the greater environment, so my solitude is experienced as a form of communion.

I am sensitive, self-aware and reflective and have been since a young child. A mindful training practice is a natural fit for me. 

I love people, but I prefer to be one-on-one, and to have a meaningful activity or conversation. Give me a partner, not a crowd. I can handle small doses of groups, and very small doses larger groups where there is less control over my stimulation levels. 

My nervous system is very sensitive, tracking everything – it needs stimulation toned down in order to refresh (compared to extroverts who have a nervous system that craves more stimulation). I do not like much hype and high human-generated sensory stimulation, especially when I am not able to control the intensity of it bombarding my systems. But give me the sounds and stimulation of nature! That seems to be what my nervous system is designed to indulge in.

I am always eager to train alone or sometimes with another like-minded and similarly-capable person. Participating in a group is more of a gift I am glad to give to my companions while it has a cost I need to recover from later on. The best kind of social setting for me (when I am not in charge) is where I can be with the group but also have the opportunity to withdraw from it in some personal way when I feel my social energy dropping. Open water swim camps offer a lot of those! 

It may seem paradoxical, but I do love leading training events and camps and spending an entire week with my colleagues and swimmers for many hours a day. There is another part of me that loves to design, lead and nurture social setting for people. I could argue that (socially-skilled) introverts might be suited to this because we are particularly sensitive to individuals and the flow of social energy. When I am in charge of an event, I can generally choose when to engage or not, and I have meaningful tasks to be about through the whole day which helps me last longer. It gives me the opportunity to shape the environment in a way that offers opportunity to meets introvert needs, which we suffer the lack of in a world where extroverts create most of our social events.
I have a lot more to give to my loved ones, colleagues and students when I have a great deal of solitary time to recharge energy and refresh my gifts. It seems like my extrovert friends would prefer to have 12 hours of social time and grit through 2 hours alone each day while I would do well to flip that ratio entirely. Oh, but what I can then give to and received from others in those 2 hours!

 

Advocate For Your Needs

Being an introvert is not something to be embarrassed of, but to be valued and put to good use. To promote flourishing and my production of good things for others I have to advocate and negotiated with my social systems as much as I can because extroverts control most social systems and these naturally end up catering to their social stimulation appetites, which makes it hard on introverts, especially those who don’t know yet why they are not thriving in them.  

Hence, I appreciate the sport of swimming, especially in open water, and the opportunity to create and lead events that create an environment where, hopefully, a wide range of people types can come together, share their personalities and gifts and yet find solitude when needed. The nature of the activity and our intention work together to create a refreshing space.

But, there is not much of this going on in our society, and likely won’t be because of the energy cost to introverts to produce this kind of movement. If you recognize your introvert wiring, you need to understand and respect your needs, for your own sake and for the sake of those you want to love and serve. Your best is available to yourself and others when you are giving your being the kind of time and space and stimulation it is designed for. I see it not as a selfish request you make but an ethically obligated one.

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