A young swimmer is over the moon with joy. He has managed to set his first three qualifying times in just a single weekend. He will compete in his category at the next nationals and do so in style. His coach showers him with praise. Buzzing, he walks over to the spectator seating where he is enthusiastically congratulated by colleagues and fans of the club who celebrate his achievement and offer all sorts of praise and compliments.
You’re incredible; you smashed them all out of the water; your rivals at the nationals won’t know what hit ‘em!
He embraces his parents and tells them, “Dad, Mum, my coach told me that, if I keep it up, I will be champion within a month and included in the national team”. His father approaches the coach and asks him, “What did you think of my son?” The young and inexperienced coach stands up straight and confirms what the lad just said. What’s more, he guarantees that if the young man keeps it up, he will also set a qualifying time for the Junior European Championships next season.
Competition day arrives. The young lad impatiently awaits the starting signal for the first race. His nerves get the better of him and he falls. Distraught, he listens to the advice of his coach as he encourages him to keep trying. “Stay calm, the next race will go better for you”. The second race ends and his time is far from what he expected. The swimmer’s face says it all. The coach doesn’t know what to say and his explanations sound empty and absurd. The athlete, disheartened and demoralized, decides he won’t play the fool anymore and fakes an injury to avoid swimming on the last day.
The dream has evaporated!
This story might seem somewhat of an exaggeration but I can assure you that what I describe here is a true reflection of reality and commonplace in our sport. Using smoke and mirrors to inflate egos, creating false expectations, generating false hope, pulling the wool over someone’s eyes... it doesn’t matter what we call it, it’s free, easy and, in principle, nobody will hold us to account for it.
I sincerely believe that we are educators above all else, and the well-being of our swimmers should take priority over any win. At least, that’s how I feel. The most important thing is to have a clear idea of the goals being sought and choose the right path to reach them, no rush and no short-cuts. Always in a straight line.
It is not my intention to apportion blame or for anyone to take this personally; not at all. It is, however, a criticism of the way we act at certain points in our athletics career. We have all been in a similar situation at one time or another; where everything seems possible and nothing can stand in the way of our objectives. It can happen to any of us, but it generally happens more often to new and inexperienced coaches, swimmers from the team and new parents with little or no experience who are impatient to achieve quick success and incapable of realizing the enormous harm we are doing to the athlete in question.
Why do we make these mistakes? What drives us to make such negative decisions?
- Impatience and lack of experience
Good advice never comes of these. Success does not come suddenly. It takes time, knowledge, empathy and the right preparation to achieve success. The correction of flaws and learning comes with time and hard work every day; only this can teach you to take control of such situations. Don’t rush, there are no short-cuts. Everything will come with hard work and patience.
- A need for recognition
We sometimes look for easy praise, to please a parent, tell someone what they want to hear, praise the qualities of their child - but only to make a good impression and get in their good books without truly realising whether the child will be able to come through when it counts. Unfortunately, the stopwatch is king in our profession; the unforgiving judge who decides whether our work is any good or not.
- To show off or be conceited
As soon as we achieve some positive results, we start believing we are the king of the mountain. We show off the brands of the swimmers we coach and publicly criticize the work of colleagues, all the while making promises that are impossible to keep. People believe us to begin with because they don’t really know us. However, the truth comes out eventually and they realize what we’re really like. Unfortunately, it is almost always too late when this happens.
When someone believes they know it all and owns the truth, they will eventually fall flat on their face. Only by being aware of our shortcomings and striving to overcome them and stay on top of the latest trends in the field of coaching will we be capable of obtaining optimum performance from our swimmers.
What consequences stem from false expectations?
- A lack of confidence in the preparation
The coach ceases to be your hero. Confidence in them has diminished considerably. Pep talks no longer have any effect and you even start trusting more in parental advice.
- Anxiety and pressure before the event. Fear of failure
We have generated very high expectations in the swimmer and they feel pressured, nervous, impatient and anxious for their time to swim to arrive. Such feelings can cause all kinds of adverse effects in their body, which will weaken them and prevent them from performing to the desired level.
- Disappointment, distress and anguish before the competition
The result wasn’t what was expected and their world collapses. His mind fills with negative thoughts and, no matter what you say now; he will not be capable of achieving his goals. He is overcome by sadness and becomes more vulnerable.
- Family pressure
The hopes of certain family members have collapsed and swimming suddenly becomes less important. They fail to see the future clearly nor have the necessary peace of mind to wait. They believe their child is wasting their time and the best decision for everyone would be for them to put it all aside and focus on their studies; because swimming won’t put food on the table.
- Weakness, insecurity and loss of self-esteem
The swimmer feels weak, they feel they have no energy and their self-esteem is not what it was. It was a very tough blow and they no longer see themselves with the strength to improve. All they can do is survive the dejection.
- Lack of interest, apathy and premature abandonment
They no longer even feel like going to the pool and, when they do, the times they set are worse than before. They believe the best would be to give up and focus on something else. We have lost a swimmer.
It’s obvious that not all swimmers respond in the same way and that not all of them are affected in the same way either. Many of them react positively, even naturally, and continue making every effort to achieve their goals. The recovery work in these cases for the coach, parents and training buddies is key to returning the swimmer to the right path. We’re talking about isolated cases, which are more clearly evident in modern times, where other more accessible and entertaining alternatives exist. We have a duty as those most directly involved with the athlete to tackle the problem head-on and seek solutions. I have some suggestions in this regard.
How can we avoid this happening to us again?
- Set ambitious but achievable goals
The difficulty of the objective should never exceed the capabilities of the swimmer; otherwise the only outcome will be mistakes and despair for the athlete. They should be logical and difficult to achieve but sufficiently reasonable so as to be possible.
- They must be specific
Clear, precise and tangible. They will depend on the degree of maturity in each case, the athletic ability, gender and characteristics of the swimmer but they should always be tailored to individual personal characteristics.
- Short- and long-term
It is important for them to have short-term goals that motivate their day-to-day efforts while enabling them to obtain swift improvements in performance; i.e., for what they do to be exciting. Enjoying small achievements enables us to keep moving forward towards other more ambitious goals.
- Training goals
Start the practice session at a specific time of day, complete 10 more arm flexes than last week, keep a more comfortable pace during the repetitions... these are just a few practical examples that can help us achieve what we want.
- Always positive, never negative
Even though challenges can sometimes be approached negatively, the ideal situation is one in which they are more often approached positively. One idea is to increase the number of repetitions with a weights bar when training in the gym.
Motivation is enhanced when the swimmer has a clear notion of when they need to start and achieve certain targets. This will help them make an effort and meet their goals within logical and realistic time periods.
Recognizing the strategies to be followed from the outset, how we are going to implement them, having a record of them so they are not forgotten and can even be amended at certain times due to unexpected circumstances for subsequent assessment, and having the unconditional support of all those people involved in one way or another in the life of the swimmer is essential to preventing a repeat of past mistakes.
Hopefully this text will help everyone realize the need to be more cautious with our predictions and thereby potentially avoid generating false hope, which only leads to lost credibility and, in the worst case scenario, the end of the career of an athlete.