The vast majority of swimmers have little or no expectation of improving. That’s mostly a result of what they learn from experience. As one TI student told me “I reached a state I call Terminal Mediocrity. I improved a good deal for a few months after I began swimming, but then – no matter how much I swam — I couldn’t get any better.”
That experience is so universal you could call it the human condition. In the 1960s, learning researchers observed it so commonly in a wide array of skills (and professions) they gave it a name — the OK Plateau. The researchers said people plateaued not because they’d exhausted their potential, but because their performance reached a level where it was good enough to get by and they shifted to autopilot instead of paying attention. To some extent it also occurred because they thought of themselves as ‘average’ and devoted no energy to seeking to stand out in their field.
In 30 to 40 years of watching people swim, some of them every day, at pools where I’ve practiced, I almost never see someone improve. In fact, most give no thought whatsoever to improving. Low expectations are virtually always a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A few people, in contrast, do have high expectations. This can also lead to disappointment, if your expectation is unrealistic. I’ve met some new triathletes who can barely swim a few laps yet register for a Half-Ironman, leaving themselves only a month or two to prepare for 1.2-mile (1.9km) open water swim. And perhaps they do finish the swim, but it takes 50 minutes and leaves them tired. A good outcome (and completing any long open water swim is a great outcome) that’s less than what we hoped for may feel like failure, if we haven’t set a realistic goal.
The best course is to create expectations and set goals with the following in mind:
1. Focus on things over which you have a high degree of control. I could set a goal of swimming 1500 meters in the pool in 22 minutes in six months time. But if my time today is 24 minutes there’s no guarantee I’ll achieve it. It would be smarter to challenge myself to swim 1500 meters with an even pace, or consistent splits . . . whatever my final time. That way I can consider a time of 23 minutes a success if I swim splits of approximately 7 minutes 40 seconds for each 500-meter split. That goal is entirely achievable and will suggest a clear focus — even a mission — for my practice during those months.
2. Focus on success and satisfaction in the present moment. The 6-month goal I describe above will add purpose to my practice that would be lacking if I set no goal. But why wait six months for your reward when you can experience rewards right now? Put another way, work from this moment forward, rather than from some future moment back. Devote the first 5 to 10 minutes of each day’s practice to some form of assessment of your swimming or your stroke. It could be how light your legs feel, the bubbles you see in your armstroke, or keeping your SPL (strokes per length) below 17 at a tempo of 1.3 seconds per stroke. Then make it your goal to improve that measure during the 50 minutes.
Every expectation fulfilled will improve your ability to focus future goals effectively — and strengthen your expectation of positive outcomes. Happy Laps.