On Swimming: Training and Racing

I read a really interesting letter from Jeff Kostoff to the Stanford swim team today (reproduced below). To give a bit of background, Jeff Kostoff was a legendary swimmer from the 80’s who put up ridiculous times in high school SCY. Eventually he became known for doing some of the toughest training of any swimmer.

The reason I like the letter is that I can relate to what he’s saying about becoming so focused on training that you lose the “race day touch.” While I wasn’t known as a hard trainer towards the end of my swimming days, I did start to look at training as an end in itself.

I think I gravitated there not just because I believed that training harder would make me faster, but also because I wanted to ease the pain of race day failure. Swimming fast on race day is a difficult thing to control, so by shooting for something else (i.e., certain times in practice), I could take a lot of the pressure off of the end-of-season meet.

Looking back, that was the wrong approach. You train in order to swim fast at meets and you have to put yourself in a mindset that’s willing to feel failure in order to succeed.

The letter:

During my visit in early December we spent a fair amount of time discussing training and talking about racing and my perceptions of how my career as a swimmer developed. We spent a brief period of time speculating as to why my best 500 freestyle time was from high school. I arrived at Stanford 6’ 1” 140, and graduated 6’ 1” 165. It seems a little perplexing as to why I failed to improve in one of the shorter races I swam despite getting older and stronger. These next few pages will illuminate part of the reason for this among other things. Allow me to elaborate more thoroughly and coherently about the optimal characteristics, attitudes and habits that make champions, and also offer some insight on balancing those attitudes and habits. Success comes from three things: Talent, Work and what I call “the Touch”.

All of you have Talent, or you would not be at Stanford. This aspect of success, however, is for the most part out of your control. Everyone has a certain amount of talent and some have more than others. The most significant impact of talent relates to how easily things come for you. You really can be too talented—or things can come too easily. You’ve probably known swimmers like this as you grew up. They might have been the best swimmers you competed against when you were younger, but they never really had to work for anything because they just naturally seemed able to excel. In any event or undertaking however, talent alone is never enough. More than likely, you overcame those swimmers sometime in high school. This happens because; if you’re going to be among the best in the world at something you will have to work very hard at it. Regardless of talent level, you can always work hard or be willing to do what others are not—and that will get you farther than most people all on its own.

Work—In nearly any endeavor, how hard you work correlates strongly to your level of success. At times, however, it can be uneven—you can work very hard one year but not reap the benefits until the following season. You may work extremely hard or at exceptional levels relative to others and still not achieve the same distinction in competition. Regardless of result, you need to maintain your faith in the value of hard work despite the possibility of poor results or from any setbacks you may suffer. This is true for whatever you are pursuing. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is worth achieving or committing your time to that can be done without effort. In most cases, if you are willing to work harder than anyone else, then you will go farther, but there are some limitations to this as well. Hard work alone will not deliver all you desire— and more than likely it will deliver unevenly. You need to be smart about how you work and use all the resources at your disposal—coaches, and most importantly—the team. In college, the best work happens within the context of the team. In a good program most people improve in college because the training is harder and you are surrounded by excellent swimmers every day. The hardest worker in a program will not always be the most successful swimmer, but the most successful swimmers will nearly always be among the hardest workers. When this is not the case, the program is in trouble. If a program’s most successful swimmers remain among its’ least dedicated workers—that program will fail. It will fail because it will display a weak correlation between work and success, and unless such a program can always attract the most talented swimmers year after year—it will fail.

You have to be tough to work hard, and in a sport like swimming toughness is as much a mental attribute as a physical one. In swimming, like most competitive endeavors, there is a finite moment in time in which you must perform at your highest possible level. The ability to rise on that day of performance is the hardest part of any sport. In many ways, this is where sport becomes most like religion; where your mental state, faith and attitude combine to overcome the pressure and stress of competition and deliver an optimal performance. As an athlete, this is the payoff you dream about—the day in which you perform and exceed expectations—the day when you achieve your best. This is the realm of “the Touch”. Literally “the Touch” means that when the race is close, or talent and work are virtually indistinguishable, your hand will find a way to the wall first—always—that person has the touch. In most cases you know who has this ability—you can sense that otherwise intangible confidence. You can sense it in yourself—you know when you had it and when you did not. I remember a meet where over the course of three days I never lost a close race. Against different competition at different distances, my hand found the wall first–always. It is the knowledge that despite being well prepared for the event—you’ve got something more—you’ve got the ability to really turn it loose. You’ve been waiting for this day, and now you’re ready to see what you can do. Moreover, you are itching to find out what the limits might be today—you don’t know how far you might actually go. As a swimmer you may possess this quality at times but not others. This is the difficult part because it is often elusive, nebulous and hard to control.

So, what is the relationship between work and “the touch”, and how does it relate to my reflections on my career? Here are a couple ways to describe it. When I was in high school I ran cross country in the fall. I really enjoyed it, and it is only now that I realize how it significantly contributed to my race day ability. I would start running at the end of the swim season—sometime in late August. I was aerobically fit, but usually after the first day of running I could barely walk. It took a couple weeks to get my legs and I was toward the back of the pack in the beginning of the season both in training and racing. However, after about a month, when race day came around I knew I could finish ahead of many of those who beat me in practice. I’d put on a ton of IcyHot on my legs, get fired up and race like a maniac. I had trouble walking the day after, but it was always worth it. By the end of the season my junior and senior years, I ended up #2 on the team. There was this skinny little guy that I just could not run down, but the point is I spent the entire season catching and beating those from my team and other teams that beat me in September. I never really trained as well as I ran in races, and mentally that carried over to swimming. In running, I knew that on race day—I had something more. I wanted to see what I could do; it was like opening a present on Christmas. How do you know when you feel like this? You’re nervous, but at the same time you can’t wait to see what you can do—you are filled with anticipation. You recognize and experience the fact that your mental state at the time of competition has a tremendous effect on the outcome, regardless of how you have trained. If you have faith in your training, your attitude and your guts, you can deliver an outstanding performance. For a brief period of time in some races you may even experience a form of perfection—effortless motion or what I sometimes called “easy speed.” The ability to compete like this and to experience this feeling keeps you going and makes it all worth the time and sacrifice.

Since you really wanted to hear stories when I was there in December, here’s a story that displays the attitude that I had in spades when I was a freshman. There was one afternoon practice in October, and I did not particularly want to be there since I was accustomed to running at that time of year. Additionally, I had sprained my ankle during orientation and was just getting over it. Skip told us that we were going to do a timed 800, and that every person under 8:00 would take 5 minutes or something off practice. I had yet to hold anything under a minute per hundred that fall. Nonplussed, I said, “How fast do I have to swim for us to get out?” Skip said under 7:35, and as a joke he added if you go under 7:20 we’ll be out for the week. I went through the first 400 in 3:39 and ended up 7:22—just missed. Did I swim faster in practice after that? Sure, by a ton and often, but I still don’t know how I swam that fast on that day, and that’s why I remember it.

In my swimming career, as I went on, my workouts kept getting faster and faster, and over a few years I became much more focused on training. I always trained well, but it became more of an obsession and an end in itself over the years. This resulted in the achievement of some pretty high levels of conditioning and some outstanding workout sets which stand on their own, but my performances in meets became more of an academic exercise. It was as though through training I wanted to “prove” my ability to perform, much like Middle Age philosophers tried to prove the existence of God. I had to prove it to myself by training faster and faster every year and over time I relied less and less on faith or “the Touch.” I knew what the results would be because I had already been there. I lost that sense of wonder and anticipation, and I lost the belief that I had another level to reach on race day. Now, don’t get the wrong idea—I’m not talking about loafing through practice. I’m talking about maintaining an attitude–through whatever works for you—that you’ve got something more, and when the time comes you’re ready to unleash one. Training and practice are feasibility studies—you need to do enough to know you’ll be ready on race day, and better prepared than just about anyone. What if someone out there is better prepared than you? They might be—that is quite possible—it’s even probable—but if you’ve paid attention to what I am telling you–Does it matter?

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