We’ve all been there. That point mid-main-set when we feel like we just can’t push past the pain any longer.  The words from your coach ringing in your ears as he or she urges you to swim with your mind and not your body. All seemingly empty words as your aching body begs for the set to end early.

Ready? <insert my short sharp whistle here> to signal to my swimmers that the set has either begun or to urge them on as they have missed or are about to miss an interval. This is the approach I have used for most of my coaching career, for a number of different squads that I have coached and currently coach, both club and school. This approach evolved from the starting signal used by my coaches, ‘Ready? Go!’, urging me to push past the pain during a tough set.

But as the pain, self-doubt and fear start to build, our bodies respond to ‘Ready?’ with ‘NO!’.

This happens in most tough workouts with my squads. As we head onto the eighth 100m IM as we intend to descend from one to four, the body is tempted with lazy turns, sluggish streamlines, shortened strokes, single-arm butterfly, a sneaky breath before the breakout, etc. Shortcuts become harder to resist as your body takes control and replaces the instructions generated by your mind.

We all know pushing past the pain is the best approach for us. The common sense part of our mind repeats the mantras of our coach standing on pool deck. Mantras that intend to overcome the desperation of our aching body, numbing legs, burning chest to disregard the logical part of our brains reminding us:

  • That at this very moment our arch-rivals worldwide are completing the same set better than we are
  • That mimicking the pain at the end of a 200m IM now will make it easier to push past the pain when it counts
  • That in just a short while the intense pain you feel now will be replaced with memories and pride (or regret)
  • That you should avoid regret, the most pointless of all emotions – you can only act now
  • That perfect practise makes perfect, not just practise

And, the difference between world-class and not, is whether you choose to listen to your logical mind or your pain-engulfed body…

Bookstores, Amazon and YouTube are all filled with stories of world-class athletes that have made the choice to listen to the logical guidance of their minds rather than the painful reality of their bodies. MySwimPro outlines “How Michael Phelps Became the Greatest of All Time“. Most of us saw only the incredible racing, the podium finishes, the historic tally of Olympic medals without taking a peek into the full-time work that goes into ‘an overnight success or ‘an Olympic sensation’.

We overlook the 80,000 metres of swimming completed at the peak of Phelps’ training. We didn’t see the thousands of lengths focused on drills, underwater kicking, vertical kicking and sculling. We weren’t there for the five to six hours of training per day in and out of the pool, six days a week. We don’t contemplate the sacrifice of socialising for sleep. We focus on the single sub-50 seconds of a 100m butterfly that was decided on the tip of a fingernail and the historic eight gold medal haul in Beijing.

Pushing past the pain really all boils down to how badly you want it.

It’s all about you. Not your parents, not your coach, not your dietician, not your physiotherapist, not your sports psychologist, not your amazing Spurt swimming apparel. It’s all about YOU.

With every stroke, every turn, every breakout, every underwater, every descend set, every build-up, every drill – you have a decision to make. Will you steer into the pain, embrace it and improve? Or will you steer away from the pain as your intrinsic motivation is just not enough and the accolade of world-class slips away?

The questions you need to ask are “Do you love it and is it worth it?”