Fear: How being afraid may save your life
(it is not always a bad thing)
A few weeks ago, a friend/boss of mine decided that he wanted to compete in a triathlon. Now keep in mind, he was a collegiate baseball player and athlete most of his life. He knew how to run and generally how to ride a bike. But the one portion of triathlon that he wasn’t prepared for was the swim. (especially mass swim starts and open water swimming). In fact, he wasn’t really even comfortable in the water; my initial evaluation showed both of us that being in water was his weak spot. Easy enough, running and cycling can be learned fairly quickly and this being his first triathlon, he did not have a tri-bike or even a road bike. He had a hard-tail mountain bike with toe clips and knobby tires. Not the best gear or body positioning to compete at especially when you have to run afterwards. More details on why the bike set-up is so important can be found here:
As we started training in the pool, it became evident that his form and stroke pattern needed help. He couldn’t swim more than 50 meters without stopping, out of breath. Let’s not forget to mention he is almost 6’4″ and laden with lots of leg muscle. He didn’t have enough buoyancy training to compensate for the lack of skill, and i quickly found out through basic drills that he wasn’t learning the techniques i was teaching him because he was still in a basic survival mindset: DO NOT DROWN.
Throughout my swimming career in the Navy, we saw this all the time with new Rescue Swimmer trainees not to mention a large part of the naval personnel themselves. Everyone is taught in boot-camp how to survive a fall overboard- in hopes that someone will find you missing at the next muster, you miss a watch or someone saw you fall overboard. A ship automatically is put on alert and Search and Rescue is called into action (also for planes and helo’s that hit the water- but most aircrew have been through advanced water survival training and could survive in the water- if they made it through the crash- and got out of the aircraft as soon as possible). But back in the civilian world, a coach that trains people for swimming/triathlon can take things from military training and apply them appropriately where he or she sees fit. Drownproofing is a great example.
Most people have a basic knowledge of water. They know that you cannot inhale or breathe under it like you can on top of it. Learning to swim these days has become necessity with all the inner city pools that are laid as most children that live in these places have never seen that much water outside of the bathtub. Treading water and playing in the shallow end has no comparison to actual swimming. And swimming laps in a shallow pool has no comparison to open water swimming, which again pales in comparison to the mass confusion of a triathlon swim start
So as i began to evaluate my client’s form, i noticed that he had the absolute basics down, but there was a lot to work on. I want to mention this was his first triathlon and first actual open water swim, so naturally his instincts to not drown overcame his ability to change his stroke and learn the new techniques of how to swim more efficiently. So in order to move forward, we had to take a step back and learn basic survival. What happens if he gets out there and freaks out? Or what if someone kicks his goggles off with a foot to the head: would he be able to re-center himself and overcome the human reaction to not panic, find buoyancy and tread water until someone pulled him out (hopefully in time before his lungs filled with water and went unconscious) or could he gather his wits and start from a basic dead stop in the water as a school of competitors swam over him?
This gets back to a basic truth:
How can you learn to swim if you are afraid of drowning?
Or how can you learn anything if you are afraid of failing?
Instead of teaching stroke technique, we went back to basic buoyancy drills and I kept asking him what he was afraid of. Drowning of course! Which is what actually became a driving factor in how we modified training. We started with stroke drills that i learned from Terry Laughlin back in the day through his Total Immersion Course, when he only had a book, his seminars. He has now created a great website that carries on his teachings online, but i recommend anyone trying to improve stroke technique to at least read the book.
So we started with simple drills like learning how to tread water in a pool, how to find neutral buoyancy on all 4 sides, fixing his head position with the forward thought that he will need to eventually learn sighting in open water. We also did belly to wall to breathe and most importantly taught him how to cup his hands (the most common mistake people make is using an open palm while slapping the water for forward propulsion instead of intently knife edging the hands into the water and reaching to pull instead of pushing down). With less than 60 days to get his stroke right (he was already good on the bike and run-but didn’t know proper transitions either) i came up with a fairly straightforward and intense schedule that focused on the weakness-not the strengths (where many people do the EXACT OPPOSITE)
So eventually we moved from the pool to a lake. Using the tools he just learned, he started his first open water swim (i lied about the distance just to show him he could do it) but he quickly reverted to survival mode. We knew he had the lung capacity. We knew he had the cardio and endurance needed to complete 500 meters of straight swimming, but the fear of open water eventually crept back into his brain. He fought it, but on the first swim he had to stop a few times although he eventually completed it in a little over 32 minutes. Out of breath, I drove us back to work; he felt dejected and doubted his ability (there might have been a thought to pull out of the race once or twice :). We did this 3 more times, i was in a kayak for 2 of them and i swam with him on the 3rd. Little did he know he swam almost 800 meters on the final swim, but i told him that he was only doing 500.
He second guessed himself until we got back to the office and measured it out on the map. All at once, his fear and panic about the race went away and an awesome sense of accomplishment and pride swelled with in him. He now KNEW he could swim 500 meters because he just found out he did 800!
It was his fear of the open water swim that gave him the drive he needed to succeed. He took something that innately scares the crap out of so many people, faced it, made a goal, planned it out and completed it. Not only did he finish the race, he took 3rd in his division-and while riding a mountain bike!
The lesson to take from all of this is simple. Fear is a reasonable reaction to an unknown stress. It is how you react to that fear that defines YOU and helps shape how you handle future fear. This applies to just about anything, and drowning is equal to failure. So how can you learn to overcome something when facing possible death?
Evaluate. Plan. Compensate. Activate= results (or lack thereof)
Been out of shape for a long time? Apply the same methodology and you will see amazing results. Losing fitness is game changing. In today’s world you need to be prepared at all times. Flight or Fight. If you lose your fitness, it is easy to get it back; you simply have to evaluate where you are, plan where you are going, compensate for anything lacking, and activate your body, mind and plan to overcome the obstacle.
It doesn’t matter what you lose as long as you find it. So keep looking. Never give in, never give up.