“Be the Ball, Danny. Be the Ball…”

Swimming

I really suck at swimming, though I didn’t fully realize it until I started trying to swim laps about 4-5 months ago. At the urging of some fitness friends, who knew I had a specific goal in mind, I decided to sign up for a Master’s Swim class about ten weeks ago. Master’s Swim is a group of people who regularly train together with a coach. In the last few years, I can think of no other thing that I have been absolutely worse at for which I’ve tried to improve, and I’ve actually loved the experience of this. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

1. If you’re lousy at something and you really care most about improving, you might as well get that out in the open…

During the last ten weeks I’ve had four different coaches. The way I’ve introduced myself to them was nearly identical: “Hey, my name is Raz. This is my goal of XYZ. I absolutely suck at swimming, I’m fully aware of it. I need your help, so whatever you tell me to do, I’ll do. And I don’t want you to go easy on me or hold anything back.” I found this to be so freeing, I could bypass everything and get right to the baseline. The result was that I generally receive a disproportionate share of coaching, a) because I needed it, and b) because I practically begged for it from the get go.

2. You might have drunk people (okay, fine–person, singular) in your swim class…

I hardly think this is normative, but it’s so bizarre to me I can hardly not mention it. And it’s not really a learning, more of an amusing anecdote. I usually swim very early in the morning before work, but about once a week I’ll go to the class that starts in the evening. Last week, two minutes into jumping in the pool, I basically smelled a beer hall. I look over and a guy a lane over, whom I’ll call Oktoberfest, had consumed more than a beer or two. It was confirmed midway through the class when Oktoberfest yelled out “Hey guys, don’t worry about me over here–just burning off some alcohol!”

Incidentally, he pretty much kicked my ass during the entire class. Drinking and swimming is a bad idea, obviously. But it’ll go down as one of my more memorable classes.

3. Uncoachable people with a bitter edge are an absolute drag to the group and set their own rate limiter…

A woman jumped into our class one week and she was a prior swimmer who had taken time off and for some reason lost her swimming mojo. I don’t even really know what that means, and also didn’t  understand whatever dynamics she was dealing with (I was dealing with my own hot mess), but net net what happened is that she destroyed the dynamics of the class in about seven minutes. She said she wanted coaching, she became irritated with instruction, she kevetched and moaned about how frustrated she was, and towards the end of the class each time she spoke it was nails on a chalkboard. And the coach quit giving her instruction. She left before the session even ended in a huff. People like that are vibe killers. And they often top out very prematurely, regardless their natural talent.

4. There’s this thing called the two-beat kick…

And I’m not even going to try to explain it, but when you learn it then it’s magic. By “magic” I don’t mean I’m even a marginal swimmer at this point. But it’ll change how you swim, your breathing, the stroke rate, comfort. The net net on this is that fundamentals matter. Hugely. The first six weeks I felt like I kept going backwards, but what I was doing was unlearning how I’d always swam, and was trying to apply proper technique and fundamentals. Which is more important when there’s more friction. Water is 1,000 times more resistant than air. I’ve never taken a running lesson, and perhaps I should. But I knew the fundamentals in swimming play a more important role (for me) than running. Friction is one of the underlying reasons. For me I think there’s a lot of life application here. You can’t get better at everything. So when isolating and prioritizing, often it helps to take those items you want to improve in that also carry the greatest amount of friction. It’s not the only variable to evaluate, but it’s a big one.

5. You will run into A-holes, but DO NOT let that throw you off…

There are hidden “cliques” (there are other words I could use) everywhere. In the last two years as I have gotten in better shape, I have noticed a strange phenomenon where in gyms (not CrossFit, but in my “regular” unnamed gym) people are much friendlier to me then when I was the fat kid trying to get in shape. Even outside of the gym, when I go on long runs to Woodside I’ll probably have 10-15 bikers or serious runners go by and give me the thumbs up as I’m running. That never happened when I was fat. For the most part, only fat people acknowledged me. So here’s I’m in somewhat the reverse in this Master’s Swim program. At one point a few weeks ago a woman yelled at me during training, because she felt I made some type of “illegal takeover maneuver” as she was gabbing at the wall during a set.

Long story short, she pretty much needlessly unloaded on me in front of a lot of people. It was unjustified since I had a basis to pass, but honestly I didn’t even care. Emotionally, as that happened, it torqued me for a moment. I can see in a different place in my life if I weren’t so committed to this goal I would’ve been tempted to say “forget this” and throw in the towel–literally. But, I refused to let it bother me for more than two seconds, because any energy spent towards that just diluted my efforts, and I wasn’t about to let her screw up my plan.

It was a powerful reminder to me: don’t let people who can’t control their actions and emotions deter you from your goal, and there will be A-holes along the way that do this. It’s also a reminder to those who are on the “inside” of the swimming club, runners group, marathon, gym, or whatever to be more than aware of the people around you who are trying to get better. Especially the beginners.

It’s why I always try to say hi to the fat person running by. Because I’m also that same person. And I respect their determination.

6.  “Be the ball, Danny. Be the ball.” 

My second class the coach yelled out to me in the middle of a 50 and said “Raz! What’s going on? Are you comfortable in the water? Do you like the water? Raz! Are you fighting the water? Do the fish fight the water? Raz! Do you need to make peace with the water?!?!?!” I was looking around thinking to myself “Ahhhh, yeah man, I dig the water. I’m good with it. What are we talking about? Where am I? Why did I sign up for this? And why did I move to California?”

It sounded hippy dippy, but I said from the get go I was going to listen to all the instruction and really absorb it. Even if I didn’t get it. Well, surprise surprise, there IS something to being one with the water.  I started floating in the water and really consciously thinking about swimming with the water, rather than, well, slapping it. And fighting it.

Be the ball, Danny. Be the ball.

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