The Zen of Swimming


By Jonathan Dray on SwimSwam

Most of us, when we hear the word “Zen” might think of a tranquil and peaceful place free of distraction, noise, or clutter. However, there is much more to the word and for any swimmer or coach looking for an edge, you might appreciate what Zen has to teach us. 

In Zen Buddhism, the word shoshin captures the idea of a ‘Beginner’s Mind’– a powerful mindset (and practice) that can help you level up your performance in the pool. It’s one of those things The Greats have mastered, sometimes without even realizing it. 

When we began swimming, we knew nothing–not even what a flip turn was. We all looked like Bambi trying to run. Those first attempts however, are some of the most beautiful and potent because we attempt without expectations, open to any challenge we encounter and full of curiosity–a powerful tool for any athlete. These first loose attempts at a streamline, a flipturn or a freestyle stroke are great examples of the Beginner’s Mind. 

As newbie swim nerds we quickly became sponges for all things swim. This fascination, eagerness, and openness to learning was our invisible superpower. We were so present and focused on learning that we let go of any idea about how things should be, swam without comparing ourselves to others, and left out any judgement around our performance. You can imagine a new swimmer trying these skills with great energy, laughter, and a very loose grip on expectations. 

As swimmers, we are highly habitual creatures…regimented training hours that we fit the rest of our lives around. And once we’re in the pool we have even more repetitive habits. Think about how many strokes you take in a practice. Hundreds? Thousands? We are also extremely goal and performance-oriented. We are constantly seeking improvement.

As we become more habitual and repetitive in our routines and our training, we tend to become closed to the novelty of the sport we once found so incredible and exciting. We don’t look at the pool the same way and every wall can soon become a chore rather than a new and fun learning opportunity. We can get stuck in our ways. When this happens, we drain ourselves of the superpower we once had. We begin to get hit plateaus, compare ourselves to others, judge our performances because we don’t see our time getting faster and find ourselves using negative self-talk. These ‘power sinks’ suck us of our confidence and eagerness and curiosty about our potential and what was our passion. Sometimes we can find ourselves questioning why we are at the pool (or even why we swim) at all. And when we go down these roads, we remove any chance of getting into the Zone (the magic place where it seems our body just swims like a pro without any effort). 

Finding Our Way Back

The irony of finding ourselves in these power-sinking behaviors, however, is that we are in the perfect position to break these cycles. Awareness is the first step in any change. First, we must accept where we are – that yes, we have been using negative self-talk or we have been feeling a dullness around the word “swim”…that maybe our passion has gone from a fire to a small flame. In accepting our situation for what it is, we take ownership of it and take back our power to change it. 

We can use a Beginner’s Mind to discover what it is about swimming or our stroke or our turns that made us so passionate in the first place. We can discover new things in our routines that we didn’t notice before, or maybe that we didn’t appreciate. Adopting a Beginner’s Mind looks different for everyone, but this mindset brings about new learning which is crucial to any swimmer seeking to power up. A great way to start is with a question. Here are few examples of how we can use a Beginner’s Mind for:

Repetition: “I’ve done thousands of flip turns…what could I do differently this time?”

Getting over the fear of failure:What could I learn from trying this crossover turn at speed?”

Re-sparking motivation: “What would it look like for me to have fun at today’s practice?”

Asking questions like these help us move into a more curious state of being and adopt a  Beginner’s Mind. We can become curious about what opportunity is in front of us rather than focus on how we feel bogged down or dull. Finding novelty in things can be challenging, but with practice, we soon realize there is novelty everywhere and that every moment is an opportunity to learn something new and level up our swimming. 

So as you head off to your next practice, ask yourself, “How can I be a beginner again? What can I learn today? What would happen if I looked at my stroke with a fresh set of eyes? How can I become even just 1% better?” 

How did you find zen in swimming?

SwimSwam: The Zen of Swimming

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