On swimming, tennis and approaches to life in general

I swim because I like it. This is obvious. Why I like it is less obvious.

Years ago I did taekwondo and I am, or better I was, a 2nd dan black belt. I enjoyed taekwondo, nothing wrong with it; however taekwondo never really kicked in like swimming. Maybe because I got a lot of kicks in the face. Since I started swimming again I realized that my attraction for it never completely disappeared during the last 15 years, it was just quiescent, waiting to come back again to the surface. I have been thinking many times at what was the characteristic of swimming that hooked me for such a long time in the past, and still hook me now after so many years.

My wife plays tennis. She started a few years ago, she is not an elite level athlete but she has been taking classes since then, she joined a tennis club and she plays pennant in a local division. Before joining the tennis club she needed somebody to play with in the weekend. I was reluctant but when your wife asks it more than once, then you know you will help her. I had never played tennis in my life before, I still have no idea how a racket should be grabbed, but half an hour of tennis was not going to kill me, I thought. I played with her, or better…I threw her the tennis ball for two consecutive Sunday mornings. On the third she said to be sorry and suggested to go together to the swimming pool. I hadn’t been in a swimming pool for such a long time that I didn’t even remember where my goggles were. However, one Sunday became two, then three, then twice a week…the rest of the story is in the training pages of this blog. My wife’s efforts to steer me toward tennis just took me back to swimming.

For tennis lovers, don’t misunderstand me please. A lot of people love tennis and I have nothing against it. If you enjoy playing and watching tennis go for it. As for me, I felt asleep watching Roger Federer playing live. Great player, amazing athlete, but I was snoring. Watching two people throwing a ball to each other with a racket makes this effect to me. The truth is that tennis and swimming are two completely different animals. The first difference is in the language: you “play tennis”, but you don’t “play swimming”. Tennis is a game, swimming is not. Tennis is something invented and codified by people, with rules decided ad hoc to manage the game. Swimming has not been invented or codified as a set of rules by people. Swimming has always been there, just as running…or maybe even before, if you consider the very earliest stages of life. At the basics is the truth that our ancestors had to learn how to move in the water, because it represented an advantage and a quite useful skill. Swimming eventually became a sport, but it remains a skill. And one that can potentially save a life, maybe yours. It is a sport and a skill with ancestral links to our past. On the other end I am sorry to point this out but tennis is not going to save me from any life-threatening situation.

Even if I think that water represents a connection with our origins, nevertheless I am aware that this has not much persuasive force in explaining why I practiced in the past and I started practicing again competitive swimming. I like swimming as a sport because it’s just you and the water. It is a collaboration between the man and the element. When you race you do have rivals, but at the bottom line is nothing but you and Nature. And even when you consider rivals, if you are faster you win, otherwise not. Touch first the wall, or be the first to pass under a timing arch on the beach, and you win. Simple. No other complex rule. You don’t have judges giving you a hopefully impartial score that sometimes turns out to be partial and biased. You don’t have umpires trying to figure out with naked eyes if your ball shoot at more than 150km/h was a few millimeters inside or outside a white line. In swimming, the outcome of your race depends on you. The only external variable influencing your race is the water, but you race your rivals in the same pool, or in the same sea. The truth is that you are your first and biggest contender. If you loose you must accept it. No moaning, take your responsibilities: you have nobody but yourself to blame.

In swimming competitions you start, you swim, you try to go faster than anybody else, you finish. The most elementary strategy of all: just go head. Always. Do not overthink it, just keep going. I knew a coach from Croatia once that used to say that there is only one strategy he asks his athletes to follow for a 15 hundred: start as fast as you can, and then always increase the pace. In swimming pool event there is not much time indeed for calculation. Swimmers may want to divide their race with a negative split, or sprint at the end but the reality is that if you don’t give it all from the beginning don’t expect great results. Open water events need a lot more “strategical” thinking due to many variables: drafting, leading, staying in the pack, going alone, currents, buoys placement and so on; however even in open water basically the faster the swimmer, the further they go. You have to think, but still not much compared to a tennis game where you have to consider your and the opponent’s position, the ball, angles, the next move and who knows whatever else. Swimming is primal. Swimming bring your instinct to the surface, it is more heart than reason. Translated in everyday terms, in swimming you go far if you have balls.

Swimming shows a quite useful perspective to approach things in everyday life. You are basically alone, if you want something you must work to get it. And you have better to work as hard as you can. At the end take your responsibilities and do not blame any other else if you fail. Yes, it may be glory; however accept the reality when you lose and stop finding excuses when something doesn’t go the right way. Put your heart in what you do, don’t be afraid and show the world you have balls. This is why I like swimming.

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