ONE BREATH AWAY
One breath away. That’s how close you are to your greatest goals and worst fears right before the start of a World Championship 50m freestyle final.
Exactly one exhale later, you will be at the other end of the pool, the race will be over, the drama played out for the world to see leaving the results echoing for eternity. One breath within which to define a race, a season, a career, even to define an athlete.
In sport, we love to watch moments like this, the last few seconds of the tied game, the penalty shootout, the too close to call lunge at the end of a track and field final. We love the drama. We want to share in the thrill.
I seem to repeatedly find myself in this situation. However, each time this absolutely exhilarating moment is very different. The synthesis of these moments, our approach and reaction to them as well as the result becomes our experience, in the sense that someone can become experienced at handling such situations. How do we measure moments; by intervals of time or by the amount of living that we manage to cram into these fleeting, short periods of existence? If you agree that it is the latter, then thrilling moments such as being one breath away from hopes and dreams or failure and disaster must surely be up there with the greatest of a lifetime. They are the moments that if we approach correctly make us feel completely alive and in so doing allow us to cram the most living into life. It has taken me most of my sporting career to start to learn how to approach these moments, and it’s a beautiful thing.
For most of my career I have approached races with the insatiable burning desire to either win or achieve a desired time or place and it has worked quite well. This burning desire for success has always served to energise me with motivation and has provided me with the “bad mind” that has been instrumental in countless successful races and workouts.
There is a time and place for everything, but however, over the course of the past year I seem to have found a better approach and come to a deeper level of understanding. I mean to specify a race specific approach here because the previously discussed mindset of “go big or stay home” always applies to my macro view of the season.
I have come to the realisation that when you want something, no matter what it is, the very action of wanting it makes you feel a fear of losing or not getting it. Wants and fears simply go hand in hand. When you want to win an Olympic medal for example, you are also afraid of failing at trying to win one. The same applies to someone desiring an excellent result on an exam, they are afraid of or really don’t want to get a poor result. By cultivating desire you also inadvertently bring on board fears as well, most often manifested in the all too familiar form of pressure that finds the cracks in our game and causes them to leak.
To perform to the best of one’s abilities in the 50m freestyle, as I am sure it must be in many other disciplines, one endeavours to get as excited and energised as possible while also remaining cool, calm and collected, balancing on that razor’s edge.
The 50m freestyle requires as much control over the mind as it does the body. This is an event where you must summon up an incredible amount of emotional energy, applied force, coordination, speed and power while also attempting to remain relaxed enough to hold your breath for the race’s duration and execute countless details correctly.
Even in the actual swimming effort of the race itself, one must stay relaxed and composed in order to allow for a very brief seemingly counter-intuitive pause which actually allows the body to travel forward before starting the next stroke repetition. Too much rushing and applied effort and one ends up cavitating or “spinning the wheels” as this mistake is commonly referred to. This is often the result of an intense feeling of mixed wants and fears that I would describe as desperation. This feeling of desperation naturally ensues due to the intense desire for success and fear of failure involved in the approach to the race.
This feeling of mixed wants and fears akin to desperation is very often what causes us to make mistakes, rush things, choke and most importantly prevents us from feeling completely alive and enjoying the moment. The wants and fears involved with the desired future result get in the way of the actions of achieving the very result in the present moment.
I will attempt to describe in words something that is impossible to describe and is actually limited by the very words themselves. What I am trying to convey is that in place of focusing on the wants and fears to motivate us, we should free ourselves from them and instead, we need to be chasing a feeling. Chasing a feeling that is similar to how it feels to devour a tasty meal when you are starving, or quench your thirst when you feel like you are parched.
You don’t think about how you are thinking about it, you just do it, just so, completely in the moment. You really enjoy it and it feels amazing. If you can free yourself from the sinking pressure of desperation so as to be free to really enjoy what you are doing even in the moments when you are just one breath away from what were your wants and fears, you will truly be thrilled. You will cram the most life into that unforgiving moment, living it to the fullest and naturally producing your most honest, deliberate effort in the process.
If the result of the race is a product of the moments in the race, just as life is a product of the moments of our life, then we avoid desperately rushing towards the end of our race but rather maximise the life lived in each moment by living it well and really enjoying it.