Ask the Coach: "How Do I Buy Into a Team Mindset?"
Coach Patrick Sang has some surprising advice for a young swimmer who just wants to beat 'em—not join 'em.
Ask the Coach is an advice column to help you keep your mind in the game.
I'm on my high school's girls' swimming team, and we're really good. We've won a lot of team events, but we also compete against each other in individual races. My teammates are some of my closest friends, but once we get in that pool, I just want to beat them all. I'm so obsessed with being the best that I'm starting to put myself before the team. I'll play little mind games to throw people off, and I'm even secretive about stuff outside the pool, like what I eat, when I do extra workouts and how much sleep I get. I know it's selfish, and it makes me feel bad. Being in my head like this is also starting to mess with my performance. Can I be a good teammate and the best swimmer on the team?
Stroke Often Leading Others
Maybe you've heard the phrase "team first", SOLO. Maybe everyone around you is repeating it right now. But I can tell you that it's OK to want to train and compete individually. I can also tell you that there are skills and strengths you'll gain from group training that will help out when it comes time to "beat them all".
… you might realise that you don't have to be better than everyone, you just have to be better than you were yesterday.
If you visited one of my running camps, you'd see athletes training in a group—but we always train with the knowledge that a group is made up of individuals. In fact, the first thing I do when I take on a new athlete is to get to know them as an individual: their athletic strengths, their level of education and what drives them to compete. This way, I can personalise my coaching style to help each of my runners set, and meet, their goals.
I've found that athletes can progress more consistently towards those individual goals when they're working as a team. With running, for example, if an athlete wants to improve their endurance and control, training with four or five other runners can help. When the individual sticks with the group instead of trying to lead the entire time, they learn to conserve their energy, to compete for longer periods of time, and to switch gears when it counts.
It sounds like you want to beat everyone around you when you're training and competing. This isn't necessarily helpful in either situation.
Let's say I have a runner whose 5,000-metre time is 13:30. And let's say they're entering a race where 20 percent of the athletes are running under 13 minutes. Should they be worried about that 20 percent? No, they should be focused on realistically improving their own time to 13:20. When you try to adjust your goals based on what others can do, you might end up pushing yourself too far, too fast—and that puts you in danger of getting injured, becoming discouraged or even beginning to develop a mental block.
On the other hand, when you focus on what you can do, you take some pressure off yourself. Even during a high-pressure competition, you could use self-talk and say, "This is an opportunity for me to push myself, to improve myself." Soon, you might realise that you don't have to be better than everyone, you just have to be better than you were yesterday. And with that little bit of mental space, you may find yourself able to enjoy your teammates' successes, too.
I actually began coaching while I was still running professionally, and sometimes I was coaching teammates whom I'd also go up against in individual competition. I ended up coaching one of them, Bernard Barmasai, to a steeplechase world record in 1997. Incidentally, I ran my own personal record in the same race.
Did I feel jealous of Bernard and his gold medal? No way. I felt invested in Bernard's win, so I shared in the emotional reward. And I felt incredibly proud of my personal achievement too, because I knew that I'd given it my all. I promise that if you concentrate on living up to your full potential, you'll find satisfaction too, no matter what the outcome.
With all that said, you don't need to be accommodating all the time. Sometimes, a bit of "selfishness" can help push you further. If you don't feel like you're getting enough opportunity to train as an individual competitor, you should bring it up with your coach.
I was in a similar situation as a university athlete on the varsity cross-country team. Our morning group training ended right before our first class of the day began, and it was just too much for us. As a team, we went to our coach and told him that we preferred to train individually. He was hesitant, at first, but we promised him that we would be able to perform when it really mattered. And with a lot of individual hard work, we were able to "beat them all" that year—as a team.
You see, team training will help you as an individual. Individual training will help you as a team. And whichever you choose to focus on in the long run, you'll want to make yourself your No. 1 competitor. And when your teammates win too? That just gives you more chances to celebrate.
Patrick Sang is a Kenyan running coach and retired runner. An international runner for Kenya, Sang won silver medals at the 1991 World Athletics Championships, 1992 Olympics and 1993 World Athletics Championships in the 3,000-metre steeplechase. Collegiately, Sang competed at the University of Texas at Austin, setting the university record for the 3,000-metre steeplechase.
Photography: Kyle Weeks