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by Darlene Staley

February 1, 2004

Surround yourself with positive people

Swimming is a year around sport, but only if you stay motivated year around. Have you noticed that some swimmers never seem to tire of swimming, while some swim in spurts or seasons, and others only drop in occasionally? What keeps some people coming back year after year? If you interview people as to what motivates them to swim regularly year after year, you would probably get plenty of different reasons. Some people may swim because it is the only activity they can do to maintain fitness. Others may fear getting out of shape and starting all over. Still others may swim just because it’s fun. There isn’t just one thing that motivates everyone. In fact what may motivate you one year may not motivate you the next. Motivation strategies need to be juggled occasionally to fit the individual’s current needs.

Studies have shown that adherence is lowest in the initial stages of starting a new exercise routine. More people drop out of an exercise program during the first few months than any other time. Ironically, this period is also when the rewards are the greatest. This is the time when you will see the greatest improvements in fitness. Initially, coaches can help motivate swimmers. They need to give swimmers an opportunity to tell their story, while trying not to control their responses. They should discuss the swimmer’s needs and expectations, help the swimmer set attainable goals, monitor progress, and help with re-negotiation. Goals initially may just be to show up 3 times a week.

The primary reason given for not exercising is lack of time. It is easier to overcome this barrier if workout flexible times are offered. Researchers have also discovered that the physical environment is a powerful influence. For example, how accessible, attractive, well ventilated, and safe is the facility? Is it convenient? Is there ample parking? A good pool manager will make sure that the facilities are clean and in the best shape possible.

In a study done by Stanford psychologist Mark Lepper, he found that no matter how enjoyable a task seemed, it became devalued when it was presented as a means rather than an end. Preschoolers were told that they could not engage in one activity until they took part in another activity. Even though they initially liked both activities, they came to dislike the task that was a prerequisite for the other. Some psychologists think the basic principles of positive reinforcement work, but mainly for tasks that are not especially interesting. Rewards can encourage people to do a task as quickly as possible, causing them to take few risks or expand their vision. Their thought process becomes very narrow in focus “this is what I have to do to get the reward”. People who work for money, approval or competition often find their tasks less pleasurable, and therefore do not do them as well.

Not all rewards have the same effect. Offering a flat fee for participation usually does not reduce intrinsic motivation. However, problems may develop when rewards are based on performance. For example, forcing yourself to swim every day in February just to get a medal for the February Fitness Challenge or to win a bet with a fellow swimmer, might actually have a negative effect on your swimming. It could actually get you to the pool less, because swimming may become less pleasurable. This is not the case with everyone, so it is necessary for you to pay attention to what motivates you.

Olympic gold medalist John Naber takes a different approach to motivation. In an interview with Swimming Guide, Naber said, “Olympic champions are not extraordinary people, we are ordinary people who have accomplished extraordinary things in a limited area of our lives.” Naber’s motivation was always improvement. He kept a chart on which he recorded his meet times. While he started out as one of the slower swimmers, it did not matter to him, because from his chart he could see that in 70% of his races he improved his times. Winning gold medals had little or no impact on Jon’s drive either. While being proud of the achievement, it was the personal best times that kept him going forward.

Cognitive restructuring can help some people. By identifying discouraging thoughts, one can practice self-efficacy strategies. Coaches can also help in this area. For example instead of telling yourself that you’re never going to get into shape, you say to yourself that change takes time. “I did not get into this shape overnight, so I will need to progress bit by bit.” Don’t tell yourself: “I’ve tried to exercise in the past but I always failed.” Instead, tell yourself: “Every time I begin a new exercise regime, I am getting closer to sticking to it.”

Below are some strategies you can use, if your current strategy just isn’t working for you.

1) Modeling can be a motivator for some. Finding someone who has succeeded at what you want to do can help increase your self-efficacy. Perhaps a news item in SWIM magazine, of a peer who had trouble overcoming a task but eventually was successful. This type of story may be worth reading a few times.

2) One of the best motivators is to swim with an organized group. The camaraderie makes commitment much easier. The most successful strategies for many self-improvement plans, including weight loss, quitting smoking, and recovering from alcohol abuse, involve formal groups.

3) Use upbeat, positive music. Avoid listening to songs dealing with negative topics.

4) Chart progress, or do periodic fitness testing. For example, once a month swim a 500 yard free for time and record your results.

5) Set short-range achievable goals.

6) Use imagery. Imagine yourself the way you want to be or perform. If you want to lose weight, imagine yourself thin. If you want to compete well, imagine yourself doing your race well.

When you have a high level of self worth, and your life is balanced, you have a better chance of performing at the top level of your skill. This situation is when visualization techniques may be most effective. Psychological issues should be identified and solved before techniques such as biofeedback, meditation, mental rehearsal, visualization, quieting your mind, etc., will work. Good coaches are able to tap into an athletes’ belief system and to create an environment than enhances feelings of self worth. Self-motivation isn’t about isolating yourself. Instead, surround yourself with positive people who make good choices, such as a local Master’s Swim Team.

This months article about motivation is by Darlene Staley, who is a member of the USMS Fitness Committee and Registrar for the Oregon LMSC.


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