Doing the work: a swimmer’s perspective on (not listening to) other peoples’ opinions


For the past couple of posts I’ve written about Australian Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe, whose autobiography is full of insight about the challenges of achieving and maintaining mastery of his sport.

First I looked at how Thorpe describes how he stays in the present moment by not viewing the water or pool as a constant. Then I wrote about how he is able to maintain constant attention on the feedback he receives from the water, because of the type and quantity of practice he has done over his career.

Today I want to look at a hidden benefit of Thorpe’s ability to stay in the present moment as he swims: the freedom it gives him from the tyranny of other people’s opinions.

Straight after talking about he ‘listens’ to how the way flows around him as he swims, Thorpe says:

“It’s really rewarding because I receive constant feedback without stopping. I don’t need someone to tell me that my stroke looks great or that it looks terrible because I have an inner sense of the water and the environment is already communicating with me.” *

Because he has trained for many years with top coaches, because he has practiced and analysed his technique, because (in short) he has worked incredibly hard, Ian Thorpe has reached a very high standard. He is able to analyse the conditions present in the water, design a stroke pattern to suit, and then carry out pretty much exactly e stroke pattern he designed.
And the result of this hard work? Freedom from the need to listen to other people’s opinions. He doesn’t need someone else to tell him he is doing well. If he has done a good job of matching his stroke to the prevailing conditions, he’ll make his way through the water faster and more effectively.

He will know that he has done well, because he will have met his own criteria for success. He won’t need to listen to see if he has met anyone else’s idea of what is good.

So often in my work with actors and musicians, they suffer from nerves tying themselves in knots worrying about what the audience is going to think about them. Or worse, the critics. They sometimes get so worried, it stops them from performing what they’ve designed at all. And worse, they then torment themselves by wondering how the great professionals often seem to be able to perform without fear of audience reception.

But here Ian Thorpe gives us the secret. His detachment from what other people think is a result of his complete commitment to his sporting process. His commitment to the water frees him from having to care about other people’s opinions. This gift of detachment comes from a lifetime of hard work and dedication to the goal of being better. This is Sebastian Coe put it:

“Throughout my athletics career, the overall goal was always to be a better athlete than I was at that moment— whether next week, next month or next year. The improvement was the goal. The medal was simply the ultimate reward for achieving that goal.”**

So how do we attain even a degree of the detachment from results and outside feedback that Ian Thorpe and Seb Coe achieved? By setting to work. This is what FM Alexander said a teacher should do:

“He asks his pupil not to make any attempt to gain the “end”at all, but instead to learn gradually to remember the guiding orders or directions, which are the forerunners of the means whereby the end may one day be achieved. This may not be today, tomorrow or the next day, but it will be…” ***

So set to work. Do a little bit of practice each day on the techniques and protocols that you’ve designed that will get you towards your end goal. Don’t worry about the end goal: if you work on the basics, slowly and consistently, the end goal will take care of itself.

* Ian Thorpe and Robert Wainwright, This is Me, Simon and Schuster 2012, p. xii.
** Sebastian Coe quoted in Daniel H. Pink, Drive, Kindle edition, p.114.
*** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.339.
Image by Neil Gould, stock.xchng