The myth of a perfect season is persistent in the swimming and sports culture. All motivated athletes envision a practice season that flows seamlessly from great practices to even better ones. Once the perfect practice season is over, we see ourselves breaking our personal best and reaching our goals. However, the more experienced we become, the more apparent it becomes that a perfect season hardly ever comes around. We get the flu, study or work engagements forces us to miss practices, or even worse, our body betray´s us, and we get an injury. Still, perhaps brainwashed by reports of some athletes having “perfect” four year periods of practice we still believe that some day, stars will align, and we can hit it hard every day. And when that happens, the rest of the world will know of our potential.
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This myth is related to our insistence on having elaborate seasonal plans, with the assumption that the next phase will effortlessly blend into the next one creating high performance. We believe, that if we miss one part of the plan, for whatever reason, we can see it in our result. Unfortunately, the real world hardly ever works that way. Once you have few years or a decade of experience, the illusion starts to disappear. At first, you realize that things almost never go the way you planned, next, you start to notice that it is very hard to plan improvements, and at last that there seems to be very little correlation between the “perfectness” of your preparation and high performance. You pull out the best swim after a season shadowed by shoulder injury or after a period of bad practices. You go to a meet after a season where you attended all practices and came back with less than ideal results. Obviously, you also have experiences of the training and competition correlating perfectly with each other. Still, there seems to be very little connection between how “perfect” your season was and how fast you swam. Maybe, and just maybe, we are defining “perfect” season with the wrong parameters?
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True champions are the ones, who, for whatever reason, seem to improve year after a year, always coming into championship meets geared to win. We want to believe that it is because they nailed their practice plan and had the ability to stay away from injury or sickness. However, little investigation in some of the most historical sports performances tells another story. Olympic golds have been won sick, after surgeries, after horrible training seasons, and of course after great preparation as well. There is no reason to assume that if you could not perform your training the way you dreamed, you still can´t swim fast. Of course, you can. The question is whether you believe you can do it. Improving performance is about continuous self-development. Champions draw learning experiences and strength from adversity, and never let setbacks shake their belief in themselves. The fact is, our body and mind (which are the same thing) is so complicated system that our understanding has just grasped the surface of its function. The thing is; you just don´t know. You might swim a world record tomorrow or you may not. All you can do is to aim continuously to get yourself ready, whatever your current situation is.
Planning gives the structure for your efforts to get ready for a race, but its completion does not define your skills and the level of performance you are capable. Just do your best, avoid stupid mistakes, learn when you do them and race with an open mind. That's all you can do, stressing about missing practice, or having to ease up because of pain is guaranteed not to help you perform.
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As a conclusion, I have an anecdotal story from my life. About a decade ago, I had a dinner conversation with an athlete from another sport who just won a medal at an international competition without any practice in a year. I inquired how this was possible since I was still living in the paradigm of “effort means results”. I was perplexed by his confidence when he stated, that he didn´t need to practice because he knew he was ready. I wondered how in earth he could know he was ready without testing his readiness daily? “That's the thing,” he told me. “I trained for fifteen years to be ready.” “Then I became ready.” At the time I thought, such an egoistic attitude would never work in swimming, the greatest and hardest sport in the world (in my mind). However, the older I get, the more I understand the statement. The main improvements from practice are for increasing the feeling of being ready when the gun goes off. Seeing your improvement whether in times, distance, mmol´s or whatever just strengthens the inner confidence of “being ready.” Obviously, finishing a perfect cycle of practice is one of those factors, but not the only one. If you can authentically stand behind the blocks and know that you are going to do great things, you will. This is what sports preparation is about.