Thursday, November 16, 2006

mental toughness

Every Wednesday at swim practice is distance freestyle day. On other days, there is a balance of different strokes, drills, kicking, pulling, and a mix of distances with some rest in between. On distance freestyle day, the focus is on doing longer sets, in only freestyle (crawl stroke), with less rest. Last Wednesday, after we had already swum several sets, the coach came to our lane, and said, "Ok, next we're doing a 1000..." A 1000 is 40 laps without stopping. We had already swum about 3/4 mile at this point, so we were tired, but we set off. I started second, right after the lane leader, and began counting laps. About a third of the way through a little voice started inside. "You will never make it to the end of this set! You've only done 14 (15, 16, 18...) laps, and your arms feel like they're going to fall off. You should just stop and rest. But, at the end of each lap, when I was faced with the choice of doing a flip turn and continuing, or stopping and letting people pass me for a lap, another little voice would say, "ok, just one more." Eventually, we made it to the end. Or so I thought. It turned out that our lane leader had lost count, and did 4 extra laps at the end. But, I made it through those as well. When I saw her stopping in front of me, I thought, "Yay! I made it! Shower and latte, here I come!" But, alas, I looked up at the clock, and to my dismay, there were still 20 minutes left! Time for two or three more sets before the workout was over.

At this point I was reminded of a book that a boyfriend in college gave me. It was about mental toughness training for athletes, and he found it very applicable to his music (he played trumpet). And I realized that, in each moment in the pool that day, I was always capable of taking another stroke, swimming another lap, and once I put myself in that mindset, that annoying voice in my head quieted down (well, not entirely, but mostly), and I found that finishing the rest of the workout was easy (easier).

I honestly haven't thought a lot about mental toughness in performance since I stopped performing as a pianist. As a singer, I'm not often worried about coming in on the wrong note, forgetting a line (it's happened, believe me, but I don't worry about it the way I did when tackling a concerto or sonata), and as my technique has developed and strengthened, I don't often worry anymore about a high note at the end of a piece or a difficult run. However, I think we singers have to apply mental toughness in different ways. Remaining positive and optimistic in the face of the rejection and judgement that we subject ourselves to on a daily basis can seem hard sometimes. And walking in to the next audition, and the next, and the next, with confidence in what we have to offer as artists, certainly requires a great deal of mental toughness. As audition season gets in to full swing, I have been thinking about these things lately. I think I'm doing ok on the mental toughness scale, but there's always room for improvement, and if this is another thing that swimming will help me with (other than the 7 pounds I've lost already, or the great arm muscles I'm developping, or the improved breath control), then I say, "Yay, swimming!"

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