A few weeks ago, I was teaching some of Spring’s early-season open water courses down at Aquatic Park near Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. A group of new swimmers stood, shivering, outside of the water while the coaches and I explained the process of getting acclimated to cold water temperatures and critical things to know about the differences between pool swimming and open water swimming.

With a temperature of 52 degrees in early March, the sting upon entering is brutal and shocking: it takes every swimmer’s breath away, leaving people with the feeling of hyperventilation for a minute or two before you acclimate to the temperatures.

One of the things I notice with both myself and with new swimmers–particularly talented adults who are very competent in other areas of their life, but new to swimming–is how quickly our thought processes jump from an observation to a secondary judgment.

In open water swimming, one of the many difficult things to do is swim in a straight line, and also to sight–to spot off of a land mark in the distance to help guide your course. With your eyes at the water line and waves chopping up around you, it’s easy to get disoriented or confused or not see something the first couple of times you take a peek up at the horizon line. Add a group of swimmers surrounding you, and it’s easy to get lost or confused pretty quickly.

“Be present as the watcher of your mind — of your thoughts and emotions as well as your reactions in various situations.” – Eckhart Tolle (Tweet this)

What happens, however–and this goes beyond swimming–is that people will take a stroke, try to sight off of an object–and for any number of reasons, won’t see the thing they are looking for. A wave, a swimmer, a mis-calculation, some foggy goggles–all of these make the chances that you’ll get that perfect “sighting” on one stroke very small. I often have to sight three or four times before I get any information that’s helpful to me. So, I put my head back down, take a few strokes, and try again. After a couple of tries, I get the information I need, or at least partial information. I can begin to piece together a map of my environment over time with lots of additional clues that I keep looking for.

What happens to new swimmers, however, is that when they miss that first sighting–and they don’t see anything–they start to judge themselves. “What the heck! Why can’t I see anything?” The self-talk pattern happens pretty quickly (and believe me, I know this because it’s true for me, too)–“I’m such an idiot! Why can’t I get this right? Why is this so hard? What am I doing wrong!”

We — capable, smart, talented adults — are very quick to collapse a judgment on top of a behavior almost immediately after something goes wrong.

I encourage and coach my swimmers to adopt an “observational” philosophy and to leave the judgment part, or analysis, until after we get out of the water. “Just watch what goes on, and state it as a fact, and leave it there for a bit. Practice letting your thoughts come, but don’t be hard on yourself about them,” we’ll tell the swimmers before we get in the water. It really is okay if it doesn’t all go perfectly.

When I breathe while swimming out doors, I often don’t get a breath every time I take a stroke. Often the elements–waves, wind, timing–slam water in my face or make it hard for me to get the air I need. I keep going, without skipping a beat, working into the rotation. Head back down, spit out the water, roll over to the next breath cycle, and try again. After years of training, missing a breath doesn’t phase me–I know that a couple seconds down the line, I’ll grab some air and it will all be fine. As a newbie, however, this is both terrifying and also unknown territory. While breathing is perhaps the most extreme of examples, if it’s possible to stay relaxed and calm even amidst very scary things happening, chances are you’ll end up just fine and you’ll get another chance to improve (or breathe) a couple seconds down the line.

“It doesn’t always go right the first time. Remind yourself that that’s okay.” (Tweet this)

In another, non-athletic personal example, the same “observational versus judgmental” tack came into play. A while ago, I was struggling with an overwhelming amount of lethargy and exhaustion, and I wasn’t able to do all of the things I normally do. I found myself arriving at home, exhausted, and falling asleep by 8 or 9 PM at night–and sleeping straight through until 8 or 9 AM. All of the time I usually spent working on side projects, training, or working with clients was gone. There were a couple of months I didn’t get my regular workouts in, and I had to take some time off of work to stay back at home, and I didn’t take on any new clients or projects. In a conversation with my roommate (and dear friend), I sighed and said,

You know, I’m going to have to be okay with just watching this. Observing. I don’t fully know what’s going on, or why, but I don’t have the energy to be mad at myself for not being able to do everything right now. I think I just need to be patient and observe what’s happening. I can’t collapse judgment on this and be so hard on myself about not doing everything I had hoped I’d be doing at the point in the year. Something’s going on, and I’ve got to give it some space and time. All I can do right now is look at my behavior and actions over time, and look for patterns. Before I jump in and get really hard on myself, it’s worth being gentle and asking myself why I think this is happening.

It’s not easy — so often I find myself discouraged on top of my failure, adding judgments on top of my already unexpected performance. For people who work really hard, especially exceptionally talented people (and I know many of you out there are like this), being able to pause and “just watch” yourself and suspend the early judgment can be tremendously difficult. Sometimes I think of it as a moment, or a pause–time to stop, observe, and try to understand. Give yourself a couple of days before you get on the analytical bandwagon.

What about you? When you find yourself trying something new, or doing something differently than you expected, do you jump in and criticize yourself immediately?

As Eckhart Tolle so eloquently writes, “Be present as the watcher of your mind.” When I’m in the open water, I let myself watch my thoughts roll in and out, seeing them as pieces of neural firings and slowing down from collapsing judgment on them. This meditative, gentle attitude can be practiced. Start with watching (and don’t judge yourself if you find yourself judging!). When, over time, you find the ability to separate from your immediate thoughts and see them as streams of information and not actually constructing your reality–it’s a very powerful moment. As Tolle writes:

“Be present as the watcher of your mind — of your thoughts and emotions as well as your reactions in various situations. Be at least as interested in your reactions as in the situation or person that causes you to react. Notice also how often your attention is in the past or future. Don’t judge or analyze what you observe. Watch the thought, feel the emotion, observe the reaction. Don’t make a personal problem out of them. You will then feel something more powerful than any of those things that you observe: the still, observing presence itself behind the content of your mind, the silent watcher.” – Eckhart Tolle

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