Earlier this week, I was doing my regular morning swim. I don’t always swim in the “fast” lane because I’m definitely not the best swimmer out there. But, I did today because it was the emptiest lane and because I felt like pushing myself a bit.
Another guy was also in the fast lane, someone who looked to be in his mid-60s. He was clearly a faster swimmer. After we had both been swimming for about 10 minutes, he had already lapped me twice.
As I was resting at one end of the pool, trying to catch my breath between laps, he swam up to me and stopped to also catch his and share a bit of unsolicited advice with me.
“You should try to put your head down into the water!” he said to me loudly as he stopped.
“Huh?!” I replied, between my heavy breaths.
“When your head’s outta the water like that, it’s slowing you down!” He then mimicked my stroke in the air, giving his best impression of my technique—or lack thereof. “Just look down into the water! You’ll go faster if you put your head in the water!” He then demonstrated.
I quickly replied, “I’m not here to go fast.” Then quickly turned away from him and redirected my gaze down toward the other end of the pool.
He then noticed I was rubbing my neck and persisted. “Also, you won’t have a sore neck because you won’t be swinging your head to side-to-side like you are right now!”
My neck HAD actually been feeling sore. But in an attempt to close down this conversation, I quickly turned toward him, threw up my defenses, and snapped, “That’s not why my neck is sore!” then turned away from him.
My initial instinct was to dismiss him. After all, I didn’t need random guy who was twice my age critiquing my swimming style. I was there for a quick swim, not to perfect my stroke or make it to the Olympics.
But I knew exactly what he was referring to. When I swim, I make a point to keep my head above water. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been scared of water. I never liked swimming. Most of memories I have from my parents sending me to swimming lessons when I was young involve me gasping for air, swallowing lots of water, and not liking the sting of water on my eyes. On top of that, I’m very nearsighted, so when I’m swimming without my glasses, I’m in this blurry abyss of confusion where I have squint just to see where I’m going.
I tried to take up swimming lessons again when I lived in Hawaii, but I didn’t get much better. My instructor even told me I’m a “sinker,” where the structure of my body is such that my legs naturally sink instead of float like most people’s. She told me that she had run into a few people like that, but it wasn’t very common.
There’s always room for improvement
When I moved to the UK seven years ago, I stopped playing tennis, so wanted to find another aerobic activity to do. I decided on swimming just because I quickly grew bored of running, and also, as a way of “conquering my fears,” and challenging myself. Something about doing the actual activity that scared me was appealing.
Since then, I’ve made a lot of progress. I went from barely being able to swim from one end of an Olympic sized pool to the other to being able to swim multiple laps without stopping. And it’s now the exercise I do more than any other exercise. When I went swimming with my wife a couple weeks ago, who’s quite a fast swimmer herself, she told me that she noticed I’ve gotten a lot faster.
But one thing I still couldn’t get myself to do was put my face down into the water. I realize that sounds silly, but I’d rather thrash around in the pool than risk swallowing water. I know it slows me down, but just swimming without drowning was a bit step for me, and I felt my technique was good enough to do the job. Actually, I had been feeling pretty good about my progress. Until I crossed paths with this random guy who insisted on sharing some unsolicited advice I didn’t ask for.
Unwanted advice isn’t always easy to receive
As we both stood there side-by-side after our quick exchange, breathing heavily with our hands on our hips, staring down at the other end of the pool, I had a flash back to a conversation I’d just had the week prior. A friend of mine told me an acquaintance of hers had offered her advice about something she was going through, even though she didn’t ask for that person’s advice. She went on to tell me how much receiving unsolicited advice irritated her. About how she hates it when people give her advice she doesn’t ask for. About how unsolicited advice is even more annoying when it comes from someone you don’t know, respect, or have anything in common anyway.
In some ways, I saw her point. Everyone’s situation is unique, and advice, in many ways, is about taking your own experiences and trying to apply them to another situation with the presumption that A) that what worked for you will work for them, and B) that the situations are similar enough to where the advice you’re offering is relevant. As a coach, I try not to offer advice unless I’m asked for it explicitly for this very reason.
Still, I tried to convince her that there can actually be value in accepting the advice people offer. I told her that sometimes, people may be able to spot something you can’t spot yourself. That maybe a different perspective could help open your eyes to something new. That at least considering someone’s advice may benefit you in some small way. In fact, I’d benefited a lot from people way more experienced than I who took the time to share some advice with me.
She seemed unconvinced.
What happened when I let my guard down
As that conversation bounced around in my head at that moment, I felt a bit like a hypocrite. Here I was saying how you should take on advice, yet I wasn’t willing to do it myself? I decided to let my guard down a bit and hear what this guy had to say. After all, my swimming technique WAS something I’d struggled with for decades.
I looked back over at him. “You know, I’m not the best swimmer. I don’t put my face down when I swim because I can’t seem to figure out the breathing.”
“Ohh, well, the trick is to make sure you breath out completely when your head’s down BEFORE you turn your head to get some air. If you’re still breathing out while your head’s turned AND trying to breathe it, that won’t work.”
“Yeah, that makes sense, but I still have this issue where when I turn my head to get air, I’m afraid of swallowing water.”
He squinted his eyes and gave me a funny look. “All you have to do is just make sure you turn completely as you pull your arm out of the water. It’s less about turning your head, and more about letting it turn naturally as you pull your arm out of the water.” He then demonstrated.
“Yeah, but … ” I started to rebut.
He interrupted, “Just practice it slowly. Get the technique down, then when you get comfortable with it, you can go faster. Don’t kill yourself trying to go fast and practice your technique.”
“Well, I’m also trying to keep up with you.” I joked. “You know, I don’t wanna slow you down!”
He went onto tell me that he doesn’t often swim in the fast lane himself. That he always leaves that lane whenever someone faster comes along because it’s too much pressure.
With that, he put his goggles back on, and before he pushed off to carry on swimming, he said, “Anyway, try it if you want.”
I stood there, thinking about what he just said, and decided to give it a shot then and there. Oddly enough, just keeping in mind those two things: breathing out completely and allowing my head to turn naturally with my body, I was suddenly swimming with my face down in the water and breathing just fine.
Everything changed, just like that
Now for those of you out there who are natural swimmers, you may not think this is a big deal. That I’m creating a lot of drama around a pretty simple part of swimming. But for me, someone who’s struggled with swimming for the past 35 years, I couldn’t believe how this short conversation suddenly helped me get over this mental barrier I’d held for my entire life. For me, being able to swim “correctly” was a game-changer.
By being more horizontal in the water, I swam more quickly, immediately shaving 5 seconds off the time it takes me to swim a pool length. I swam more efficiently, making it down the length of the pool in 24 strokes instead of 36. I also swam longer before needing a break.
Now that I’m doing this, I’ll never go back to my old way of swimming. Sure, I swill swallowed a bit of water today when I tried it again, but I’m going to keep working on it.
I guess this is what people call a “teachable moment.” A moment when you allow yourself to be taught, when you open yourself up to learn some valuable lessons.
In this case, my initial instinct was in line with my friend’s. To reject unsolicited advice. I can’t even fully explain why. But it’s some combination of pride, wanting people to mind their own business, and perhaps a bit of arrogance about not needing feedback. However, I learned a few lessons:
Lesson #1: You improve when you allow yourself to be critiqued
My initial instinct was that I didn’t need to get better. That my swimming technique was good enough, so I wasn’t looking for advice on how to improve. But when I opened myself up to critique, and when I gave myself permission to openly share what was getting in my way, it actually helped me improve.
Lesson #2: Game-changing advice can come from anyone
I’ve had so many swimming instructors in the past – no one has been able to help me crack this issue. Then, suddenly, one day, a random guy ended up explaining this in a way that just clicked with me. All I know about this guy is that his name is John. I may or may never see him again.
Lesson #3: Putting your pride aside can open opportunities
That conversation I had with this guy could have simply ended after I shut it down. I didn’t want to get anything out of that conversation, so I didn’t. At least not initially. But, when I allowed myself to put my pride and arrogance aside, I actually opened myself up to a new way of doing things. That choice ultimately benefitted me.
Lesson #4: Fears are as big as you allow them to be
For years, I’ve not dared to put my face in the water when swimming. Then, on one ordinary day, after an ordinary 20 second conversation, everything changed. Just like that. When you think about the literally OR metaphorically, it demonstrates how much we can inflate our own fears, to the point where they seem insurmountable. But sometimes, it’s actually not as big of a deal as you imagine.
So if you find yourself instinctually rejecting unsolicited advice, just remember that a lot of wisdom exists in the world. When you allow yourself to receive it, you may be surprised how much of a positive impact it can have on things that matter to you.