Swimming, Sleeping, and the Mundanity of Excellence

If you look around the internet, you will find article after article about the benefits of swimming. Swimming will make you stronger and healthier. You will sleep better at night, you will live years longer, and you will develop an incredible six-pack. You will become irresistible to men or women or both (you don’t necessarily get to choose). But none of this is why I swim.

I swim because I like to swim. I am not swimming to do or get or become anything. The incredible six-pack (which I do not have, in case you thought I might) is not the goal; the swimming is the goal. I am not training so that I can swim 10 miles in July; I am swimming 10 miles in July so that I get to do the training.

I bring this up because I have been rereading Daniel Chambliss‘s article, “The Mundanity of Excellence.” Chambliss is the Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton College and has won a number of academic awards, including the ASA’s Theory Prize for work on organizational excellence. “The Mundanity of Excellence” is about excellence in swimming; Chambliss spent six years studying swimmers at all levels, from the Olympics to club teams, in order to form his conclusions. It’s well-written and thought-provoking; you should read it (broken link has been fixed) even if you never swim and never intend to.

Two particular points in the article grabbed me this time. The first point is about the attitude of top-level swimmers:

What others see as boring–swimming back and forth over a black line for two hours, say–they find peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic. . . . Coming into the 5:30 AM practices at Mission Viejo, many of the swimmers were lively, laughing, talking, enjoying themselves, perhaps appreciating the fact that most people would positively hate doing it. It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it. (74)

This is The Good News, as far as I’m concerned. I am not a top athlete, but I do share this attitude: I do not see practice as sacrifice. I am not suffering when I swim. I like my pool, and I like my people, and I like swimming.

The second point is The Bad News–or, more optimistically, The News that Suggests Areas of Improvement. Chambliss demonstrates that a good attitude is not sufficient: in order to improve, you have to make qualitative changes in what you are doing and be consistent at maintaining those small improvements. Chambliss writes:

Excellence is mundane. Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together in a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of those actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produce excellence. (81)

Chambliss brings in evidence from his longitudinal study of swimmers for this argument. For example, he talks about the experience of Mary T. Meagher, Olympic champion and world record-holder in butterfly. In the year before she took the world record, she focused on making small consistent changes: she came to practice on time every day; she made every turn in every practice perfect. Chambliss reports, “This, [Meagher] says, accustomed her to doing things one step better than those around her–always” (82). Mary T. ended up swimming like this:

Excellence requires that we develop small skills, practice them, make them into habit. And this is the part of the pursuit of excellence that I find difficult: there are lots of mundane changes that I don’t want to make. I don’t want to work on my stroke technique. I don’t want to change what I’m eating. I just want to swim.

But there is a qualitative change that I have been thinking about making, and Chambliss’s article encourages me to do it: get more sleep. Research suggests that getting more sleep can improve athletic performance. A study of Stanford University swimmers found that more sleep resulted in faster sprints, quicker starts and turns, and improved kicks. The lead author of the study, Cheri Mah, makes these suggestions:

Make sleep a part of your regular training regimen.

Extend nightly sleep for several weeks to reduce your sleep debt before competition.

Maintain a low sleep debt by obtaining a sufficient amount of nightly sleep (seven to eight hours for adults, nine or more hours for teens and young adults).

Keep a regular sleep-wake schedule, going to bed and waking up at the same times every day.

Take brief naps to obtain additional sleep during the day, especially if drowsy.

I am in the middle of reading Steve Munatones’s 2011 book, Open Water Swimming; he also emphasizes the importance of sleep. In addition, he notes that swimmers often find it difficult to sleep the night before a race and suggests getting extra sleep in the weeks leading up to the race to compensate.

I am hoping to develop the same attitude toward going to bed that I have toward going to the pool: at a certain time of day, I stop what I’m doing and I go. Eight hours of sleep a day: a small qualitative improvement, consistently implemented. It’s a start.

Meanwhile, I am also getting stronger and healthier, and I have become irresistible to men and women who are attracted by the smell of chlorine.

It's like this all the time now.
It’s like this all the time now.

I’m doing a lot of swimming.

Chambliss, Daniel F. (1989). The mundanity of excellence: an ethnographic report on stratification and Olympic swimmers. Sociological Theory, 7, 70-86.

There is more on sleep and swimming here: Sleeping for Swimmers at Swimming Science.

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