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  • Writer's pictureDr. Susan Beesley

The Growth Mindset, my reluctant journey to becoming a swimmer

mom and daughter athletes

I never learned to swim as a child. Growing up in the midwest where there were outdoor community pools, I had lots of opportunities. But somehow I never went for it. I think I was scared. The almost drowning feeling I got when my face was in the water kept me from trying. At some point, I took some lessons, but instead of working on strokes and breathing, my lessons were more about learning how to “not drown.” I learned water survival skills like treading water and bobbing. 

This lack of practice and skill development in childhood evolved into a statement that I became very comfortable saying in adulthood: “I’m not a swimmer.” I identified with my lack of swimming skill and when swimming opportunities arose, I avoided them. Sometimes I would limp along with my awkward head-out-of-water-freestyle if I wanted to swim out to a dock or across a pond, but mostly I would opt out of swimming opportunities. 

About a year ago, my athletic daughter asked me to do the Gold Nugget with her. Ever since living in Anchorage, I have been intrigued by this all-women triathlon. But with my “I’m not a swimmer” identity, I did not really entertain the idea of participating. I wanted to be someone who could do it, but I did not see my path to becoming that person. I was stuck. Stuck in my fixed mindset.

A fixed mindset is a way of thinking about one’s abilities and intelligence as innate and unchangeable. People with fixed mindsets believe that their talents, intelligence, and personalities are fixed traits that cannot grow or change very much. They believe that people are either naturally talented or not, and there's little room for improvement. Every time I said, “I am not a swimmer,” I was reinforcing a fixed mindset belief that I had about my own lack of ability.

Our mindset reflects our self-concept, and how we view ourselves is powerful. If we are stuck in a fixed mindset, where our qualities are essentially unchangeable, then we feel that we must prove ourselves over and over again in order to feel confident and self-assured. We seek out ways to confirm our intelligence, our abilities, and our personalities. We are threatened by failure and might interpret criticism as attacks on our very character.  

Luckily, not even our mindset is fixed. Instead of believing that we must settle for whatever hand we’ve been dealt, using a growth mindset, we can cultivate qualities and abilities through our efforts. The growth mindset is the belief that people can develop their abilities and skills through hard work, dedication, and effort. People with a growth mindset are more likely to persist through challenges, learn from mistakes, take risks, and try again after failure. In fact, the growth mindset embraces setbacks and failures as expected and essential to the learning process. 

Carol Dweck is a psychologist who’s work on motivation and success led her to theorize the growth mindset. In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she writes, “Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”

My reluctant journey to becoming a swimmer was not an intentional growth mindset endeavor.  If I had it my way, swimming would have come to me easily, and I would have been quickly ready for the triathlon. But I am probably not alone in the experience that learning a new sport as an adult (dare I say middle-aged adult) was fraught with setbacks and challenges. 

In the fall, about 8 months before the triathlon, a couple of friends invited me to join a “beginner’s stroke skills” class, and I decided to give it a try. I ended up feeling like many of the other students were not really beginners, but were rather x-swim team kids who hadn’t swum in a while. It was hard. I felt like I was going to drown much of the time. A couple of times I had to stand up in my lane mid-lap just to breathe.  I’m a pretty fit person, but my swim stamina was less than a lap. I was almost a stroke skills drop-out.  It was the tiny moments of learning that kept me coming back. After much trial and error, I would try something a little differently, and once in a while, something worked. 

After the stroke skills course ended, I kept going to the pool on my own. I invented a work out that was initially only a couple laps and I slowly increased the distance. I had swims that were discouraging, and I worried that I’d never be ready for the triathlon. Other times, I got into a meditative rhythm and felt like I was a seal cutting through the water. Swish, swish, wish. I formed a swim playlist and sang to myself. A friend of mine who is a swimmer gave me a virtual swim lesson and became my cheerleader. Mid-winter, about 4 months into my journey, Anchorage had a long cold snap. So cold that I didn’t want to ski. I increased my time in the pool, and this was my turning point. I was linking laps and swam the entire distance of the triathlon without stopping. So, when the triathlon registration opened, I signed us up. 

I wish I could tell you that I crushed it. I didn't. After a couple of laps, I sort of freaked out. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and I was scared. It was like all of my difficult experiences with swimming flooded back and killed my confidence. I tried to put my face back in the water, but it was a no-go. I thought about waving my hands, getting out of the pool, and telling the race volunteers that I was done—in over my head, literally. But I didn’t. Almost without conscious decision, I flipped on my back and kept on swimming. I had spent zero of my training time on backstroke, but I could make it happen. I got into a rhythm and kept moving. I was a little embarrassed and disappointed in myself, but I kept going and I made it. I was so happy to get to the end. I hoisted my way out of the pool and to my surprise everywhere I looked, I was met with smiles and encouraging words. I ran out to the transition area, struggled my shoes on, and chased my daughter on my bike. I left the transition area feeling not defeated, but humbled and inspired.

I am still growing. This is not a story of struggle and triumph, but rather of an ongoing journey of failure and persistence, both with swimming and with the growth mindset. During the swim, I wanted to give up. And now in telling the story, part of me wants to retreat back to the safety of my fixed mindset: “I’m not a swimmer.” It is a comfortable identity for me. But now that I have touched my growth edge, I’m not going to mold myself back in the tired form of my old fixed mindset limitations. I am brave and curious and available for the unfolding of my learning.

I’m going to keep going to the pool. Probably not much in the summer when the sun is shining and the Alaska wilds lure me, but I’ll keep going back. Something about this challenge, this process, these hard earned strokes has gotten me hooked. Since the race, I’ve been thinking of ways to modify my training. Maybe I can practice swimming in the pool where the triathlon is. Maybe I can get some more lessons. Maybe I should practice backstroke. And maybe by the time the race comes next year, I’ll start to believe in my blossoming skills as “a swimmer.”

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2 comentários

Dora Cristian
Dora Cristian
02 de jun.

I enjoy your honest and reflective way of writing so much. It is like listening to you in person and being in a place of peace, connection and motivation. Thank you for sharing your mindfulness growth journey and inviting/challenging us to reflect on our own mindset, and inspiring us to take little steps towards a more growth mindset. I've also lived with the "I'm not a swimmer" belief my entire life and have been wanting to become ONE! Your story is powerful and applicable in all aspects of life!


01 de jun.

Congratulations!! You are a swimmer! And an inspiration. Keep it up.

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