Fail better

When you talk about your fitness ‘journey’ (sorry!), failure is only every supposed to appear in the rearview, as a bump on part of the road you’ve already travelled. But I find failure is a constant in my life. I don’t just mean that I make mistakes and get things wrong, but then I keep trying and eventually I master it. When I say failure, I mean really hitting a wall, coming up against an obstacle you truly can neither move nor surmount. I’m talking about that unblinking, uncompromising ‘I CAN’T’.

Swimming is one of these for me. I can’t swim. I’ve tried, and I can’t. I’m not saying I never could, but right now, I can’t. I started lessons for the third time back in May. My hopes were reasonably high. The teacher has a fantastic reputation built on years of success with everyone from international athletes to hydrophobic beginners. I’m no athlete but nor am I especially afraid of water. My biggest fear, before I started, was putting my face down in the water, because all my previous attempts to do so had left me coughing and spluttering and feeling like I was going to die of sheer panic. But within twenty minutes, this teacher had me putting my whole head under water with only minimal anxiety. The next step was to hold on to the side of the pool, duck my head under the water, and let my legs float up behind me. Again, not only did I manage to do this, but by the end of the lesson I was enjoying it. I enjoyed it so much that, in the days following my first lesson, I made time to go to the pool and practice by myself. All was well. I was sure that this was it, the moment when I would finally learn to swim. All the pieces seemed to be falling into place. I had come so far in my fitness journey. I had strength and stamina. I had the motivation and discipline to practice. Clearly, I just needed to complete the lessons and I’d be off like a happy little fish.

Then, I went back for the second lesson. This time, I had to go just a little step further, to put my face down and let my legs float up without holding on to the wall. I tried. I tried again. I kept trying. “I’ll get it,” I told myself. I was already telling myself the triumphant, ‘happily ever after’ story. This is just a blip. In my mind, I pictured how I’d soon laugh about this as I swam in the Atlantic off the West Cork coast this summer. But instead of the ocean seeming friendlier, the pool was getting scarier. For the first time, I started to feel fearful at the feeling of being in the water. I still kept trying, but I was running out of willpower and getting nowhere nearer my goal. Time after time, I tried to let go and float and I just could not do it. Every single time, I froze, petrified with irrational fear. “I am in a safe place,” I told myself. But I didn’t believe me.

The third lesson was miserable. To her credit, the teacher told me straight out what was going on. She said my confidence had quite naturally taken a knock after the challenging second lesson, and that she could help me get past it if I’d keep trying. Finally, she said, “I can pull out every trick in the book, and I will. But at some point you’re going to have to do this yourself.” And I realised that, for now, I was not able to. I mean, really, properly not able to. I could not do it. I gave up. I quit. I bailed out. All the stuff successful people are never supposed to do. As of today, I can not swim, and I don’t know if I ever will be able to.

Enjoying the ocean from a safe distance at Peine del Viento (The Comb of the Wind) at San Sebastián/Donostia in the beautiful Basque Country.

My short-lived hopes of competing in powerlifting ended in a similar way. I am eternally grateful to powerlifting and to the people who taught me to lift. After a lifetime of mostly miserable experiences of exercise, powerlifting was so liberating for me. It was hard, but I could do it, and it was fun. On the good days, I got through whole gym sessions without feeling like I was going to die. On the really good days, I just thought, “Yeah, I’m probably going to die, but what a way to go.” But then I fell prey to Squat Fear. Some lifters have no fear, others feel it but are not too troubled by it, still others eventually fight their way through it and learn to cope with it. I did none of these. I couldn’t. Standing under a heavy bar, I simply lost the ability to force my body to do what I wanted it to do. I realise this is incomprehensible to people who don’t feel this fear and frustrating for those who have learned to push through it. I get it a lot from well-meaning lifters who want to be encouraging. Powerlifters, as a rule, are extraordinarily encouraging, and I’ve had lots of them tell me things like, “Ah I had that before alright. You’ll get over that. The only way is to just do it.” I know they’re right and I know they’re trying to help, but the thing is, I CAN’T. In that moment, whether under the bar or in the pool, I lose the ability to make myself do what I want to do.

Maybe this is simply weakness of character. Certainly, we’re taught to believe it is shameful. A lot of fitness culture rests on the idea that there is really no such thing as ‘can’t’. Failure is always a choice. If you were just willing to work hard enough, you could get through it. Giving up, it seems, is not only failing at fitness, it’s failing as a person. But I am not ashamed of my choices to quit swimming lessons or squatting or other activities that were grinding me into small, self-loathing dust. Like Niall Toibin said about being from Cork, I’m not proud or ashamed; I’m grateful. “Is maith an t-oide teip.” Failure is a good educator. I’ve learned that, while I want to keep striving to overcome my fears, I’m willing to pick my battles. Some goals just cost more than they’re worth in terms of time and energy. Others are so important that I hope I would fight for them with my dying breath no matter what the odds of failure.

I’m not sure I’ll ever devote serious energy to powerlifting again. I’m in my late 30s and I’ve accumulated a few minor recurring injuries I don’t want to exacerbate too much. One or two strength and conditioning sessions a week keeps me ticking over, and leaves me plenty of time to work on mobility and cardio, areas in which I’m weaker. Maybe there will come a day when I once again get that itch, that ‘I’ll have no peace if I don’t bench press 50kg for reps today’ feeling. But maybe I’m just no longer willing to pay what it would cost me to keep pushing myself in that arena. Maybe my powerlifting phase was just a transitional thing, a gift from the universe to get my cardio-challenged body into the swing of regular exercise. I’m fine either way. I’ve made my peace with that failure. I’m okay with that ‘can’t’. I still respect the hell out of powerlifters, but I no longer feel the need to be one of them.

On the other hand, I still really do want to be able to swim. It’s a basic life skill and it’s a great form of exercise. Most importantly, one of the things I learned from my most recent failure is that I love being in the water and I do have a yearning to experience that combined with the exhilaration of exercise. Learning to swim is still truly important to me in a way that squatting heavy no longer is. I don’t regret quitting swimming lessons back in May. I don’t mind that I failed. I was up the walls with work at the time, and I was physically and emotionally drained. It’s okay to get slapped down with a ‘can’t’. It’s even okay not to get back up, immediately or ever. But it’s only okay under two conditions: First, that I truly believe not just that I can’t overcome my fear of swimming but that I truly never could. Second, that I am willing to live with that failure. If both those were true, I could in good conscience vow never again to get into a pool. But actually, I believe I could overcome the fear, and I really, really want to. That means at some point I’m going to have to get back in the water and try again, when I feel ready. Otherwise, I’m just being dishonest with myself. Failure to swim is an inconvenience, a pity, maybe a regret. But failure to be honest with oneself is a crippling, dehumanising tragedy. I may never succeed fully at being honest with myself, but I hope I never stop trying.