Saturday, 21 July 2012

Pet peeve of the day...

I try to keep this blog relatively light and keep the grumpiness to a minimum, but every so often, I feel like it's reasonable to give vent to the occasional grump. You don't get to be in your mid-40's without accumulating a good raft of pet peeves, and mine include, for example: people who talk in the Quiet Carriage on trains; wet tea bags (weird, creepy texture); the monarchy; describing women as 'girls'. Given the upcoming Olympics, I think we can expect another very grumpy blog on this latter peeve at some point in the next few weeks, given the habitual use of 'girls' to describe women in sports commentary.

But I digress - back to pet peeve of the day...

I received a tweet from cold water swimmer, Lewis Pugh, who I don't follow on Twitter, but which was re-tweeted by someone who I do. The tweet read: "The only way your body physically can't do it - is when your mind tells it to give up". Now...I've never been a particular fan of Lewis Pugh. Without a doubt, the swimming in cold water thing is pretty impressive, but his style of writing - mostly through short, aphoristic proclamations - and a rather macho intensity aren't really to my taste (although I know a lot of people find his ideas and style helpful in preparing for physical challenges). Lewis Pugh is not the pet peeve of the day and this is not an attempt to attack Pugh himself, but rather I want to take issue with the sentiment that he expressed - that bodies are subject to the mind, and that the body only fails because the mind wasn't up to the job. And I'm focusing on this because within the open water swimming world, you hear this kind of statement quite a lot ("20% physical and 80% mental"; "You can do anything you want to do" etc.), and I've never been comfortable with it.

I've written a bit about this before, but with a more conceptual focus on the relationship between mind and body, but this time, I want to raise this as an ethical problem for the swimming community. Firstly, the statement itself is simply, and self-evidently, not true, and I have several disabled students, for example, for whom this is a quite laughable and offensive premise. It is quite likely true that our bodies are capable of more than we think they are (although not always without cost to longer term health and well-being), and perhaps I am taking the saying too literally, but the undeniable reality is that all bodies have physical limitations that cannot be overcome simply by believing more or trying harder. And, for some people, those physical limitations are much more pronounced than for others. Secondly, then, the idea that physical limitation is the product of a weak mind individualises success and failure without any regard for circumstances or context and the very real barriers that many people face to even function effectively in the world. (But then, I am a sociologist, so I would say this...).

I think that this matters because it confuses the feeling that you can do anything you set your mind to with reality. I think all swimmers (and presumably other athletes) have had those moments of 'flow' where they feel incredibly powerful and capable; and most have experienced moments of achieving a much higher / longer / colder performance than they thought possible, and have gained pleasure from that sense of control from having pushed through something difficult. And sometimes, when you see someone push through something that really seems impossible to endure, it can feel like mind over matter is the only possible explanation. Indeed, I agree that being able to push the body into the background at difficult moments is one aspect of endurance sport. But when the values of the swimming community are articulated  through statements that portray bodily failure as a property of mental weakness, I fear that we end up looking like we are disregarding the realities of other people's lives. There is a long history of this in other aspects of social life - for example, enduring notions that blame cancer on individual personality traits, or which argue that the disease can be 'fought' through positive thinking. (To be clear, I'm not saying that Pugh makes these arguments...just that they follow the same kind of logic and that the concept has a long and problematic history). I worry, then, that as a swimming community, there is a tendency to celebrate endurance, triumph and overcoming, but without proper recognition of the privileges and plain old good fortune that enable us to engage in the sport - being fit and healthy enough to take on a marathon swimming challenge in the first place; having access to sufficient time, money and suitable locations to be able to train and enter swims. This is an ethical question, I think, in terms of how the sport represents itself.

There's been a lot of discussion online recently about what constitutes 'real' marathon swimming, and what distinguishes long distance open water swimmers from others, and I want to engage more with these debates in later blogs. But I do think that it's important to keep in mind that success in a particular activity - such as English Channel swimming - is not simply because the swimmer had a stronger mind than those who were not successful, or who could never even consider taking on such a challenge. As a community, I would like to see us acknowledge collectively and publicly not only the hard work that we put in to swimming and attributes that it demands and fosters etc, but also the good fortune (in health, resources etc) and relative privilege that enables us to engage with the sport in the first place (and prevents some others from doing so).

So there it is - my peeve of the day. And breathe....

(NB - this post was edited after publication to clarify some statements, but without changing the overall message).


  1. Hi Karen,
    At first reading your blog I thought that I will not comment but I keep on thinking about it.
    I asked a few swimmers and ask the question on my blog, what I need to do a successful channel swim and the only person that answered me was Lewis Pugh.
    What he answered was in the line of making my mind up to do it. At first I also thought what the heck is he about? I have already done that, otherwise I would have not decided to attempt to do the swim in the first place. But the truth was I still had no idea exactly how hard it would be and what type of time, money and effort I would have to put into it to get to the point to be able to do it.
    Now this is where I think it comes from. Looking at a challenge like that for me is to realize I am not fit enough and will not get fit enough to attempt it next year. Realizing that it will cost me a lot of money and I better start getting saving for it. Realizing the water is much colder than Durban KZN SA and I will have to go and do some cold swims to get used to it.
    What I am attempting to say is that if you put your mind to it you will know what challenges you will be facing and prepare to overcome them and that is where the mind will overcome the obstacle and if there is a physical barrier that stand in your way of achieving it maybe there is a way to get around or over that barrier that you have not explored? Take our South African blade runner Oscar Pistorius as an example. Who would have thought a double amputee would participate in the world Olympics 2012?
    I enjoy reading your blog and can see where you come from with your Pet peeve, but I also strongly believe that a coin has two sides and you have to look at both sides to get the complete picture.
    Looking forward to your next post.

  2. Hi Leon
    Thanks for replying and for adding another view on the discussion. I agree absolutely with you, and LP, about needing to make your mind up to do it. My quibble with Pugh's tweet, and the idea in it, is not with the idea that those aspects are not important, but what they exclude. I agree that you can't really swim the Channel (for example) without really deciding to do it and committing to it; but conversely, it is also true that deciding to do it and committing to it is not enough to overcome - we are all reliant on a certain degree of health, ability and resources in order to circumvent problems and barriers. And yes, there may be ways round barriers, but there also may not be, and this may have nothing to do with a lack of mental commitment. My 'peeve' is with the use of the word "only" in the tweet. For me, this is a very troubling over-simplification.
    But it's great to hear from you. I hope your training is coming along well - this Channel swimming business certainly gives us plenty to work on!


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