athletes · body image · competition · fitness · motivation · running · swimming · training

On Comparing

Comparing_Apples_to_OrangesjsxDetail I walk into the pool area at the Y and suss out the various lanes.  They’re marked “slow,” “moderate,” “fast,” and “speed.” The first thing I look for is occupancy.  Other things being equal, I default to the lane with the fewest number of people in it. But it also matters how fast or slow they are swimming. And there are no absolute standards for this. I like “fast” the best, but some days I’m at home in the speed lane. Other days, I’m make out better in the moderate lane. It depends how I compare to the other swimmers who happen to be there at the time.

This kind of comparing is practical. But there is another, more insidious and pernicious form of comparison.

Still at the pool.  Hey, she’s super fast.  And look, she’s got amazing flip turns. And wait!  She’s got a float thing between her legs, so she’s not even kicking at full steam.  I thought I was a pretty good swimmer.  Guess I’m not as good as I thought.

Or maybe this.  That guy’s a lot slower than I thought. Why did he rush off the wall so quickly at that end instead of letting me pass him? Now I have to slow down and zip by at the other end. Look at me, I’m so fast!

I’m going out on a limb here by sharing these thoughts in the hopes that I’m not the only one who compares in this way.  By “this way,” I mean the way that makes me come out either better or worse than, superior or inferior but rarely equal to, other people.

I’ve blogged before about why “fitspo” doesn’t inspire me in the way it’s apparently meant to.  I was browsing a blog this morning that I found on a list of recommended fitness blogs. It turned out to be a fitspo tumblr that combined inspirational quotes with pictures of unbelievably fit-looking young (always young! sigh!) women, many in dance or yoga poses that I honestly wouldn’t be able to get myself into no matter what body I had.

It took me about two minutes on this site before I started to hear a voice in my head telling me I’m never going to look like that (true) and that there’s something lamentable about that fact (false).  And it’s not just lamentable. It quickly leads to the feeling that I’m not quite up to standard.

I’m fairly reflective about these things and even explicitly, loudly, and frequently reject the idea that a particular body aesthetic is a marker of someone’s worth. But when I start to compare, it can bring me down fast.

And comparing isn’t just harmful when I come out feeling worse about myself. I don’t the best source of a sense of self-worth is through thinking myself better than other people either.  As a feminist committed to equality and to solidarity with other women, I can do better than that.

Comparing myself to other women also leads fairly quickly to the need to compete with them.  I’ve blogged about the competitive feminist already. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with competition, particularly in the realm of sport, competing and needing to win in order to feel good about oneself strikes me as a pretty weak foundation on which to build a sense of self-worth.

Sam has suggested that she feels most fiercely competitive not with others but with different past selves.  In setting her fittest-by-fifty goals, she would like to outperform two of her previous personal bests.  Sam is really good at separating self-worth from her athletic performance. She’s a huge role model for me because she pursues physical activity and improved performance because she loves a good challenge, not because she thinks it will make her in some sense superior (either to others or even to who she is today).

She’s good proof that you can want to out-do former selves without using past performance as a stick with which to beat yourself when you fall short of it.  That’s probably why tracking is such a good thing for her — she’s so neutral about it.

On the weekend I saw the film Quartet, in which Maggie Smith plays an aging former opera star who moves into a retirement home for musicians. At the beginning of the film, she lives in the past and refuses to sing any longer because her voice is no longer what it once was. Of course, a major plot mover in the film is the question of whether she will sing again in the upcoming gala.  Her constant comparison with herself at her prime keeps her from simply enjoying what she can do now.

I’ve been tracking my running lately, and it’s kind of demoralizing because my pace is getting slower and slower. But the fact of the matter is that this is what I should expect given that I’ve fallen out of a regular running routine.  When I compare my old run pace to my recent run pace, I am comparing apples to oranges, much like Maggie Smith’s character in Quartet, who compares herself at her prime to herself just shy of eighty. A couple of months ago, I ran three days a week and saw consistent progress both in distance and in speed.  But when I let winter interrupt my running program, of course it’s going to look different when I go out for a run now. I’m just getting back into it.

What’s the upshot of this reflection on comparing?  First, we can use comparing in a negative way, to make ourselves feel inferior or superior to other people.  Neither is particularly helpful and both stand as perilous foundations for a sense of self-worth.

Second, there are neutral ways to use comparison, especially comparison with our past performance, as a means of gathering information. Some of us are better at this neutrality than others. Here’s where you need to know yourself. Personally, I need to be cautious.

I prefer to find different ways of relating to other athletes who engage in similar activities than by comparing my performance with theirs.  I am much happier to be in a supportive community where we can each encourage one another and cheer one another on.

In this respect, comparing can have the same upside and downside as competing.  Chris Evert said that a good competitor reacts the same whether she wins or loses.  Similarly with comparing. If I can look at other women, or at myself at different times of my life, and not feel superior, inferior, envious etc., then I’ve got a solid sense of who I am and what I’m about. If, however, looking at other women gives rise to uncomfortable feelings or in some way gets used as my source of validation (or lack of it), then it may not be a healthy practice for me to engage in.


18 thoughts on “On Comparing

  1. Great post. Comparison never does what I want it to. I get the past self thing in particular – if I never used to to be fit I wouldn’t know how fit I’m not today. Still,tomorrow I ride!

  2. I have exactly the same experience in the pool, Tracy. I’m horrifically competitive, sad to say, which accounts for a lot of my (rather snarky) mental monologues while I’m swimming. But I’m also exceptionally anxious about my own performance (I wrote about fear of failure on my own blog yesterday!), which means that if I end up in the fast lane with people who are perhaps slightly faster than I am, I feel my heart rate rise with angst every time the faster swimmers approach me from behind. This makes the swim harder for me (harder to get air the higher my HR climbs), makes it less pleasant, and leaves me fretting or steaming, depending on my mood. Plus, the more people in the lane with me, the less inclined I am to risk a (comparatively pretty inexperienced and inefficient) flip turn. In other words: feeling the stress of being “too fast” or “not fast enough” can wreck a swim for me.

    I’ve often wondered how to get away from this problem. In the process, I’ve decided it’s not just my problem; it’s also institutional. Pool staff – guards and others – tend to be hands-off about lane categorization and other interpersonal relations in the water; they let swimmers work it out for themselves. But I do not want to have to carry the responsibility of telling someone they are probably too slow for the lane, or be told the same by a fellow swimmer. When you’re in the lane, it’s hard to gauge exactly where you are relative to others; that’s what the long view of the guard is for.

    It’s a shame that we can’t take a more relaxed attitude to this stuff, but I actually think many peoples’ experiences in the water at public pools would be improved by more intuitive guarding. I realize guards need to put their priority on keeping us safe – and thank goodness for that – but I’d love to see more guards and pool managers experiment with keeping the pool environment psychically as well as physically healthy. Can guards be more keenly on the lookout for stressful situations – say, someone who is a bit new, a bit lost, ends up in the wrong lane, and doesn’t know what to do? – and seek to mitigate them in a friendly and non-confrontational way? Or, might we try organizing pools according to different criteria: lanes for people with gear (I swim with fins and a pull buoy on regular occasions, which makes me faster on the whole); people who want to jog or stretch or test new strokes; people who want a moderate workout; people who want a strenuous workout? I’d love to swim in a pool like that.

    1. Thanks, Kim. I don’t know if there’s a good solution. It’s horrible to end up in the wrong lane, frustrating that the “wrong” lane is so relative to the other swimmers in your lane and what they’re doing. My speed changes within the one swim because I warm up with breast stroke and then power through for the majority of my swim with freestyle, then back to a cool down. I can’t imagine the extra challenges if I introduced gear!

      Have you ever suggested different organization criteria to your pool manager? I’d be interested to hear whether there would be any uptake if you made your case.

      Meanwhile, I do my best to silence the monologue. I have also, now that I’m on sabbatical, found the least busy time to swim–about 11:30-12:15 a.m. I can almost always have a whole lane for myself, or only need to share it with one other person.

      Your post about fear of failure was really insightful and revealing. Thanks for sharing your experience. Oh, if only all of our students who do poorly could be as open to learning from it as your student!

      1. Never have suggested it; I always find an excuse not to say anything to the guards or the managers as I’m leaving. But me stepping up is clearly part of the larger issue here, around making sport spaces more welcoming for all ages and abilities. I will aim to speak up next time I’m in the pool!

  3. Thanks for this. I hope you never need to stop competing with your past selves the way I’ve had to stop competing with mine. I got multiple sclerosis. That brings in a new set of competitive words from bystanders (‘brave’, ‘inspirational’, ‘positive’ blah blah) but I’ve learned to respond politely. As for the past selves: my take on that is that nothing can ever take from me the fact that I was a long-distance hillwalker.

    Like I said, I hope this never happens to you – it stinks. But ageing happens to us all. One day you’ll find that your athletic performance is never going to be the way it was. If, at ‘almost 50’, you haven’t found that already.

    1. You’re so right. Your comment that “nothing can ever take from me the fact that I was a long-distance hillwalker” really sums up so well my feelings about comparison, whether with past selves or other people.

      Age, illness, accident–these can all change our abilities either quickly or slowly. It’s depressing that our social emphasis on non-disabled and youthful people as the normative standard leads to all sorts of negative judgments about individuals who are not members of that “club.”

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      1. You’re welcome. I’m enjoying your blog.

        A couple of days ago, 2 friends (who I know from hillwalking) cycled over the hills in strong, cold wind and it was great to see them. One told me an anecdote about her horse-riding group giving the horses a day off during a long trip, and enjoying a 10-mile walk instead. She was concerned about being tactless, and I appreciate that. But I also appreciate knowing that 10-mile walks are still some people’s idea of a rest day 🙂 I like to know that these things are happening even if they’re not happening in this particular body.

  4. Terrific post Tracy! Funny, I was comparing just this morning. CrossFit had lots of comparing because we track times, distance, reps etc and share. They’re posted on the board at the front of the room. For example, this morning we were tracking how many meters we rowed for a given number of strokes, specifically: 9, 9, 15, 15, 21, 21. I was very happy to see that I rowed further than than any of the women. On the one hand, not surprising given how much time I’ve spent on the erg over the winter. On the other, I’m guessing they were all under 30.

    Your post made me reflect on how I’d feel if I wasn’t the strongest rower among the women. I think I’d note their ages and shrug it off. But I’m pretty resilient that way.

    When I feel bad comparing myself to other rowers, runners, cyclists whatever, I switch to a larger lens. I tell myself I have a PhD, a big job, a busy family. 🙂

    I hope as I age I’m okay getting slower. I expect I’ll try new stuff and keep playing. Again, fun post, challenging topic.

  5. All one ever needs to throw the entire notion of “bad competition” out the window completely, is to train with and/or to truly see in action, at ground level, professional athletes or those with similar prowess. And take it in! Don’t just call them superhuman and leave them out of the equation. Such lessons in humility when learned in a good way, release one from the notion that competition between most people in the gym, including yourself, is meaningful; it’s rather really quite ridiculous. We’re doing it for fun and for reasons pertaining to health and fitness. And beating personal bests, or improving simply over yesterday, and sometimes just maintaining – are all worthy goals and can make you feel good about yourself. Stepping up your exercise regime to include new forms of exercise that concentrate on your weak points, and slowly improving on those weak points, can also make you feel quite great about yourself in a very legitimate manner. But “bad competition” amongst ordinary people who work out alot – guess what? The people you’re comparing yourself to are not olympic athletes, and neither are you. Forget about things that way completely, and concentrate on the good!

  6. I have blogged about conflicting lane speeds, awkward lane behaviour and (my own) lane rage so many times!

    And the thing is, all the time I am complaining to myself and muttering under my breath about slower swimmers, I am still very aware that I am a slow swimmer myself. There is no way i am ready to make the leap into the medium lane i- and in all honesty, I don’t care if I ever do. I’m not planning to race, and really all I care about is my own ability, not how anyone else is doing. Some days you’re the overtaker, some days you’re the overtaken. I think what bugs me is people’s thoughtlessness. I don’t have a problem letting faster people pass me at the end; I don’t see why so many people have a problem with letting me pass.

  7. Holy smokes that couple you described!! Yes, the whole lane speed thing is a real issue for us as swimmers. So much easier as a runner; you just let yourself be passed or you pass, and that’s the end of it. No need to meet again the way swimmers do at the end of the pool.

  8. This may be a really silly question (and only sort of relevant), but are lanes explicitly labeled with the speeds, or is this just something new swimmers are supposed to know (like the etiquette of sharing lanes)? I’ve been swimming for a few months now at my local Y, and I haven’t noticed that certain lanes were for faster swimmers. Most of the time there’s either a free lane or there’s one that has only one swimmer in it already. So I’ve just done the split lane (one person on the right, one on the left). Is the speed something that becomes important only when you’re swimming in a circle (which I’ve never done, but which I assume involves “passing” if the swimmers’ speeds vary)?

    I do sometimes see if I can go faster than the person in the lane next to me. But I don’t feel very competitive about this, maybe because swimming is still so new to me. Mostly I think about my form (and occasionally wonder if the lifeguard is observing how awkard I am in the water!)

  9. At the Y where I swim the lanes are clearly marked. You can’t miss the signs. When the most lanes are open, they have them marked “slow,” “moderate,” “fast,” and “speed.” When there are lessons going on, they reduce to “moderate” and “fast” (as it was when I went tonight. All the other lanes were marked “swimming lessons.” Also, for lane swimming, they tell you the direction of each lane (either clockwise or anti-clockwise, it depends on the lane). Most places I’ve swum have had a similar system. We usually stick to the direction indicated because if we just split the lane then it makes it difficult when a third person arrives. That rarely happens at the times I go, but swimming up one side and down the other isn’t too bad (unless you run into the mismatched speed issues that people have spoken about today). If you don’t see any signs then maybe your pool doesn’t have lane categories. As you can see, they are only mildly helpful.

  10. Argylesock makes a powerful point….I had hip replacement on one hip last year (I’m only 55) and have had both knees ‘scoped…so that was the end of my squash game. I used to play 3x a week and had played it since childhood. It’s painful to lose sports and activities you once loved — and the persona that goes with it.

    As for the endless comparison (something I plan to blog), I take a jazz dance class where everyone else is probably 10-15 years younger and most weigh probably 50 pounds less than I, at least. I could freak out and obsess over it — so young! so thin! — but I watch how graceful or quick they are. The praying mantis girls often have lousy form and technique so I’m not too fussed.

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