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What Swimming The Channel Taught Me About Willpower

I thrive on challenges. Perhaps you do too? Having a goal, a target, something to work towards, keeps me healthy and happy.

At the start of the year a facebook conversation between myself and two friends, Richard Martin and Ben Alden-Falconer spiralled out of control. We decided to do a Channel relay swim. That’s swimming from Dover across the English Channel to France.

There were two big problems with this challenge. One, I didn’t know how to swim front crawl. Two, I hate cold water and the Channel Swim Association rules do not allow swimmers to wear wetsuits!

Learning how to swim good front crawl is hard. There is a huge amount of technique required. Water is 784 times more dense than air, so a little bad technique creates a lot of drag and massively slows you down. To get over this problem, I found a brilliant coach, Tim Denyer who I can highly recommend to anyone living in London.

To get good technique you have to practise a lot. To get accustomed to cold water you have to experience it a lot. It can be hard to stay motivated while training. Many times I simply didn’t want to go to the pool. Spending three hours going up and down the same 25 meter stretch of pool isn’t that enticing. However it is really, really hard to motivate yourself to train in cold water. I found the only way I could ensure that I did cold water training was by making a commitment to someone else. For instance, when in Edinburgh I would ask my mum or dad for a lift to Portobello, or when in Norway I would ask my friend Anna’s dad if he could take me down river on his boat, or I would make plans with my other teammates Ben and Ricky to swim in the sea.

Creating this social contract, meant I had to do the training. I‘d made a promise to train. It’s easy to let yourself down, no one knows if you break a promises to yourself. But it is much harder to break a promise to someone else. This social contract is even stronger between teammates. The most difficult part of training for me was night training. As the swim starts in the early morning we had to be accustomed to swimming in the dark. This meant getting a train down to Dover after work on Friday nights and at around 10:30pm stripping off and swimming in the freezing, pitch black water of Dover harbour.

This challenge taught me some important lessons about willpower. We are limited in two ways, physically and mentally. If you want to try and swim 10 miles then you have to build up to it. It takes time, months, you have to push your body to become fitter and fitter. This is a very physical example, but the same principle works for other disciplines. Willpower can be improved through training. It’s easier and more enjoyable to do something when you are good at it, and you get good by developing your skills over time. I love graduating from the slow lane in the pool, up the medium lane and eventually managing to feel comfortable in the fast lane.

The second part of willpower is the social part. Our bodies are incredible: they can go for days without sleep, lift huge weights and are astonishingly durable even without training. However the social side of willpower supports our mental weaknesses. My first section of the swim started at 4:39AM. I knew it was going to be hard and I was ready. I jumped into the chillingly cold dark sea water and swam. I did my hour and got back into the boat. Cold but alright.

6:39AM came faster than I had expected. I’d been dozing in the boat when I heard screams coming from the water. Ben was surrounded by a multitude of dark red jellyfish and he was getting stung all over his body. It was horrific. I had zero desire to be jumping into the cold sea and swimming for an hour through copious amounts of stinging jellyfish. It just didn’t sound fun. I wanted to give up. I hoped that Ricky or Ben would call it, give in and break the social contract. But neither of them did. It was my turn to swim and if I gave in, it would ruin it for both of them. I had two options: either let the team down and tell the world know that I didn’t have what it takes; or to jump in that water and swim through those jellyfish as fast as I could. I jumped in.

I was lucky, I only had to swim for 4 hours. Ben had to swim for 5. Mentally the last hour was by far the easiest. We could see France. I knew we were going to make it. I knew it would be my last hour. Getting in the water for the fourth time was almost a relief. We all finally made it to the beach and hugged each other on the sandy French shore. It was hard to believe we had made it. Getting so close to giving in, but having the strength to push through felt incredible. We had won. I knew I could never have done it without the support and pressure from our little team.

I think the swim taught me a lot about business. Probably three main lessons. Results come over time and with persistence. You can accomplish incredible things if you know how to harness the motivational power of a team. Having a clear goal in sight is an incredibly powerful motivator.

I’d like to say a huge thanks to everyone who pushed me to train, to my two incredible teammates & in particular to Ben’s Mum, Karen, and my brother, Leo, who spent 15 hours on the boat with us. Without their support I know we wouldn’t have made it.

Here is a video showing some highlights from the swim -


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