Mind Over Matter: Overcoming Defeat with David Plummer

A change in perspective can alter the outcome of any competition. Just ask David Plummer, who became the oldest first-time Olympic swimmer since 1904 when he qualified for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

“It’s not easy to just say, ‘I’m 26 years old. I’ll swim until I’m 30 and I’ll be better when I’m 30. I’ll make the Olympic team.”

The 2016 Summer Olympics was David’s fourth attempt at making the Olympic team, but his hard work and perseverance paid off when he brought home two medals for the USA: a gold in the 4×100 medley relay and bronze in the 100m backstroke.

When it comes to the how and why for David’s continued push to finish out his swimming career at the Olympics, he simply states, “It’s hard to imagine my life without sport.”

“I had to take a pretty hard look at that after missing the Olympic team [in 2012]. One of the things that put it into perspective for me is I had my first son the year after the Olympics and that made it easier to say, ‘This is why I’m doing this.’ I’m doing this because I want my son to feel like he can go through in his future, whatever this may be for him. That he doesn’t have to be afraid of trying and failing.”

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Overcoming challenges and failure is a skill that all athletes develop through their sport experiences. As a young swimmer, David learned how to deal with setbacks by constantly reevaluating his goals.

“Understanding what your expectations are and how realistic they are is really important to be able to put it into a personal context and get back to what’s important when it comes to your goals. No setback is going to be your final setback when it comes to sport. It’s always what you can learn and how do you get better. We’re trying to grow. We’re trying to get better, and if we don’t make a mistake, if everything is always going well, then it probably means that we’re not doing enough.”

David practiced this growth mindset from his earliest days in the pool to his highest level of competition at the Olympics. Now, he brings this same mental exercise to his work at the University of Minnesota.

“I spend a lot of time coaching, and I was amazed at how many kids couldn’t answer why they are in sports. You see it at every level. You see it at the youth level. You see it at the college level. You see kids that really don’t love it anymore. If you don’t have a great answer to the why ‘do you compete’ questions, it’s hard to keep doing well.”

“The expectations on athletes don’t go down, they get tougher.”

“I think a lot of times athletes are introduced to the mental side of competition too late. Kids can spend more time thinking about those things that are important to them, whether it’s how to focus on what they’re doing, being a little more mindful of their practice, or if they’re struggling with their confidence. I think you can always invest more on the mental side of competition. I think it’s a gamer changer in sport and whatever comes after sport.”

What comes after sport looks different for every athlete. For David, chasing after his Olympic dream and growing a family went hand-in-hand, a challenge in itself.

The only way he could balance the demands of his competitive training regimen with his personal life was through a strong support system. With his wife, family, friends, coaches, and teammates, David created a positive sport community that helped him reach his goals.

“You have to surround yourself with the right people.”

“People who understand why your goals are important to you. Surround yourself with as many positive people as you can. I’m not a big believer that sports should take you away from your friends. The goal is to be there for both and to enjoy it as much as you can. Support is key. It’s hard to do it alone.”

“And, when you’re in a positive team culture, you can lift each other up, and really fall back on your team when you’re having a hard time. The social structure that happens within sport is a really positive thing. The more you can rely on your teammates and the more you can be there for them…the easier it gets.”