'Swimming was always the easy part'

Daniel Walker reviews documentary Against the Tides, about Beth French and her Oceans Seven challenge.

Extreme swimmer Beth French recounts how ‘When I was younger, the things that drove me forward, the things that lifted me up, were images of a future that had adventure’. What better adventure than for her and young son Dylan to travel the world completing the seven most dangerous sea channel crossings, all within one year? This has never been done before: with the challenge totalling 128 miles in the most gruelling conditions, it is difficult to comprehend the mentality required from a single mother of a young child beginning to display autistic traits. Here, I explore the psychology of Beth’s extraordinary endeavour.

Beth presents a strong, independent individual throughout, as we might expect of someone embarking on such a challenge. This is visible when communicating with her team before swims, providing feed instructions and the game-plan if they encounter a shark. The suggestion to ignore potential death and hope it swims away was comical but demonstrates the sheer dedication to her goal, synonymous with successful sportspeople. 

I’ve recently subscribed to The High-Performance Podcast, where the hosts often hear of the consistency required to maintain a high-performance life. Beth also endorses this. To be able to complete the seven swims across the year, consistency will be key. Another motivator for Beth is her son Dylan. Having struggled in her adolescent years diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, it is important to Beth to set a good example to Dylan, albeit problematic when scheduling payments two years in advance of swims totalling £83,000.

To apply these motivators, Beth consistently displays a high level of focus, with little distraction. This can facilitate sporting performance and we see Beth ‘in the zone’ or the ‘zone of optimal functioning’, whereby arousal and performance are both at optimal points. At this peak, she is determined to negotiate the crossings but fails to realise the impact this has on others. This technique of allowing little external distraction is useful to avoid increases in arousal that could lead to a sharp performance decrease, known as ‘catastrophe theory.’ 

Unfortunately, as each crossing is completed, the impact on Dylan becomes clear, with him visibly distressed before the swim in Japan. When asked why she would put him through it, Beth responded ‘I can’t take myself there’ – she’s upset as a mother, but also knows that enabling this stressor would be detrimental for performance.

Beth explains her love for swimming comes from her ‘brain shutting up long enough to hear what I can feel’, and this is seen during the Tsugaru Strait crossing where ‘catastrophe’ strikes. Suddenly her motivations change, and she realises how the challenge has impacted on Dylan. The film, therefore, provides good insights into the psychology of high-performing athletes, but also the mental challenges that accompany these feats. After all, as Beth says herself, ‘swimming was always the easy part.’

Reviewed by Daniel Walker BSc MRes; current PhD Researcher & Graduate Teaching Assistant investigating the impact of sport-related concussion on mental health, cognition, and quality of life. E: [email protected]T: @walkerd_ehu 

Find out more about the film.

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