How An Elite Level Athlete Used Social Dynamics to Take His Performance to the Next Level

by Mike Zhark

springIn the late spring of 2011, I decided to undertake a journey to further my understanding of social interactions and the general social dynamic between people. Having heard of a company that catered to those aforementioned desires, I enrolled in an individualized 3-day program with Kingpin Social.

Amongst all of the incredibly valuable lessons I learned and experiences I gained from my program, the most important was the influence it had on my perception of relationships. Specifically, the key idea was that every person in this world has relationships with more than just people. You have relationships with everything. You have a relationship with the clothes you are wearing, the home in which you live, with your favorite sport or hobby, and you even have a relationship with your favorite type of food!

And these relationships all have profound parallels with each other.

How I interact in one relationship is very indicative of the values I exercise in another. When I embrace my relationship with formal education and begin to truly understand and appreciate learning as a process instead of an outcome, I also display the same trends in areas of my life such as dating or building friendships, where the goal at the end of the day is not necessarily to have someone under the arbitrary title of “friend”, but to develop my relationship with this person so we are always benefiting from each other’s presence.

The scary part was, as I began to look at my different relationships, the more I saw these parallels.

Examining more of my relationships, I began to see how they were related and how I could take something learned in one area of my life and apply it to another. If you are only meeting the bare standard of whatever criterion you need to pass any obstacle in life, you are significantly limiting that aspect of your life. When writing tests, so often we only study the bare minimum (that which is presented in the text), while sacrificing so much of what we could learn and use to gain an even better understanding of the topic (even resulting in better test marks). Similarly, when cooking or making meals, I was focused on the outcome of a certain look or type of dish while simultaneously failing to understand the process of how cooking occurred, causing most of the things I cooked to look great but not taste as good as they looked. Now that I was aware of different aspects of my life that held me back from growing (such as ego, absolutism, insecurity-driven perfectionism) and being the best I could be, the next step was to apply the fundamentals of Social Dynamics to my life.

So what now?

I began to apply myself by challenging each of these undesirable characteristics I held. To battle fear of the unknown, I challenged myself to meet and develop a relationship with at least one person a day, every day. To supplant a large portion of my paralyzing ego, I explored things I had never done before (such as a dance class). A dynamic awareness of how I was acting and changing served as the fuel for further change and growth. Assertiveness was more easily occurring due to momentum displacing fear and anxiety. My next great lesson came from the initial suggestion of Kingpin Social instructor Kevin Choo… the understanding of “value” as an arbitrary yet universal currency that all relationships are founded on.

The value system implies an understanding of how relationships were sustained by giving freely of one’s self in a way that is perceived as valuable to the other. In a “physical” relationship, this might be seen as providing someone with his or her favorite beverage from a local coffee shop without any expectation of a return “payment” of value (even though this would very likely be reciprocated on some medium). In terms of an environmental relationship, one person’s relationship with a clean neighborhood may provide them with incentive to pick up garbage or repair a broken fence, in which case the environment would respond by displaying a more favorable appearance. In both cases, positive reciprocity is key.

As the summer progressed, I continued to develop myself by establishing qualities in all relationships that promoted growth and reduced limitations. Each of these relationships I developed flourished, with people as well as with other “things.” Awareness achieved through comparative relativity between relationships and assertiveness through application of giving “value” enabled a better understanding of the 2-way street that existed with every interaction I held. However, I still had a few areas of my life untouched by these newfound “powers.” I would soon fatefully re-encounter one of my oldest, strongest, and most passionate relationships…my relationship with competitive swimming.

swimmingI have been competitively swimming for almost 12 years, 7 of which had been on national and junior national stages, and 4 of which have been on an international level. Within those 12 years, I have faced the ups and downs, the twists and turns, and the victories and challenges that any athlete is liable to face. There were tears. There were smiles. There was anger. There was relief. There was unfathomable nervousness. There was adrenaline. There was defeat and triumph, boredom and fun. But all of these were just phases that arrived and departed as any emotions or state do, with only one constant…an arbiter to all of these phases…my ultimate antagonist. I was that antagonist. An overarching sense of obligation was always biting at my heels to perform better.

My parents have invested so much in my swimming, I need to go fast or they’ll feel like it’s a waste.


My girlfriend will think I’m a loser if I don’t swim well…

I told all my friends I am going to be the best. If they don’t, what will they think of me?

My coach is gonna be so pissed if I don’t do well in this race…

My team is depending on me. I need to go fast. They need me to go fast.

All that matters is going fast in this race. If I don’t do that, I should just quit.

I need to win. Second place is unacceptable.



For a while, negative motivation did succeed to at least some degree. I did keep getting better and going faster for a time. But as the obligations were internalized into mantra, the innocent single clouds in the sky congregated into a dark and menacing force.

I stopped improving. I hit a plateau. The only motivation and reinforcement I knew was negative, and that is what I used as fuel to push me past that plateau. Of course, that negativity only made matters perpetually worse over time. Becoming increasingly frustrated and stressed, what was once a true joy to be behind the starting blocks ready to race was now a nightmare where I had to look down my lane of the pool and try to convince myself that I wasn’t a waste of skin or useless before my race. Though my passion was present, it had been corrupted into a malevolent aspect of my life.

Recognizing my self-defeating and perpetually destructive tendencies with regards to swimming, I quickly applied the lessons I had learned from other relationships in my life to this passion.

The Result?

Immediate and significant improvement in both my training and performance (racing) abilities. As swimmers age, it becomes increasingly difficult to achieve “personal best” times during periods of heavy training. In fact, many swimmers even separate themselves from these “heavy workload” or “in season” times as a form of ego protection and self-handicapping! Yet I showed dramatic improvement from the previous season simply because I had begun to treat swimming as a partner in a relationship. Obligation was no longer an issue, my relationship with swimming was mine alone, and I was pursuing it solely because I loved it. Pressure to perform was removed, I didn’t care about pleasing anyone else with my results as my only intent was to see how unlimited I could become. Embracing failure as a part of learning and growth only enabled courage in this relationship, courage that pushed me to be the absolute best I could be, versus what others wanted me to be.

My relationship with swimming has changed dramatically since embarking upon a journey to understand Social Dynamics. I have become more aware of how parallel relationships correlate to one another in both a positive and negative sense, and I understand that, as with all relationships, you must give at least as much as you take. I openly invite all readers to try to shift just one mentality in your life to that in which the other in the relationship is viewed as a person. How would you act if you felt about your education the same way you felt about your family? How would you operate if you treated your significant other like you treated your body? And how can each of these individual relationships help you to further your understanding of yourself as a whole?

About Mike Zhark
Young and ambitious are two words used when describing Mike Zhark. Mike was one of Kingpin Social’s students in the month of June. After deciding he wanted more options, Mike took the leap and decided Kingpin Social’s program was the best idea for him. Going into the school year armed with his newfound social skills, Mike Zhark plans to use his belief systems to his advantage to create the best options for himself in university. Mike is a nationally ranked Swimmer, will be joining the U of C Swim Team and spends his Tuesday Nights working at Mansion Nightclub. If you want to get in contact with Mike, click here.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Kevin May 1, 2012 at 9:05 am

Hi Mark,

thanks for posthing this. It has been very informative for me and has opened my eyes a bit more with my current life-situation and the things I struggle.
I haven’t been as much aware of the connection of relationships with everything you have in life and how each of them is connected with each other as I know now, thanks to you.
One thing which I am highly curious about and see a good opportunity to develop an over-all better relationship with life is the meaning of passion.
You have been a passionated swimmer for a very long time ( so since you have started swimming ? ) and it has turned from love to hate ( as both are of the same coin ) for some time in your life which you have gotten over already now.
But how have you gotten to know swimming is your passion ? Which makes it different from other activities ? I am curious to hear what you understand as “passion”. I think knowing what, in all honesty, my passion is will help me improve my relationship to life itself and to various other relationships in my life.

Best wishes,
Kevin ( But not Kevin Choo 😉 , some other Kevin )

Mike Shark May 7, 2012 at 6:34 pm

One reader asked me an interesting question on Facebook, so I thought I’d post it here.

“So you know how people say let go of the past right? 1. Do I have to? And 2. If it’s what’s best, then How?

Before I start, I think that letting go of the past implies a negative sense of the past. People keep their cherished memories close, right? People may use those memories for motivation, right? The only reason I could see for “letting go” would be to distance yourself from those negative memories. However, I don’t think that memories should be totally forgotten or pushed away, even if they are negative.

You can let go of the negative aspects of the past without having to let go of the memories attached to them. Lets say, for example, that you had a really bad break-up with an ex. One method to deal with this is to push all the bad memories away. It’s a simple (and moderately effective) short-term solution, and can be used when you have too much on your plate to deal with it immediately. Unfortunately, what tends to happen is people keep pushing away the bad or negative memories, because keeping them at a distance is easier than dealing with them directly. As I’m sure you know, this can come back to haunt you again and again, preventing you from entering or embracing new relationships.

I think a better way of dealing with “letting go” might be to try separating the negativity from the emotion itself. There is no easy or obvious way to do this, as to overcome negative emotions tied to memories you have to take responsibility for the actions that resulted in that memory and appreciate yourself enough so that you can embrace that the experience made you who you are today. One might argue that to push away memories, good or bad, is to pretend to be someone you are not.

To revisit your questions, here are some more direct answers.

1) Do I have to [let go of the past]?

No, but pushing away memories with negative emotions attached will likely have a significant impact on your happiness down the road.

2) If [letting go of negative emotion is] what’s best, then how?

Try understanding how your actions helped to shape the negative memory, and then try to learn from it and understand how it helped develop you as an individual. Being responsible for your actions isn’t always easy, but it is necessary to have ownership over your past before you can attempt to make those memories part of who you are in a better way.

Mike Shark May 7, 2012 at 6:55 pm

Kevin,

People all over the world will have different views about what passion is and what passion means to them, but I will give you my view and hope that it helps you.

I view passion as an intense and caring relationship that makes you intrinsically happy (you become happy without actively searching for happiness within that relationship).

Passion is sometimes found, but many times it is developed. As I mentioned in the article, you can have relationships with anything, and these relationships are not all necessarily at the same level nor do they have the have to have same place in your life. By extension, this means that you can get that “intense and caring” part just from developing the relationship. But what about the intrinsic satisfaction?

I think that you can develop relationships to be intense and caring, but intrinsic happiness is the most important thing when either searching for passionate relationships or developing passionate relationships. In my limited life experience, intrinsic satisfaction or happiness is something that appears to be very difficult to choose. People tend to have things or relationships in their lives that make them naturally more happy than other things or relationships. If you intend to “find passion,” it may be more beneficial to first look for relationships in your life that make you happy just by exposing yourself to them. From there, you can begin developing those intrinsically satisfying relationships to great trees of passion which all bear the fruit of happiness and satisfaction.

Finding out the things in life that you genuinely enjoy is likely one of the most important steps to finding passion in your life, and I recommend that you start here on your journey to find, develop, and bring passion into your life.

Best of luck Kevin. ☺

~Mike Shark

Kevin May 8, 2012 at 6:59 am

Hi Mike,

thank you a lot for your response. ( And sorry for writing “Mark” again 😉 )
I have a similiar view of Passion. It can make me happy without a lot invested in it.
So it may appear early but can appear later. ( Like people like to draw but find passion in graphical design for books, video games, movies )
I also think my relationship have to be better polished/taken more care of, at least the ones where I see value and can give value, so I find my passion easier or can see it clearer.
So, I am surely going to care more ( intense ) about my current relationships ( especially myself ) and if necessary end some and/or begin new ones.
However, I think I have already found a passion of mine. Inspiriation and inspiring others especially. Giving them hope too. I am going to see what I can do about it and how to develop it more. I guess my relationship with myself is essential, else I cannot be authentic and be honest ( which I both see essential for ) when I am going to inspire others.
Anyway, thank you a lot again, Mike, and I also wish you the best for your further development and relationships in your life. 🙂

Best Wishes,

Kevin

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