The Art of Sighting

During the triathlon swim leg, it can be challenging to maintain a straight course. There are no lane markers or painted lines below you. Most of the time, the water is murky, opaque and churned up by hundreds of nervous feet.

In order to swim straight, a triathlete must learn the art of sighting. That is, lifting their head out of the water and looking for a stationary object, typically a colored buoy.

But what about what happens after your eyes lift out of the water? When you are trying to look for something?

The Art of Seeing by Aldous Huxley might have some answers.

Straining to see

“The anxious effort to do well defeats its own object.”

“Seeing is greatly lowered by distressing emotional states.

The Art of Seeing (1942)

The sky was black, the water was grey and the occasional white cap would slosh into my face when I came up to breathe. I’m 500m into 5km of swimming and I was doubting if I knew what I was doing, or where I was. “Where is the buoy… Is that the buoy? Are you sure? I think I’m going off course…” It’s exhausting to read these sort of thoughts, so you can only imagine how it feels to think them.

I’m also physically straining to see the next buoy to swim to. I know it’s yellow and I know roughly how far away it should be, but I’ve lost sight of it, and now it feels like I’m trying to will it into existence.

In Art of Seeing, Aldous Huxley argues the harder we strain to see, the worse we see. When I was sighting for the buoy I was very tense, stressed and straining my eyes to do things they don’t naturally do – similar to what I might do when I drive without glasses at dusk.

He offers some exercises to help, like blinking more or breathing more steadily but I would suggest something even simpler for swimmers. If you are struggling to see anything clearly when you sight in open water, stop swimming. Although it will feel like eternity, even a few extra seconds treading water can calm you down and you might be surprised to see the buoy swing back into focus.

The Mind’s eye

“We see familiar things more clearly than we see objects about which we have no stock of memories.”

The Art of Seeing (1942)

I remember an art class where our teacher instructed us to carefully notice and draw the ‘edge’ of every object in a still-life scene. We weren’t allowed to lift our charcoal off the paper or look at what we had drawn until the timer rang. The end result was noticeably better than the drawings we had done before this exercise.

To use memory as an aid to vision, Huxely instructs readers to do something similar:

  1. Look at objects more analytically. (“For example, when looking at a house, note the number of windows, chimneys and doors. Follow with your eyes the outline of its silhouette against the sky. Let your glance run horizontally along the line of the eaves and vertically up and down the wall space between the windows.)
  2. Then, close your eyes briefly and conjure the clearest possible ‘mental image’ of what you have just seen. 
  3. Open your eyes, compare the image with reality. 

The sad fact is, most of us “spend our lives looking at one thing, and thinking of another”. Maybe that’s why reading a book is so painful for most people. Although this routine might sound both mundane and pointless, you will be improving your minds familiarity with every day objects that it needs to perceive.

Sighting while swimming could be a useful way to practice both relaxed concentration and more analytical looking.

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