I love swim meets.
Our daughter, who took to the water like a fish when she was barely six months old, begged us for five years to let her swim on a competitive team. But until last summer, we couldn’t make it happen.
And I’ll admit that being a former gymnast and dancer, I was intimidated by a sport I knew so little about.
It was all Greek to me, and I had so much to learn in order to help navigate her through this experience.
But after one meet? I was hooked!
And I found myself falling in love with the sport that had been courting my daughter for so long.
Our first meet season came and went pretty quickly, and despite the early-morning grind of four-day-per-week swim practices and meets that had us out of bed at the unforgiving time of 5:30 a.m. ON SATURDAYS IN THE SUMMER, I missed it when it was gone.
Sure, meets involve long, hot days under a shade tent for a whopping 90 seconds of glory. But the time in the water is full of excitement, and the rest of the time is permission to sit.
As a family.
And just BE.
So when June finally rolled around, and the first meet of this season was upon us, we could hardly stand it!
Our daughter rocked the 25 meter backstroke, winning her heat, placing sixth overall, and shaving 1.24 seconds off her time.
Not bad for her first race of the season. A success all the way around.
Her next swim was the 25 meter breast stroke. This stroke has been tough for her (along with the fly) because there’s a lot going on with the body under the water. But we’ve seen drastic improvements in the last few months, so I was optimistic she would do well.
Off the starting blocks, she swam strong. Ahead of the pack, with the distance growing. But I noticed that about 10 meters from the finish line, she began turning her head methodically to the right and then to the left each time she came out of the water for a breath.
She was checking out her competition!
And as if the winds of West Texas were blowing against her, I could visibly see her slowing down and the pack catching up.
She placed second.
But only by 7/100ths of a second. And she shaved over three seconds off her best time. Still a very good result.
When she got out of the water, I was torn.
Because we’re a family that has made a covenant not to take youth sports too seriously. We want our kids to experiment with a lot of different sports, discover their own gifts and passions, and pursue sports on an intensity level that suits them (not us). Right now, we’re also choosing to focus on whether our kids are giving their “best effort” rather than whether they win or lose.
But after some thought, I decided to coach her through this experience.
Because I realized that concerning herself with the competition rather than focusing on the task at hand did not equal her best effort, and I felt there was a valuable life lesson I could teach her in this particular moment.
So after she dried off and caught her breath, I casually said this to her:
“You know, you almost won that race.”
“I did?” she asked, excitement dancing in her eyes.
“Yes. Do you want to know why you lost?”
“Yes. I do.”
And then, with her agreement, I gently shared what I observed during her race. She listened intently with her eyes fixed upon mine. (And I saw the corners of her mouth turn up into a smile when I described what I thought she was doing during the last 10 meters of her race. So my suspicion was right on.)
And then I told her this story that my dad once shared with me.
When my dad was 15, he was privileged to swim on a competitive team at the University of Texas at Arlington. His teammates included SEVEN future Olympians who swam in the Mexico City and Tokyo games, one of which was Doug Russell who upset Mark Spitz in the 100 meter fly in 1968. My dad was a strong swimmer, but he always describes himself as the “turtle” in that pool.
Early in his journey on this team, he suffered a shoulder injury that took him out of the water for eight weeks. Following his doctor’s instructions, when he returned to the pool, his coach put him in the outside lane and told him to concentrate only on technique and range of motion.
So that’s what Dad did.
And he won his heat by a half body length.
At the end of the race, the fastest of the team’s freestyle swimmers shouted at him:
“Where did that come from?”
And, of course, my Dad was ecstatic!
I can’t even imagine how he felt.
It’s the tale of two swimmers, isn’t it?
One who was out front. Swimming strong. And winning. But was so concerned about keeping her place at the front of the pack that it slowed her down and allowed her competition to catch up and beat her.
And the other who was able to keep his chin down, concentrate on swimming the right way (which looks a lot like “best effort,” doesn’t it?), and win the race, even against impossible odds.
But you know what?
My Dad told me he was never able to completely forget about speed again.
He says, “always in the back of my mind was the thought of that one result. The speed. Winning. Technique was doomed to take a back seat, and I was never able to swim that fast again.”
A great story. With a great lesson.
The waters of comparison are treacherous.
Because they sabotage our best efforts. They steal our focus. They slow us down. And they get us (or keep us) off track.
We can’t engage in our best efforts when we’re worried about how we’re doing compared to everyone else. And comparing ourselves to others isn’t really a fair comparison anyway. Because we all have gifts. But they do come in different ways and in unequal measures. Whether we like it or not.
Can we learn from others about how to better ourselves?
Should we approach life with an attitude of humility that will allow others teach us along the way?
But should we also be mindful about the difference between being a student and being a contender?
The former can make us the latter. But it doesn’t necessarily work the other way around.
So I think, sometimes, we just need to put our chin down and focus on our stroke.
And in our family, that’s what counts. Whether we win or lose. Get As or Cs. Strike out or hit a home run. Finish first or last.
We try not to worry ourselves with those things. In fact, when our kids do have a victory, we try not to emphasize the victory itself, but instead the areas of “best effort” that got them to the victory. That’s what we praise them for.
Because it doesn’t matter if we win or lose if we’ve given our best effort, does it?
And when we give our best effort, everything else is unleashed to take care of itself. In my own life, I’ve found that it often does.
So what about you?
Is there an area in your life where you have become too focused on what others are doing to the detriment of your own best effort? If so, what can you do today to put your chin down and focus on your stroke?