5 Things I Wouldn't Have Learned Without Competitive Swimming


The sport of competitive swimming gives us a lot over the course of our careers.

We learn how to deck change like Clark Kent in a phone booth. The never-ending mileage gives us a physique — the swimmer's body — that is the envy of the sporting world.

And we learn to balance a training and academic schedule that makes a 40-hour work week appear almost pedestrian in comparison.

But there are other things that the sport teaches us over the years of swimming around the black line.

Here are five life lessons the sport of competitive swimming gave me:

1. Improving at something takes time.

We all fall for the illusion of instant results at some point (some of us repeatedly, as is the case of yours truly).

Fired up, we decide on a goal, make a plan to achieve it and apply a burst of effort.

But then what?

Things don't happen as fast as we would like. And when our unrealistic expectations line up with how progression actually happens, we get frustrated.

That moment we realize we have barely inched forward in pursuit of our goal is not a great one.

Swimming will show you that mastering something takes time. It takes patience. And it takes some humility to grasp that dues need to be paid.

That moment we realize we have barely inched forward in pursuit of our goal is not a great one.

2. Success comes from being able to bounce back.

You trained your butt off the whole season. You showed up to every morning workout and dry-land session. You even cleaned up your bad eating habits.

But when it came down to the big championship meet, things didn't go the way you hoped. You added time to your PB (personal best). Or got disqualified. Or were beaten by someone who you should have been able to out-swim.

It's in those next few moments that really separate the fast swimmers from the rest. For the top performers in the sport, that bad swim serves as high-grade fuel for what comes next.

While for others, it's a reminder that success in the pool isn't for them.

3. Working hard can make up for a lot of things.

Within every group and team I swam with over the years, there were always a couple kids who were unbelievably talented. It was as though they were quite literally designed to swim.

This ease with the sport usually meant that they didn't have to work very hard. After all, speed and success in the water came so easily to them.

Nearly without fail, these swimmers would peak young and fade fast. Without the work ethic to back up their talent, other less gifted, but harder working swimmers would eventually start out-swimming them.

Believing their talent has failed them, our gifted young swimmers leave the sport as a classic case of, “If only they had worked a little harder, they coulda really been somethin'.”

Outside of the fact that hard work is something you can take pride in and grow confidence from, it is the very thing — more than talent or genetics — that will ultimately decide your success both in the pool and in life.

4. Success happens by being good often, not perfect every once in a while.

All too often, I would catch myself thinking that practice had to go perfectly in order for me to attain the kind of greatness I wanted.

In my mind, I envisioned showing up on deck each day, doing my arm swings with perfect precision, executing flawless dolphin kicks off of every wall and unleashing the most perfect swim practice from beginning to end.

I believed I would be able to do this every single chlorinated day for the rest of the season.

Which seems hilarious in hindsight because this kind of perfection is impossible to sustain.

You probably recognize this swimmer from your own life: the athlete who shows up and bangs out a handful of amazing swimming workouts, and then falls off the face of the planet for a few weeks before the cycle starts over.

With no consistency, it is impossible to build a steady foundation of training behind them to really compete at a high level.

Being really good at something comes down to being pretty good most of the time, instead of being perfect every so often.

With no consistency, it is impossible to build a steady foundation of training.

5. The biggest battle is within.

Mastering yourself, your self-talk, habits and attitude provided a more formidable opponent than the swimmer in the next lane ever will.

A classic scenario that happened on deck (and continues to do so across your local pools) is of a coach writing up a particularly tough swimming workout.

To groans, eye rolls and sagged shoulders, he or she writes out a series of tight intervals, long reps and to top it off, writes brackets around it.

For some swimmers, the battle is already lost. You can just see it in the body language.

But for others, it was all about starting. They would commit to doing the first couple. And then one more after that. And then another. And eventually, they had not only survived the set, but also had done quite well.

This ability to be able to tackle seemingly impossible tasks by focusing on starting and taking it one rep at a time comes in supremely handy in every aspect of life: a huge paper that needs to be written, a month-long project at work, doing a couch-to-marathon, starting a family.

The sport of swimming taught me that limits are arbitrary. Limits can be changed with a little prodding. They can be pushed, shattered and grudgingly nudged.

And they always make us a little bit better.