Sunday, May 25, 2008

Chasing Times vs. Chasing People

We spent much of this holiday weekend at our North Coast Section Swimming and Diving Championships. (complete results). It was interesting to see the difference in the type of competition the high school setting provided versus the type that US Swimming meets often provide.

Swimming is a sport that teaches from an early age the value of achieving time standards. As an 8 or 10 year old we learn that if we go a certain speed we compete in one type of meet. If we swim faster then we “advance” to a higher level of competition. What this actually turns out to mean is that we then swim in meets where most swimmers are trying to achieve an even higher level time standard so they can go to an even more advanced meet. And so it goes until one day the swimmer qualifies for the Olympic Trials, by achieving yet again another even faster time standard.

In high school and collegiate swimming there is another dynamic at work, one that ultimately has nothing to do with time standards. This is the pure competition factor. This weekend many swimmers reached new and higher (sometimes the same as faster, sometimes not) levels of performance based upon their individual and team desires to win races. This same dynamic comes into play at the college level regardless of which level, NCAA Division I, II, III or NAIA swimming, you are competing.

We saw several athletes and team go places they had not been in terms of their speed due to the pure competitiveness of the meet. What is interesting to note is that the US Swimming process ultimately ends up in the same place as well. In this country it is the Olympic Trials. In the FINA world it is the Olympic Games themselves. At Olympic Trials once you make the final in your event then it immediately is not about times (which is what the swimmer chased for years, even decades in some cases) but rather about place. The top two make the Olympic Team. You could break a world record and finish third which means you watch on TV like everyone else. At the Games, once you qualify for the final, again based on times, the emphasis changes once again to place. Touch the wall 1st, 2nd or 3rd and you come home with a medal. Touch 4th through 8th and you don’t even get a ribbon!

So, what, if any, is the lesson here? Ultimately, swimming teaches us about how we handle a wide variety of competitive and potentially stressful situations. Some are more private and about personal achievement. Others are more public and involve a higher level of general recognition. Both have value; both are worthwhile; neither is better, they are simply different. As a footnote, it is fascinating to see how some swimmers really need the spotlight to achieve their best while others do not. That is, once again, why sport often mirrors life.

Let us know what you think! See you at the pool…

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