Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Value of Character

Competitive swimming is about how fast a swimmer can swim; how far up the ladder she can go; how many other swimmers he can beat, right? Well, yes there is a grain of truth in that statement. And yet competitive swimming is so much more than that.

If we explore the opportunities further we find that our unique sport offers so much more to all who participate. The list is seemingly endless but it begins with learning a lifesaving skill. 9 people a day drown in the United States. Competitive swimmers are rarely part of this statistic. If that is all that happens in your career, be grateful!

A swimmer learns emotional maturity. Too often we see swimmers and their parents place an inordinate and inappropriate emphasis on times achieved and places won or lost. I have coached World Record Holders and what I remember most is their character, how well they stood up under pressure and major expectations. A swimmer who slams the water in frustration, tosses cap and goggle, cries or lets out a string of expletives following a swim demonstrates they have a long way to go in personal growth. A prominent college coach we know says that when recruiting a swimmer, he wants to see the last 15 yards of the race and the next 5 minutes. If the swimmer reacts over emotionally on the downside the coach is not interested. He figures that a junior or senior in high school who hasn’t learned how to compose herself isn’t worth the trouble. A swimmer who is “out of control” emotionally at this point in his development needs to learn that from someone else. He, this college coach, isn’t going to waste his time teaching that concept.

Yuri Suguiyama who coaches Katie Ledecki – 15 year old 2012 800 meter free Olympic Champion – sums it up this way, “Best time, move on. Bad swim, move on.”

Bill Sweetenham who has coached numerous swimmers to world accolades in several countries over several decades said that at the end of the day always choose character over talent. Talent is important but it can only take a swimmer so far. Character finishes the race, the career.

On our own team we have seen this many times in the last 8 years. Talented swimmers climb the ranks only to come up short due to character issues. Conversely we have seen many of our less talented swimmers keep moving forward due to many positive character attributes. If you are blessed with talent and can develop the character traits necessary to handle the ups and downs of a swimming career (or any activity for that matter) you can go far in our sport. All the while you are learning invaluable lessons for later in life. 

All competitive swimmers retire at some point (Masters Swimmers not withstanding of course) and then move on. The success of that transition depends upon the accumulated lessons learned in and around the pool and gym.

As parents, your task is to allow (key word) your swimmer to learn the lessons. Love them, support them, ask questions, be informed and watch them grow into that someone special you envision – without “managing” them…tougher than it looks but at some point you have to trust the process. That process is defined by the guidance and direction their team takes as defined by the coaches and mentoring abilities of the older swimmers.

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