Learning to Swim

by  Deb Costello  |  Leadership Development

When I was about five my mom enrolled me in the Red Cross beginner’s swimming lessons at the local pool. I failed to learn to swim so she signed me up again. And again. And again. Six times in fact before I could swim well enough to pass the class. It is one of my earliest memories.

I went on to swim for more than ten years. I swam hundreds of races and thousands of miles. I swam for my high school team, and my name was on the school record board for a while. We were state champions twice. But these are not the things I think about when I think about the value of my swimming career.

The most significant thing that happened to me in the pool was during a random day at practice. My junior and senior year I was the leader in lane two. I set the pace and as swimming is single file, if I missed the interval, everyone did. It was my job to make it, to do it right, every day, every set. Swim ten 200’s on 3:00. Swim six 400’s negative split. Do eight 75’s breathing every 5th stroke. For the uninitiated, this is all gibberish. For me, it was the daily challenge, each set designed by a wise coach, pushing our limits, making us stronger and faster.

And I worked hard. Every day. Every set. I wasn’t the fastest, but I knew how to lead. I was consistent. We didn’t always succeed in completing every challenge, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. I always gave Coach whatever I had that day. Every single day.

Well, every day except one. I don’t even remember the set or the reason. I do remember that I was tired, physically and mentally, and when it came to the final repeat, I started thinking, “I cannot do this. I am going to fail.” And so I did. I failed.

For me this was such a revelation. I had failed, not for good reason, but because I had decided to fail. And I took everyone with me. In that practice I learned some of the most important lessons of my life. I learned about the power I had in my own head. I learned about my responsibilities as a leader. And when I stood in Coach’s office afterward, humbled, I learned that everyone fails, but it’s what you do next that says everything about you.

Fast forward 25+ years. As an adult, I spend my days and many of my nights thinking about young people. I teach leadership to high school students, and I have spent the past year agonizing about how I can help young people become better leaders. Much of what I know about myself and what it means to be a leader has come from hours in the pool. I was given the chance to lead and to fail and to learn. I look at young people today and wonder who gives them a chance to lead? Is it only through sports that we learn skills to be leaders? Can I give youth the freedom to dream and fail and pick up and try again?

The youth in your organizations today are your leaders tomorrow. What would you want our youth to learn about leadership in school? What do you do in your organization to strengthen youth and teach them to lead? How can I help them (and you) while they are still in the classroom?

What’s Next? Please leave a comment below to join the conversation…

About The Author

Articles By deb-costello
Full Bio Coming Soon  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

jacob varghese  |  02 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Hello Deborah,
Thank you for this post reiterating the value of persistence. Its probably one of the main factors that lead to success. Examples and stories of persistence are always a great way to motivate future leaders.

Deborah Costello  |  02 Dec 2010  |  Reply


I agree… a good story is a great way to help leaders understand the value of persistence. Perhaps you have a story you could share on that theme.

I wish I could say that at age all this persistence was me, but I was made to go back again and again. It was my mother that was more persistent than I back then… But when I look at that now, I realize that her decision had a profound inpact on my life. I think we forget as adults how important it is both model what we hope for in youth, but also to insist on some things, even when children are unwilling. I fought hard against going back again and again, but when I finally succeeded I was better able to understand the value of the lesson. It’s harder and harder to find such experiences or such people willing to insist. I hope we all can remember to provide them when we can for our future leaders.

Thank you for your insights. I apologize for taking so long to get back to you.


Tristan Bishop  |  02 Dec 2010  |  Reply

I’m so grateful for your post, Deborah.

What an inspiring example of perseverance: From sixth swim test to state champ! I plan to tell your tale to my children, when they tire of Basketball drills! I am personally stunned by your illustration: The power of one’s mind to predetermine an outcome. I need to immediately apply this wisdom to a couple of my own active projects.

To answer your questions, I am always grateful when their schools teach my children to stand strong, even when others do wrong. My kids are vocal about values, and the teachers are consistently supportive. Our schools always do a great job teaching the core curriculum, but I’m especially grateful for so many teachers that model kindness, courtesy and honor for the kids.

Thanks again for sharing your amazing tale!


Deborah Costello  |  02 Dec 2010  |  Reply


Thank you so much for your kind response. One of the things teachers struggle with is teaching beyond our curriculum. I do teach leadership, but I also teach calculus. Interestingly, I don’t think the most important things I teach them have anything to do with calculus. Your choices of strength, kindness, courtesy, and honor are so valuable in a world where role models favor greed, selfishness, and lack of integrity. I will take your suggestions to heart and share them with my colleagues. Our children see and hear far more than we think, and as was true in my case, the lessons can last a lifetime.


Yvonne  |  02 Dec 2010  |  Reply

What I would want our youth to learn about leadership in school and in life was demonstrated well in your “swim” story. It’s the small successes that count. So many times we celebrate the one who came in first and won the medal but never do we just celebrate the accomplishments of those who were able to finish the race. I can imagine how proud you were when you finally passed the class, so many would have given up! Congratualtions to your mother on being so supportive, sadly many parents give up on their children too quickly when they don’t do well. For many of us having the courage to “jump in the water” is the accomplishment that needs to be celebrated before we can “win the race” Being a leader isn’t just those that are out in front, but leaders are all of us who are willing to “jump in the water” and continue on despite the failures.

Deborah Costello  |  02 Dec 2010  |  Reply


Thank you for your kind words. I think it’s balance between rewarding kids for showing up and supporting their genuine accomplishments. For example, both my sons had more soccer trophies at age 10 than I have earned in my whole life. It is hard to keep them trying hard if they are rewarded for doing little. At the same time, they are children so we want them to know both success and failure, as both are vital to their development. I hope that as teachers and parents we are mindful of the kids that are working so hard as well as those that are A students. In addition, we need to remember not to do too much for them, as it is only by falling down that we learn to get up again. Our children need and deserve recognition and challenge.

I appreciate your thoughts.


Judy S  |  02 Dec 2010  |  Reply

I found your post to be very interesting and thoughtful, but I’d like to add one thing to these questions:

I look at young people today and wonder who gives them a chance to lead? Is it only through sports that we learn skills to be leaders?

Who gives young people the chance to fail? I find that today’s practice of allowing young kids (pre-high school) to participate in everything, to never not make a team, to be severely handicapping them for the real world. AND everyone gets a ribbon or medal, be it in a sports activity or classroom, no matter how creative the reason. Unfortunately this practice is slowly infiltrating the high schools and even some colleges.

I was fortunate to grow up in the 60’s and 70’s and ya know what? I didn’t make every team I tried out for and I didn’t get a reward just for participating in everything, and I am ever so thankful. I tried harder in order to make the team and receive recognition — in other words, I EARNED these rewards.

What scares me the most is that as I approach retirement age, the people I’m going to be relying upon are the ones who were never taught that they had to earn their position, instead they were taught they were entitled to it simply by showing up.

Sports is a fantastic place to learn leadership…but so too it’s a place to learn how to work for what you want – just as you did.

Deborah Costello  |  02 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Thank you for your comments Judy. In many ways I agree with you, as I commented above. Helping kids deal with failure is difficult and time consuming. It is definitely easier for some parents to just do for their kids and easier for sports programs to reward everyone rather than rewarding only a few. Just as kids are allowed to take the easy route, so too are these parents and groups. It’s hard for me to blame this generation for the sense of entitlement that they sometimes display. They are a product of their upbringing in many ways, just as I am. You have stumbled into one of the reasons why I am so passionate about teaching leadership in my school. It is the process of providing genunine opportunities for responsibility and leadership as well as failure that have me working hard. If the task is genuinely difficult and worth doing, there is usually failure, learning, and eventually success.

I value your insights.


Georgia Feiste  |  06 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Deb – What a great article. I’ve talked to a number of college professors lately about how so many of our kids are coming out of school unable to think critically – they know how to pass a test based on what they are told, but can’t seem to climb out of the box that puts them in. If there was one leadership tip I could give to youth – never stop learning, follow your curiousity and learn as much as you can about what interests you. You may not be able to apply it immediately, but what you have learned is to think, to explore, to try, and to fail (very similar to your personal story). At some point, all you have learned will coalesce for you, and you will discover something supremely dynamic in who you are, and what you bring to the table.

Thanks for a great article.


Deborah Costello  |  09 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Thank you so much for your insights… I love this idea not only because it benefits us in the long run, but because I find as an adult it is what keeps me going, keeps me interested and motivated and excited about life. The continual learning and growing is so powerful. I also know that all of the things I learned as a child, even those I disliked at the time, have come back to benefit me ten-fold and have given me great opportunity and joy.

I really appreciate your suggestions Georgia, and will take them to heart.


Join The Conversation