Learning to Swim

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?