What I’ve Learned from 10 years of Competitive Swimming

Here I am (third from left) with friends a few years ago. We're ready to jump off the Bainbridge Island ferry and swim back to Alki Beach in West Seattle! Yes - we swam across Puget Sound (3.5 miles in 50 degree water, brrrrr) to raise money for a Junior Achievement.Peer pressure can be a wonderful thing :)

There is no sport more dear to my heart than swimming. I started swimming lessons when I was 7 years old and started swimming competitively when I was 12. I swam throughout high school and while in college did not compete in swimming per se (had no hope of making the team at Penn State), but instead shifted focus to triathlon. The triathlon bug had a firm hold on me until just a few years ago. This post is really about my experience swimming in high school, as it has had an incredible impact on my life. Nowadays I do not swim on any regular basis, but those lessons I’ve learned have helped me in many other endeavors. Here are a few of them.

Your body is capable of far more than you think it is.
Swimming is perhaps the most brutal endurance sport there is. Swimmers, even from middle school, will regularly log over 10K yards on a daily basis! Think about that, most people don’t even come close to walking that far over the course of their day, let along running that far! Swimming is a whole different story. High schools are well-known for pushing swimmers through grueling double-session workouts. My team was often in the pool by 6am for a 90 minute practice, followed by another 2.5 hour session after school! Even after pre-season training was done, we’d do marathon training sessions on Friday’s along with the occasional double training session day.

This course of training really showed me that my body is far capable of more than I think it is.  Our bodies are amazing machines, and we’re often just held back by limiting beliefs, not by any true physical limitation. I love endurance sports because they demonstrate what the human body is capable of when pushed.

Technique is more effective than raw power
Swimming is a fascinating sport because the drag caused by water makes technique and body position such an important component of overall speed. I was never that fast as a swimmer (I tend to do best over very long distances – e.g. 1 mile or more!) but during my later days of racing triathlon would do fairly well in the swim portion of longer races (usually coming out of the water in the top 10-20% of the field). Even though I am very slender (I like to think lean and mean not skinny!) technique plays a massive part.

I had several friends in college who were on my triathlon team, and they were outstanding cyclists, but their legs and hips would sink like bricks in the water. It didn’t make logical sense that I would beat them out of the water, given they were taller and far stronger (with great cardio-endurance ability), it was technique that mattered most. I remember in high school the state champion in the 500 freestyle my senior year was very short (probably 5′ 7″) with short arms, but he blew away everyone in the field through sheer fitness and amazing technique.

We can muscle our way through situations (athletics, in business contexts, in relationships even!) but over the long-term technique will win out. Pay attention to your craft – whatever it is, and spend as much time as you can mastering technique.

You can use peer pressure to your advantage
The camaraderie and group strength of our swim team was impossible to beat. Knowing that 30 of your friends were also getting up at 5am for a 6am practice helped you get out of bed. Knowing that everyone else was also suffering through the weekly “3000 yards for time” training drill didn’t make it easier, but at least you knew that everyone else was dreading it as much as you! (really – we did this drill my junior and senior years of high school for the first 2-3 months of the season, to see how our base training was helping our overall fitness! 3000 yards is 120 lengths of a standard high school pool, try doing that every week at max effort!).

Peer pressure is often viewed as a negative thing. I know that it is not. Anyone can construct their own peer group and direct the group energy in a way that helps everyone out. In racing triathlon, I rarely competed alone. In both my IM races, I had several friends join me in the race. In fact, it was seeing a close friend at mile 5 of the run course (he was actually passing me on the run as I was doubled-over on the side of the road with cramps) during my last Ironman and hearing his words of encouragement that kept me from dropping out of the race when my body was racked with muscle spasms from dehydration.

You can and should always use peer pressure to your advantage – and the benefit of your peer group as a whole.

Leaders bring out the best in others
My swim coach was one of the most effective and inspiring teachers and leaders in my life. “Coach” had a knack for knowing when to push people when they were just slacking off and lacking mental toughness (which was often the case!), and when to take it easy on them (which was rare!) when their bodies really needed a break. He pushed us farther than we thought we could go, and in the end it was always in an effort to bring out the best in us. Leaders are like that. They aren’t afraid to push, even if it means being unpopular for a little while, if the end result is about making the entire group, team, organization far better. People pleasing and making everyone happy all the time is not what effective leaders do, they are laser focused on making the entire group great.

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Those are just a few of the lessons I learned from my years as a swimmer. If you have a lesson to share from your experiences as an athlete, drop a note in the comments to this blog!