Why do we think sports are important?
At my school, all students are required to be in an afternoon activity every afternoon for the entire year. Most afternoon activities are sports-related: either participating on a team, helping manage a team, or doing an independent sports workout (crew winter workout, training for a marathon, etc. usually reserved for upperclassmen). Theatre, organic gardening, mock trial, and non-athletic individual projects (usually only seniors) are other options. So why do we demand that most students spend 1.5 to 2 hours each and every day on a sport?
Typical answers include: teaching teamwork, teaching students to be part of something bigger than themselves, teaching character, teaching lifelong fitness skills… you probably know a couple more reasons. All of these are good reasons, and I won’t knock them. Sports are also fun!
But I think that the most important lesson I learned from swimming as a youngster was that I could become good… actually pretty darn good… at something if I really worked hard at it.
How I learned that hard work makes a difference
I was not a “naturally talented swimmer.” As a pre-teen, I was roughly spherical (perhaps foreshadowing my own predilection for creating simplified physical models). I also had terrible eyesight. My myopia was severe and ever-changing. Within a month of getting new glasses, baseballs again appeared as fuzzy white things with totally unpredictable paths. During neighborhood football games (“hey! I can see THAT ball!”), I always heard “Hammond, you hike the ball and go long.” I went long… totally, but futilely, open in the endzone… beyond the endzone, risking my life by crossing the drive into LeBaron Caruther’s front yard (not that LeBaron was a bully… he wasn’t… but Google him and see what he was really good at, and then realize that in high school he used his parent’s front yard for LOTS of deliberate practice).
In the pool, my poor eyesight didn’t bother me. I was also rather floaty at that age (being roughly spherical and all). Yet I was slow. Very slow. There were two boys I swam with who looked, at age 10, like miniature men… washboard abs, bulging arms and thighs… and they were both ranked in the top ten nationally in our age group. They were so-called natural swimmers. Everyone agreed that they had talent. Me, not so much. But I was a good egg, a hard worker, and several wonderful coaches encouraged me anyway. Within a year, in summer league competition, I could beat those neighborhood kids who wouldn’t throw the football my way. Within two years, I was working out with my naturally talented, svelte and muscled acquaintances, and giving them some tough workout competition. In fact, I was a maniac during workouts. I remember Bobbie L., a year my senior and a state record holder, looking back at me in puzzlement asking “how the ___ are you keeping up with me?” Still, in competition, these boys could easily defeat me. It was only after four years that I could compete reasonably with them at championship meets. The vibe was ever positive and I thrived.
What I learned from swimming
My swimming experience had given me a valuable advantage: I was in possession of a growth mindset… at least some of the time. Unfortunately this mindset did not extend to academics until I was in college (frankly it didn’t occur to me until that point that I could transfer my knowledge from the pool to the desk… just ask my high school Latin teacher). As my swimming buddies and I became high schoolers, I started to surpass them… not always, but often enough. They were no longer nationally ranked. They were, as I knew from daily contact in the pool, not working as hard as I was. And their talent, whatever that was, was not enough to see them through to a NCAA Division I experience. I suspect that they felt their talent had been exhausted at some point around 14 years old. They weren’t as good as they had been told. If you’ve reached your potential, why kill yourself trying to improve any further?
Pretty soon in college, I decided the time I was putting into swimming was probably better spent elsewhere (and eventually I settled on intellectual pursuits after a short detour, but we’ll just pretend that didn’t happen). I still swam, but not passionately, and not with the same commitment as before, partly due to a series of injuries, but mostly due to burgeoning intellectual curiosity. But the lessons learned from swimming… that hard work pays off, that you don’t have to be good at something right away, that improvement feels good… stuck with me. These are the lessons that I seek to convey to the athletes with whose education I am charged. The fact that many of our students play three different sports, often being fairly good already at one or two and stinking it up in the other, gives them ample opportunity to see growth and change in their performances.
Nevertheless, I find it strange that it didn’t occur to me that, although my friends’ talent didn’t carry the day, perhaps the whole idea of talent was flawed.
Later on, I’ll write about what I learned about deep practice (deliberate practice) from swimming. Interestingly, my own swimming career involved very little deep practice, but I saw it, it puzzled me and only years later did I figure out what I had been looking at. Later, though.