I have a love-hate relationship with competitive swimming. I loved being part of a team, but the long and intense hours of practice and competitions could be brutal. Regardless, the benefits I received from swimming have helped me in my career. It taught me discipline, helped me to realize that I’m capable of more, and taught me to stay the course and endure any challenge I faced.
For months, I would go to daily swim practice and be in the pool for hours. In the dead of winter, I would awake in darkness to go to school and leave practice in the dark, always wondering where the light of day had gone.
One year I came down with pneumonia just before the league championship, only to get sick again the same time the following year with the flu. Swimming strengthened every muscle in my body, but sometimes wore out my immune system. I was part of a team, and our performance depended on the contributions of every individual. Despite my state of health, I swam in those championships. At the end of one of those meets, I remember being hardly able to catch my breath. Those 20 long laps had felt like double the amount, but I overcame my struggles and came in second place, having done my part for the team.
Capacity to do More
For my first meet, my swimming coach assigned me to swim the longest race: the 500-meter freestyle. I had no option to back out, and I was nervous. My stomach churned. I somehow finished the race, and every meet thereafter I performed better. I never thought I was capable of swimming the “big” events, but my coach saw something in me and that helped to reinforce my own sense of what I could accomplish.
Swimming a 20-lap race is grueling. I don’t think of myself as an endurance athlete. What made me successful was finding a pace that I was able to maintain for the duration of the event. I was slower than my competitors at the beginning, but I always caught up to and then surpassed them at the end.
My coaches trained us to vary our pace throughout the long events: to go fast at the start, slow down in the middle, and finish full steam ahead. However, my body felt best when I swam at a steady pace, a pace at which I knew I could win. “Steady wins the race” proved to be true for me.
Swimming and a career have common characteristics. They have rules and policies, officials and managers, competition and rivalry, teammates and colleagues, equipment and skills, and records and metrics.
A recent survey conducted by Ernst & Young highlights the connection between playing sports and business success, particularly for women. The global study found that 96% of C-suite women played sports in elementary school, high school, or during college, and that “67% of women now occupying a C-level position had participated in sports as a working adult.” Sports teach women leadership, the ability to motivate, and teamwork, all of which contribute to improving corporate performance.
I have learned as an athlete, and particularly a swimmer, to follow through on everything I start, take advantage of my abilities, and persevere. Discipline, the capacity to do more, and endurance are key skills to helping you to succeed in your career. The next time you go swimming or play any sport, try to identify and share with me the athletic skills that help you to be a better professional.