I swam from five to fifteen years old on our community swim team. For most of those years, we lost meet after meet. I learned lifelong, enduring lessons through the persistent swim team losses even as I experienced individual victories.

The spreadsheet must expand to track many tiny accomplishments that winning teams might overlook or not even know to exist. The radical acceptance of losing becomes a surrender into something greater – the development of qualities inside a person, the members of the team, that can last a lifetime.

Here is some of the wisdom that has emerged that most likely can be applied to other life experiences:

  • You must love to swim and be willing to improve your stroke, your technique, micromovement by micro-improvement. Being willing to grow and evolve yourself as a swimmer who is learning, fumbling, and showing up, again and again, is fundamental.
  • Be excited about the micro-improvements in your teammates. Focus out, pay attention, and celebrate the growth of each person on your team. Being a Team means cheering for everyone, from the individual who excitedly, unexpectedly wins their heat to the person who made it back to the wall of their event for the very first time. Get to know your teammates as people, as friends with lives beyond swimming. Friendship bonds formed in shared, challenging, character-building, joyful experiences can last a lifetime.
  • Welcome every new swimmer, teammate. Let them know it’s okay to feel scared, awkward, and brave because that’s how you felt, sometimes still feel.
  • Learn to ignore the braggers, the swagger from trophy collecting top swimmers. Their need to brag out loud can fuel your desire to best them in the pool from lane one. Silently note who you want to be if you win. Bragging can be annoying and often comes with arrogance mixed with fear rather than a silent, centered, dignified knowing of what’s possible. The wins of yesterday become today’s ego trip. Ego tripping based on past accomplishments and performance can distract you from present moment focus.
  • Congratulate the winners of your heat every single time. It builds the muscle of dignity and humility, knowing that if you are ever a winner, you will happily shake the hand of your more than worthy competitors.
  • Good sportsmanship qualities can flow out into every aspect of your life as you expand your appreciation for what others endure and achieve in many domains of life. Be inspired by the gifts of other people and celebrate their accomplishments. Know that showing up with joy makes it possible for them to shine as stars. You become the wind beneath their wings, their motivation to move swiftly through the water. Your courage sparks their bravery.
  • When you are a beginner, there is no need to compare yourself to top swimmers. That’s like being a tadpole expecting to leap like a frog. Top swimmers can be a source of inspiration for your improvements. You know what’s possible because someone has achieved those goals, but that may not be your destination, or maybe it is. Either way, focusing on becoming a stronger swimmer in the showing up, in the discipline of practice and improvement, will reap rewards in your body, mind, and character.
  • Delight in the experience of swimming which includes achieving your personal better time than the last race time. Overcome the terrifying wave of water inhale, that choking, struggle for oxygen, that then caused you to break your stroke, got you disqualified. Both situations become part of the dance with tears of apprehension, bravery, sweet relief, and delight. You realize you can immerse yourself in the joy of simply finishing the race without being disqualified, which becomes a lasting victory of mental, emotional, and physical resilience.
  • Being in the water and moving the body must be a love, not a like or a meh. This love and passion will see you through all losing seasons. That choice must come from inside yourself rather than someone else’s expectations or the fulfillment of their unfulfilled dreams.
  • Showing up for yourself and your teammates can become a joy in and of itself. Savor the experiences of swimming: the sounds of whistles, cheers, splashing, “Take Your Mark, Beep”, the smells of chlorine, sunblock, concessions, the feel of hot pavement on bare feet, the deep breaths at the wall after a race, your coaches voice celebrating your improved time, and the look of joy on the faces of your teammates when your relay team unexpectedly wins the race.

In a larger world full of winning, the wonder and majesty of measuring the breadth and depth of what grows within cannot be overlooked.

Laura Staley is the founder of Cherish Your World and the author of her inspirational book Live Inspired.

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