The Secret of Champions and Great Leaders

The Fruitless Search for a Happy Swimmer

By Susan Schilke; June 1, 2016

Competitive sports, like swimming, spark and refine the traits of high-performers – dedication, commitment and the quest for constant improvement. I had the opportunity to have lunch with Rowdy Gaines, a humble Olympic Gold Medalist who spent very little time talking about his wins.

Rowdy’s story is full of highs and lows with rather dramatic examples at both ends of the spectrum (learn more at TeamStrength Leadership Workshop 2016 or read his brand new book). Our conversation reminded me of my own competitive swimming days and even more so of my recent years as a ‘Swim Mom.’

Our three children swam competitively, and we chose the sport primarily for the unique opportunity to have three kids of different ages and genders all on the same team. We sought the development opportunities of competitive sports for our kids – discipline, fitness, teamwork – and wanted to compete as a family.

In the early days, the kids swam in a friendly summer league where all the swimmers earned a ribbon every race. Ours were delighted and would run to us with big smiles. ‘I got a purple one!’ they’d exclaim with pride. It didn’t matter that this represented 7th… out of 8 competitors. It was purple!

But as they developed in the sport and evolved to year-round swimmers, things changed. There were still ribbons – but only for the fastest swimmers in the races. And goals emerged as they pushed to achieve times they needed to advance to higher levels of competition. Swim meets became a mix of emotions – sometimes elation and sometimes disappointment.

By high school, things were more challenging. As they improved, the goals became tougher and the desire to achieve them became stronger. I remember one championship swim season when I went to the sequentially tougher meets (conference, district, regional, state) looking for swimmers who were happy with their performance. It proved to be an elusive goal; the happy swimmer didn’t seem to exist.

Sure, the kids who qualified for the next meet were glad they did, but even those swimmers typically wished they had done even better. And there were many at each meet deeply disappointed by missing their target, sometimes including my kids.

In the season of the fruitless search for a happy swimmer, two of mine made it to the state championship swim meet where, somewhat predictably, both wish they performed better… But one of our teammates, Matt Curby, won all of his events at the 3A state championship (the most competitive category). There – I had it!  Matt had to be a happy swimmer, right?

‘Congratulations, Matt!’ I said.  ‘How does it feel to be the fastest swimmer in the state?’

‘Thanks, Mrs. Schilke,’ Matt responded, ‘but a 2A swimmer beat me in the backstroke, and I just missed the All American time. So there’s still a lot of room for improvement.’

Seriously? Couldn’t someone just be satisfied with having performed well?!

And I realized something. These high-performing swimmers reminded me of my TeamStrength members. Each day, I have the opportunity to work with great CEOs and executives, who spend little time celebrating achievement, but instead focus on how to get even better. It’s why they joined.

7900848Becoming a champion is a never-ending journey. Sure, Rowdy looks pretty happy at the end of his 1984 gold-medal race, but he continued to set new targets of achievement in his life. And as I drew the comparison between these never-satisfied swimmers and the high achievers I work with, I found some optimism for the next generation of great leaders.