Last week I had to bribe my son to swim backstroke. He hates it and as a result, he'd refused to do it since the beginning of this year’s swim season. With the prospect of money on the table, he was willing to give it one last try.
Watching him race, I could see how much he'd improved, but he was still dead last in his heat. Though he finished strong, he got out of the pool hanging his head. He'd taken 14 seconds off his backstroke, which is remarkable, but in that moment all he cared about was the fact that he'd come in last. Had he been in a different heat that night, he might've won or come in third. In either of those cases, he would've felt pride in the accomplishment of getting so much better. Yet there he was, humiliated, hating a moment that should've been cause for celebration.
How did we get here? How did we land in this spot where (to quote the immortal sage Ricky Bobby) “If you’re not first, you’re last”?
Clearly, I’m as guilty of perpetuating this nonsense as anyone. I mean, I bribed my kid to swim backstroke. I still don’t know why I did it. I suspect it’s because the whole suburban hamster wheel is liberally greased with fear. If you don't compete, you fall behind. That's why it's scary, because it's not me who'll fall behind - it's my kids. It's the same fear that started with moms pushing strollers, comparing APGAR scores and which infant milestones had already been hit, while I quietly panicked about our lack of tummy time.
I’d like to think I’m above it all, that I can disconnect that which bothers me emotionally with what I know intellectually to be bullshit. I know that I need to ignore all the noise and just stay in my own lane.
When kids are learning to swim competitively, they're often admonished to “stay in their lane”. This is meant to correct the very natural tendency of looking around during a race to see how you’re doing. It almost always hurts your performance. If you find yourself ahead of the pack, the inclination is to relax as you head into the finish, losing momentum. If you’re far behind, it may suck the motivation required to push yourself hard enough to win.
Every so often it will have the opposite effect. A swimmer will look up, see that they’re in the mix and double their effort. It may even help them go fast enough to win, which is great but also when it becomes a habit. The problem is that if you always take a second to look at the other lanes - you will always lose that second. In swimming, seconds count.
Too often I allow other people to be my reference point for how I’m doing. Why then, should it be different for my children? We're culturally and digitally predisposed to check in on what others doing, all the time. I look (or click) around and see how other people are swimming in their respective lanes and occasionally, it makes me feel good. More often it makes me feel something else, and I allow that to diminish my own experiences and discount my accomplishments.
I find this whole thing to be frustrating because I actually believe that competition and comparison are good and healthy things, when done right. In fact, I would argue that it’s difficult to measure your progress without using some external benchmarks. To ignore them entirely is also to ignore what is going on around you, and that’s generally a pretty bad idea.
Last week I competed in a parent relay (freestyle). It was both terrifying and incredibly fun. It wasn’t until the race was over that I realized I didn't know what the outcome was. It hadn’t even occurred to me to look around, I was too busy kicking and not breathing.
Maybe if you’re fully engaged in what you’re doing, staying in your own lane is easy. The culture of constantly sharing and comparing ourselves is akin to craning our necks around during a race - it slows us down and distracts us from our purpose. There’s also evidence that doing so in the context of our children is damaging to them.
It turns out my relay team lost and, as it’s anchor, I was the very last swimmer to reach the wall. It bothers me not at all that I was slow compared to the others and that, by all objective measures, I am terrible at swimming. Last year, I lacked the gumption to put on my bathing suit and swim in front of 500 people. I’m faster now than I was in June.
I am better than I was, and I consider that a win.
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