The holiday season is a time that everyone has so much to do, so many people to see. We are all busy shopping, decorating, socializing, and serving others. For me, this is also the time for teambuilding. As a high school swim coach, I begin my season as we are ushering in Thanksgiving and most of my meets are completed before Christmas.
This year I have been especially gifted with a great group of teenagers who are not only talented, but have great potential to be exceptional people. Their team cheers before the meet are deafening, they cheer each other on throughout the meet, and they generally seem to truly like each other. Beyond their energy is the fact that their collective talents have combined to make them unbeatable so far.
As I was preparing for last Friday's meet, I felt the pressure of being undefeated and going up against a formidable opponent. Several kids were fighting illness and I knew they weren't likely to perform as well as usual. My boys team is rather small, and I worried when the meet was about to begin and one of my swimmers informed me that he was too sick to swim. Another was already inactive for the night after having his wisdom teeth out the day before.
Thought I'm not usually one for inspirational speeches, I made a point of addressing my team before the meet. The main thing I told them is that we couldn't afford any mistakes and that they needed to watch out for each other. Sure enough, not even halfway through the meet, one of my swimmers made a critical error that cost us seven or eight points. He felt terrible, and I realized that I might be able to put him in another race to make up for the error.
I dug out the rulebook and found what I was looking for. I could probably get away with putting him in another race and gain some points, but I would also be breaking a rule. No one would know, except me and my team. Even though we might lose, I knew I couldn't do it. After all, my main priority has always been to help these teenagers make themselves better people, not just better swimmers. Showing them that it's okay to bend the rules to win is definitely not what I want them to learn. Instead I informed my swimmer that swimming an extra event was against the rules and that we would just have to overcome the mistake. Throughout the rest of the meet, we tried to focus on the fact that it wasn't a lost cause. If they all worked together, they could still win the meet.
Great swims followed. These boys were determined to keep this one mistake from costing them their undefeated season. Swimmers achieved personal bests, relays worked together beautifully to win tight races. At the end of the meet, we all knew that our girls team had won. The boys on the other hand were within five points of the other team, but we didn't know if we were on the winning side or the losing side. As I approached the score table, I was surprisingly calm that we might have lost the meet. The team had already forgiven the teammate that had erred and they had united in a way many coaches dream of. Even more importantly was the knowledge that no matter what the outcome, we had earned it honestly.
The final score, my team 144, the opponent 140. We won the meet that night, and we won in all the other things that truly matter.