Becoming the Best

At the top of the page there is a quote from my colleague Ken Jennings's book, The Serving Leader"You can't become the best unless others do, too." I want to offer some reflections, coming from a sport that is both individually and team oriented, on teamwork and becoming the best. I have been better than other people at a number of things, but for me becoming the best relates to a competition with myself. The best matters most if I am doing my best.

I swam competitively in high school. In addition to my school’s team, I swam year-round on a club team, which meant that during swim season I did two practices a day. The first was with my school team from 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm. At 5:00, I and the other four swimmer from my club team would dry off and go to practice number two. We would "fuel up" on the way over because 5:30 was when the real workout started.

Two hours of sprints and drills with long swims and land workouts interspersed. Not that our first practice did not also have drills, sprints, and long swims worked into them too. No, the reason why our workouts at the second practices were so much more challenging was twofold. One we had an excellent leader and coach.

Coach Hosea Holder, or "Coach," held us to a high standard. He expected the best from us and told us regularly. Already in his seventies, Coach had been a long time swimmer himself before starting his decades long career of coaching. Coach could encourage us with stories of former swimmers, and in the next moment admonish us for horsing around in the lanes. He pushed us to do our best.

So we did. Which is the second reason why the club practices were much more challenging. We were competing, everyday with the competition from other schools. Each lane had anywhere from 2-4 schools represented. We trained 2 hours a day, six days a week, year-round with the very people we wanted to beat. As a result we all got better. What started off as just swimming, led to weight lifting, which led to running, and even sprinting on land to cross train our lungs and muscles. Each day was a race.

On my club team, I was painfully slow. Having started as a sophomore in high school, years after many of my teammates had started, I was often placed in a lane with swimmers half my size. Both my sisters started swimming before I did and were much better. So while they swam in lanes with all my friends, I tried to keep up with everyone's younger siblings.

But when I got to my school team, I was a rock star. Well, not quite--there were still some swimmers from my club team that could crush me hands down in a race. The rest of the team school, however, consisted mostly of people who only swam during the season and maybe in the summer.

And while I swam at school practices, rarely did I push myself. In the lane to my right were the fast swimmers, all from my club team. To my left were swimmers who were new, out of shape, or preferred to goof off during practice. But even if I was better technically at swimming or even faster than the people to my left, I hardly showed it during school practices. No one else was trying hard, so even if I put in a good workout there was no one I was actively trying to "beat."

If I would have just swam on my school's team I would have never known how good I could be at swimming. I was never the best compared to others by any means, but I was able to get to my best by surrounding myself by others who were working to become their best. In The Serving Leader the main character, Mike, asks how “being tough on people [helps] them.” The answer that he gets is one that my swimming experience resonates with. “We try to live up to what others expect of us … Expect a little, and we live up to a little. Expect a lot, and we stretch and grow to meet that expectation.” Living up to the expectations of Coach and my club teammates not only made our team better, but it made me better. At school I was given low expectations and I chose not to grow or stretch myself.

As leaders, whether at work, home, in the community, or on a team, we grow when we surround ourselves with others who are also growing and raising the bar. Mike from The Serving Leader sees this principle enacted at the company BioWorks. The leaders there have high expectations for their students and workers. As a result the people who work there begin to actively start changing not just the company, but their own lives. Swimming taught me how others’ expectations for me and for my team could either keep me stunted or push me into greater growth.

Ashley Penman

Ashley Penman works at ThirdRiver Partners building a community of serving leaders. She also runs the social media and website for ThirdRiver. Ashley enjoys writing and is an avid reader. 



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