Sports, Leadership & Life » A Word of Encouragement, a Lifetime of Reward
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The Sports, Leadership & Life series will explore the lessons offered by the games we watch and play. Our lineup of contributors — which includes New England leaders in business, culture, politics and sports — will reflect on how their lives and thinking were shaped by athletics in this weekly series.
Karen Smyers
May 7, 2009
A Word of Encouragement, a Lifetime of Reward

I remember the heavy feeling in my arms and the burning in my lungs. I remember wanting to cry because I didn’t think I could make another lap without being in serious danger of drowning and yet I didn’t have the nerve to get out of the pool and quit. I counted down the minutes to the end of that first workout with a serious, year-round “club” swim team, a workout that made me yearn for the fun-filled social hour that constituted the summer swim team practice. I was 12 years old.

smyers-pool-webWhen I returned home after practice and my mother asked how it was, I declared that I never wanted to go back. “Mom, those people are crazy—they just kept doing lap after lap with hardly any rest! They are masochists! Why would anyone want to push themselves so hard?”

This memory makes me laugh considering that I now make my living pushing myself through nine-hour competitions called the Ironman, arguably one of the most grueling endurance events out there. Guess I eventually figured out the answer to my own question.

My mother had the perfect response that day, one that I have come to appreciate even more now that I am a parent who takes the daily walk along that fine line between being an encouraging versus an overly pushy Soccer Mom. She pointed out that since it was my first time ever doing that kind of training, of course it felt really hard. So I shouldn’t base my decision on just that one time. I should try it again and see if it didn’t get a little easier. She didn’t say that I HAD to return (every parent knows that no kid wants to do what their parent MAKES them do), but she encouraged me not to give up so easily.

“You love swimming. And Marybeth manages to make it through all the practices. You should at least try it one more time.”

What a spark of genius, casually igniting my competitive nature by mentioning my nemesis from the summer meets!

She had been right before—I had failed swimming lessons several years before because I couldn’t seem to do a symmetrical breaststroke kick for the life of me. I couldn’t pass “Polliwogs” with a lame scissors kick. My mother had eased my dejection each time by impressing upon me that it wasn’t failure if I went back and tried again. It was only failure if I quit trying. The third time was a charm and I finally moved along to the prestigious “Dolphins” level!

So I did go back and it was a bit easier. Not only that, but one of the coaches, Al, pulled me aside after the second practice and whispered that I could be one of the best swimmers if I stuck with it—he liked my work ethic. HAH! If he only knew how close I came to quitting after the first painful practice! His word of encouragement was enough that I came home from the second practice with a strange excitement and anticipation for the future. I joined the team and my poor mom was rewarded with six years of carpooling all over the state for practices and meets.

Al and my mother were responsible for helping me find a passion and encouraging me to follow it. Along the way and without realizing it at the time, I learned some of the life lessons that sports teach so well.

smyers-timbermanwin-web1Competition (aka Marybeth) can be a motivating and positive force that makes me dig deep, work hard and overcome the fear of being swum to death.

Having a passion to which I could devote myself enabled me to dream big and to look excitedly to the future. This mindset was essential to confronting the challenge of being diagnosed with thyroid cancer later in life. I wanted to return to my passion so I was determined to sail through treatment. I set new goals for myself to motivate me and give me something positive to focus on during a difficult time.

The discipline required to endure short-term discomfort to achieve success in the long-term is a concept that is especially valid during this economic crisis. Being fiscally responsible requires discipline and patience. Just as each and every workout contributes a little bit toward a personal record, saving a little money each day can turn into a healthy nest egg over time.

I learned not to be discouraged by initial failure–a trait that comes in handy every time I try to open a CD wrapper (among other things). It taught me that when you work hard to achieve something, the reward is that much sweeter. And it taught me to embrace challenges as a means to constantly improve and open new realms of possibility. As I embark this year on an unprecedented stint as a 47-year-old professional triathlete, I am grateful for the lesson that there are no limits, only perceptions of limits.

And I am always trying to repay the favor that my mother and coach did for me by offering a pep talk to triathlon first-timers or by giving advice to people facing a cancer diagnosis. A word of encouragement or a spark of hope may be all that is necessary for someone to succeed.

Then again, it may backfire and turn someone into a “masochistic” endurance athlete!

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One Comments for “A Word of Encouragement, a Lifetime of Reward”

  1. Al Dodson Says:

    Reading this article brought tears to my eyes. See I’m the one Karen mentions as Al. Even though I have gone on to coach nine Olympic swimmers since I coached Karen, non will ever mean more to me. Reading this article was the first time that I ever heard of her almost quitting. I would have missed so much if she had. Not only is she the toughest swimmer that I ever coached, but my biggest favorite ever.

    Al Dodson

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