What Swimming Taught Me About Leadership
Be the first one off the blocks
“Swimmers take your mark. Bang!” Any swimmer will tell you that in a race, every detail matters. The start, the turn, the position of your body are all critical to keeping the edge you need to win a close one. Swimmers are fanatics. We shave our arms, legs, and heads just to shave one second of our fastest time. Your first and best chance to win a race is to be the first one off the blocks and into the water. It takes a lot of practice, planning, and preparation to be ready for this moment. It lasts less than one second. If you false start, you get disqualified. If you hesitate, you’ve lost. You must be ready to seize the earliest opportunity to win.
Freshman swimmer at Marymount
Your goggles will come off. Don’t panic
After my embarrassing failure in the 100 IM, I learned how to dive in so that my goggles were less likely to come off upon entry. In subsequent races, I became adept at pulling the goggles down around my neck, ripping them up off my head, and even breathing with my mouth half obstructed. Despite vigilant preparation, unexpected moments still occur. You must be able to remain calm and adapt quickly.
At MU, Coach Clark had a bucket of goggles that were painted with opaque, black paint. We learned how to count our strokes and swim without sight. He had us practice on Sunday nights. With the lights out. I knew precisely how many strokes it took to get across 25 yards of water with my eyes closed. Eleven.
As a coach, I hammered this into the hearts and minds of my swimmers. The end of the race is when we are most tired. I trained myself and others to push hardest at precisely this moment. Get there first. Put your head down and don’t even think about turning your head to take a breath. Leave it in the pool. Picture swimming beyond the wall 10 yards through the concrete. Coach Clark used to say, “Swim past the pain.”
Finishing strong in my last home meet as a Leafmore Dolphin.
After winning county, I couldn’t fathom that I had more to learn about swimming. Coach Clark showed me I was wrong. As cliche as it sounds, I truly learned that hard work pays off. I adopted the belief that growth beyond what you can imagine is possible. You have to be open to what others can teach you from their wisdom and experience if you want to be the best. Seek wisdom. Seek mentors.
Be a Coach
The scales are balanced between my fulfillment as a swimmer vs. swim coach. I wouldn’t be good at one without the other. I learned as much in my role as coach as I did swimming. Sharing your unique knowledge and skills is a gift. Teach others. Celebrate when they surpass you.
Giving a swim lesson in 2001 in the same spot where I learned in 1983 at Leafmore.
Late bloomers should not be underestimated or counted out
Sometimes they go the farthest.
Since the summer of 1983, swimming has been a huge part of my life. The pool was located beyond the woods at the end of our neighborhood cul-de-sac. My first official lessons were at Leafmore Creek Park.
With my Dad and sister in 1982
Two summers later I joined the swim team as a wide-eyed newcomer. Most kids my age joined the swim several years earlier. I had some natural ability and a lot of fun at the pool, but I cried when the coach put me in the 100 IM (Individual Medley – one lap of each stroke) because I was not confident about swimming butterfly or the distance of four laps.
Showing off our ribbons the morning after a swim meet.
The coach and my parents gave me a pep talk and convinced me to get in the race. They saw potential in me that I did not yet see. I choked on my goggles and they had to pull me out midway through the first lap. It was embarrassing, but I didn’t quit.
In 1993, I was hired as an assistant coach. I joined Dynamo and committed to life as a ‘year round’ swimmer. In 1994, I was the fastest 15 & over in Dekalb County in 50 yard freestyle and 50 yard breaststroke at the championship meet. I was a late bloomer.
I continued swimming in college at Marymount University my freshman year. Coach Clark completely changed my stroke technique and I became much faster. I broke 3 individual school records and 4 relay records. After one year, I transferred to UGA and my career as a swimmer was over. My career as a swim coach was just beginning.
I coached the Leafmore Dolphins from 1993 to 1999. Our team was undefeated 5-0 in 1999, a feat that had not been accomplished at Leafmore in 30 years. The last time the Leafmore Dolphins were undefeated was in 1969. They were coached by another UGA graduate, Phil Houston, my Dad.
Coach Houston (my Dad) in red shorts on right 1969.
Coach Houston (me) on left in blue shorts 2009.
I returned to coach the Dolphins from 2006 to 2009. Once again, the team was undefeated 5-0. Leading the swim team at Leafmore was my favorite job.
Swimming led to many great opportunities including the chance to volunteer at the 1996 Olympics where I had full access to the pool deck and met some incredible athletes and people.
Meeting President Jimmy Carter at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Swimming gave me countless opportunities.