Going the Distance

Now nearly he's 4, but my youngest son's love affair with water started before he could walk! Every summer, all summer long - he crawled, then toddled, then ran into the paddling pool...

Now nearly he’s 4, but my youngest son’s love affair with water started before he could walk! Every summer, all summer long – he crawled, then toddled, then ran into the paddling pool…

Watching my daughter’s swimming practice at the pool this afternoon, I started thinking about how we learn to interact with sport as children. All four of my kids absolutely love splashing about at the pool; it’s a solid standby family activity all year round. The excitement of a slightly unfamiliar and unusual environment, the stretch and bounce of your limbs buoyant in the water, the freedom and exhilaration of a huge jump from the side or down a slide… It’s a struggle to get them out, even after seemingly endless hours of play.

Swimming lessons? Different story. 

Every week there’s a new and surely compelling reason why we can’t go – this Wednesday afternoon we were scraping the barrel with “I don’t have any comfortable shoes to wear poolside”. Brandishing Bandaids, I pointed to flip flops and hustled them out of the door. The end-point of these lessons is to have earned sufficient distance badges to qualify for a personal survival accreditation, so I can be reasonably confident about their safety in the water.

So I was thinking about distances , and how we tend to measure many kinds of success in similar ways: 250 metre swimming badge, running a 10k or marathon, benching xkg in the gym, scoring an A grade for a maths test, earning a certain figure salary… Technique, persistence, attitude – these qualities are valued perhaps as a by-product, or as technologies for achievement, rather than as success in themselves.

And I thought about real success – what things genuinely matter to me in the lives of those around me, and in those who lead and govern the structure of my world. My children love swimming for what it is; they have little regard for achieving a distance badge, but they do recognise the rewards brought by turning up every week, and gradually getting better. And that this ultimately means they can splash about, play, have fun, with a degree of mastery and ability they wouldn’t otherwise possess.

Getting into the sea, Shoreham in Sussex

Getting into the sea, Shoreham in Sussex

So: a PR in a race, or completing a half marathon? Yes, satisfying. Triumphant even.* But real success lies in the getting up every morning determined to run; in the rigorous discipline of maintaining your form when your GPS watch screwed up your time, or you had to stop to remove a stone from your shoe. It’s going slower to encourage a friend running with you, or going faster for that last tough interval when you want to quit. It’s going out again after a bad run, facing down frustration or disappointment.

It’s in the walking of the journey that ultimate purposes are fulfilled. It’s not the accomplishment of the task, but that the task is designed to develop us – it’s who we become through the journey, and not the destination.

So when you’re running (or whatever it is you’re doing) – by all means, aim for a particular distance, or have a goal in mind for pace or speed – but remember that your process is more significant than your outcome.

*I should point out here that right now, I’m speaking from the perspective of what I’ve read and heard from others, as I’ve achieved neither of these particular things yet. But they’re both on a fairly immediate To Do list…


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