If you read this blog regularly, you know I used to swim and coach swimming. I received news the other day that one of the swimmers I coached in the past got a head coaching job. This past year, a girl I used to coach (when she was, like, 6) qualified for the the World Championships. I felt a tiny little bit a pride in seeing these two swimmers succeed in swimming. Here are two very, very successful swimmers in two different areas of the sport.
But, looking at it, that’s two swimmers out of, how many? A couple of hundred? By that measure, I’ve been an absolutely horrid failure as a coach. I guess no less of a failure than I was as a swimmer; I’ve never came anywhere close to making Nationals, let alone a national team. My parent and I spent thousands of dollars on training, equipment, swim camps, and trips to swim meets. I don’t even want to count the number of hours I spent in the pool, at the gym, in the weight room, training. For what? To what end? And all the time I spent on pool deck as a coach, breaking down video, planning workouts, organizing swim meets, and holding swimmers hands through nerves and disappointment.
These two swimmers are not the only swimmers I take pride; I am friends with many of my former swimmers on Facebook, and they are all successful people in their own right. They almost all do something other than swimming, although some have gone on to become lifeguards and coaches themselves before embarking on their chosen career. Many of them still swim, for fun, or run, or cycle, or play soccer, or some other form of physical activity. I’d like to think that their success is, in part, because of my influence as a coach.
I feel pretty confident in this assumption because despite my “failure” as a swimmer, I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. I learned so much more than just how to swim from one end to the pool to the other over and over as fast and efficiently as possible. I learned how to be a part of a team. How to deal with failure. How to persevere. How even the smallest success can be overwhelmingly satisfying. How important health and fitness
are to my well-being. These are lesson that will stay with me the rest of my life, that I can call on when I need them.
While I teach writing, which is possibly the most practical and necessary of skills in this information age, my “training” (ugh, I hate that word) is in comparative literature, often seen as one of the most superfluous and decadent of majors. I don’t miss the days of going to undergrad recruiting fairs and answering indignant parents when they ask, “What can you do with a degree in comparative literature?” While I never appreciated the question, “Are you going to the Olympics?” when I revealed I was a swimmer, I was never asked, what are you going to do with that? The (gag) return on investment on my years of swimming is negligible if you use any sort of objective metric (my best times, success of the swimmers I’ve coached). But no one expects those sorts of returns. So why are we so resistant to seeing the biggest picture of the value of the humanities?
The skills and experiences I had studying literature will also stay with me, regardless of my career. There are books that have literally changed my life, and books that have also literally saved it. In the same way that I can go to a pool, throw on a pair of goggles, dive in, and immediately feel better, I can pick up a book and have the same experience. My life is richer for having swam and for having studied the humanities. But only I have to explain and justify one of them.