10 Career Lessons You Learn from Competitive Swimming

Courtesy of Claire Forrest

I finished my competitive swimming career just a few months shy of my college graduation. At the time, I was already aware that I’d learned so many invaluable lessons from swimming. It was through starting my working life as a young adult that I saw just how many of the lessons from my swimming career transfer over to my professional career.

10) Swimming teaches you to show up on time.

I am always shocked when people say, “I was late because my alarm didn’t go off!” As anyone who has ever swum a morning practice knows, a call from your coach when you’re late to practice is so much worse than your 5:15 alarm. 6:00 practice means you’re in the water at 6:00, and this punctuality prepares you very well for the working world.

9) You learn to work with all different types of people.

Being on a swim team introduces you to people of all different kinds of backgrounds that you might not have otherwise met. You might not agree with or even get along with everyone you shared a lane with, but you made it work. This tolerance is amazing practice for the professional world. You will meet all kinds in your profession, and you’ll probably run into someone you used to swim with at a work event (speaking from personal experience!)

8) You are detail-oriented but can see the bigger picture, too.

Every swimmer has fine-tuned aspects of their stroke for years and years, perfecting the finish to the wall or stroke recovery. But you’ve also swum a 200 I.M., where you learn how each piece fits into the whole. This translates to the working world where you’ll be able to focus on a project intimately for a long period of time, but you’ll also be able to see how you are a cog in a wheel helping the entire team stay afloat. (See what I did there?)

7) You know how to take criticism.

A swim coach’s job is to help the swimmer improve. No doubt your coach has critiqued you, and sometimes, it isn’t easy to hear. Just like when your boss coaches you on ways to improve, you know they simply want to help you be better.

6) Time management has always been the key to your life.

Most swimmers I know were never just swimmers. We were full-time students and members or even leaders of several on-campus clubs and groups. With morning and evening practice and weightlifting in between, managing your time well is the only way swimmers know to live. This will serve you immensely well in your career.

5) You’re a team player.

That feeling when someone doesn’t show up for the relay is not fun to experience. Swim teammates are family. We support each other and help build each other up. Your professional life isn’t only about you. It’s about the strength of your whole team, a concept that swimmers already understand completely.

4) You’ve learned how to win—and lose—with grace.

There will always be someone who’s a better backstroker than you. Similarly, there will always be someone gives a better interview or presentation than you. Instead of holding a grudge, swimming teaches you to view this as a way to improve.

3) You know when to have fun and when to be serious.

A happy swimmer knows how to goof off with their team and have fun at a meet. But the second they get up on the block, it’s go time. Chatting with co-workers is fun, but when you go into that meeting, you can switch to state meet-level focus.

2) You know how to be healthy and de-stress.

Fear is a cold going around the week before the championship meet. Swimmers know how to keep their bodies fit and healthy. They also know that to de-stress, all they need is a good swim. When your body is healthy, your mind is healthy, helping you bring your A-game to the workday.

1) You’re dedicated.

You got up early and stayed late at practice. You gave up countless weekends to meets. You practiced flip turns until you got dizzy. You cheered until you lost your voice. You believed after each and every race that you knew you could go faster. And you did. Attack your career with that same level of dedication and everything will go swimmingly.

Claire ForrestClaire Forrest is a recent graduate of Grinnell College with a degree in English. She is currently based in Minneapolis, Minnesota as a freelance writer. The only competitive swimmer in her family, Claire went to her first swim meet at the age of eleven on a whim without even knowing what a swim cap was. She fell in love with the sport and never looked back. A S6 classified disabled swimmer for US Paralympics, Claire specialized in mid-distance freestyle and backstroke and made national and world rankings throughout her career. She was a 2008 and 2012 Paralympic Trials participant. Claire is passionate about integrating disability swimming into the larger swim community, having swum for able-bodied club teams and her college’s DIII team. She enjoyed both Paralympic and prominent integrated able-bodied meets equally for the many commonalities they share. Over 13 years after her first meet, she’s happy to report she now owns more swim caps than she can count.



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7 years ago

All so true as an outside parent observer!!

Reply to  Amy
7 years ago

Haiti Swimming would be delighted to communicate with Claire Forrest to discuss about integrating disability swimming in Haiti. Please, respond through my private email. Thanks!

7 years ago

yup yup yup and more yup.

7 years ago

I generally agree with all of these. (Although I shrug a little at #9. I don’t think swimming is exceptionally diverse, especially compared to some other more accessible sports. It can be pretty first-world, white and middle class. That’s not meant to be a criticism, but I can’t say I think swimming through high school and D1 college exposed me to a lot of different types of people.)

But what I really want to say is this — We talk a lot about how great sports (especially swimming) are for your adult professional life. I agree, enthusiastically, 100%. But I also think there is another story here that is not discussed enough. Being a former elite athlete in a corporate… Read more »

Reply to  J
7 years ago

While I do understand the message you are attempting to convey, it sounds more like there are some serious issues you have within your office/company. I wouldn’t apply your particular office environment to the general “corporate world” because your company clearly is not the standard. While the company may be large and global, I highly doubt the success has come from the policies and attitude you describe above-you don’t even sound happy there.
Look around at companies like Google, Zappos, Facebook etc- these are the companies that are THRIVING on excellent employee reviews and company feedback, I’m not sure where you get “silent feedback” as being a corporate norm-that’s just a recipe for high employee turnover and constant training… Read more »

Reply to  swammer
7 years ago

Totally agree that there are companies that are doing it well. Certainly. But there are also a lot that are not. “Silent feedback” is a real thing, and it is not isolated to just a few bad companies.

Reply to  J
7 years ago

I will agree with J. That silent feedback is where it’s at these days. I worked for a top 100 employee to work for and they were exactly that way. It’s frustrating when you have goals and things you want to achieve and your employer sees it completely different. Unfortunately I have worked for many amazing company’s fortune 100 company’s, top
Employee company’s. In the end you need to find what works for you and your life. “Recreating the team” in a workplace that won’t allow you to express yourself obviously isn’t a healthy environment.

I am a stay at home dad now and my boss is a 33″ 1 year old. So my life, schedule and team… Read more »

Cynthia mae Curran
Reply to  J
5 years ago

I don’t know about that, In Track and Field I see few whites dominate the sprinting events at least at the elite level. There are many Asian swimmers, Asians are only 5 to 6 percent of the US population, Its just Afro-Americans and Latinos are underrepresented, So Cal high swimming is about 25 percent Asian from what I see.

Cynthia mae Curran
Reply to  Cynthia mae Curran
5 years ago

I mean at the high school level So Cal swimming is about 25 percent Asian. Latinos are really underrepresented since they are about 50 percent of the high school population in Southern California.

7 years ago

In reference to the above. I agree that the corporate world is tough I think they are learning that team work is worth fighting for. I work in Healthcare and was also a collegiate athlete. Working as a team benefits the patient. The lawyer from above needs to change jobs or at least firms. The goal in life is to be happy and well adjusted. If your at a job you dislike change it. A person spends way too long in the work force to be miserable. I personally love my job and I’ve been happily doing it for almost 30 years. I’ve also taught my children about being happy in their choices in life careers!

Reply to  Michelle
7 years ago

Your advice to the lawyer was a bit glib. Just chuck a job because it’s frustrating? I find Sean Killion’s advice, below, to be relevant here: “The ability to work hard over an extended period of time without a lot of instant gratification is one of the most under rated attributes for success that I see in business”.
Anyone in a fairly high level job is going to find that there are some aspects of it that they just have to tolerate in order to reach their broader goals. Just as we had to put up with the sets of 16×400 free (or worse, IM) during our swimming careers to reach our swim goals (I was a distance swimmer),… Read more »

Reply to  Catherine
7 years ago

Thanks Catherine. There is a broader goal to reach and I am sticking to plan for now. I love the reference to 16 x 400s. It also works for dental procedures. No kidding, every time I go to the dentist, I just say to myself: it’s not a 400 IM. You’ll be fine.

7 years ago

#9 the gender gap is erased. As a teacher, coach, and former swimmer, I feel that while swimming may not be particularly diverse sport, it is by far the most gender neutral sport. Boys and girls train and work together as equals for many years in developmental programs. The maturity of swimmers and comfort around the opposite gender as they grow up surpasses all other sports. Its ironic that the most equal sport, suffered huge hits due to tittle nine. In fact, the first lawsuit over tittle nine resulted in the elimination of the boys program at Washington State University in 1979. Thank goodness they modified the system, or the boys would no longer have swimming at the college level.

Sean Killion
7 years ago

You hit the nail right on the head! I’d add a few more:

11.) You Know How to Work Hard: The ability to work hard over an extended period of time without a lot of instant gratification is one of the most under rated attributes for success that I see in business. Most people (in my opinion) do not understand how to do this nor have the mental toughness to grind it out when required. The former swimmers that I’ve worked with over the years intuitively know this and simply go make it happen. Extra points go to distance swimmers (and other endurance athletes) for taking it to the next level on this topic.

12.) You Know How to Handle… Read more »

7 years ago

This is good stuff and brings back good memories, but I don’t think #9 is accurate, and #6 is totally off. Time management is so much easier with constraints provided by the rigid schedule of school and sports, but I think many of my most successful friends and colleagues who had total flexibility in their schedules as kids and college students taught themselves how to manage their time without anyone telling them how to do so. When I finished college swimming, it was rough trying to adapt to a new schedule without classes and practice times structuring my day. Numbers 5, 3, 2, and 1 have totally helped me cope, though, and #5 has been key – being a team… Read more »

Reply to  Frederick
7 years ago

I agree with, Frederick, that as student-athletes, swimmers are forced to manage their time and that once your swimming career is over, the lack of structure can make it hard to be as successful. I think most of us have been there, where we’re excited for that week (or 2) off at the end of the season but you end up accomplishing next to nothing because without all the constraints on your time, you stop managing it. However, what swimming also teaches you this way is that you are more successful with a strict schedule. When I first stopped swimming, I never accomplished anything! But after realizing how much the structure and constraints actually helped me, I realized I could… Read more »

7 years ago

Totally true. My son isn’t a swimmer but these apply to many other sports! 🙂 The sacrifice and hard work will pay dividends in the real world!!

Reply to  Theroadlesstraveled
6 years ago

Except, of course, when sacrifice and hard work do not pay off – either in swimming or in the “real world”. Happens all the time. Has happened to all of us. We’ve had that year swimming or that year on a tough job, busting our behinds, sacrificing personal life, family life, health, etc., and received nothing back except the proverbial kick in the teeth. Sometimes more than a year. God love ’em, some people are stuck in this loop forever.

Better to work smart, both in swimming and the real world. Know your strengths, leverage them, and find good people to work around you and help guide/mentor you. Have specific objectives and goals, and prioritize time and effort to… Read more »