My six-year-old joined our local YMCA swim team last June. It feels strange to even type that sentence knowing her “history” with water. This is the child who let out agonizing cries while her hair was being washed until age four. The crying only stopped because she witnessed her baby cousin get soaped and rinsed with a huge smile on his face. So considering the fact that water was this child’s worst enemy for four years, being a part of the swim team is really quite amazing. Plus, there’s just something about seeing that goggle-clad child joyfully swimming from one side of the pool to the other that just makes me happy.
Within a few weeks of practice, my daughter was demonstrating proficiency in all the strokes and kicks. However, when it came to diving off the block, things didn’t go so well. (Cue the quivering lip and tearful protests of hair-washing gone bad.)
My daughter’s patient coaches stayed after practice for weeks coaxing, encouraging, and trying everything short of bribery to get her to dive off the block. Finally, one momentous day, she did it—but it was a fake-out. Although she looked fully prepared to enter the water in appropriate dive form, her entry turned into a feet-first jump as soon as she left the block.
While this imperfect dive might seem acceptable to the average observer, official swimming guidelines deem this practice unsafe. My child was informed at the beginning of fall swim season that she is not “dive certified,” and therefore was not permitted to dive off the blocks. This restriction made her sad. Yet, when I offered to work with her on a headfirst dive, her eyes filled with tears. My child’s exact words were: “Mama, it is too scary to look down into the water and think of my head going before my feet.”
A few years ago (otherwise known as my Drill Sergeant Pre-Hands Free days), I would have said something like, “Well, if you are on the swim team, then you need to learn to dive properly.” (After all, what would people think?) And I would have had my child out there practicing—despite fear and tears—until she did it correctly.
It hurts to admit that, but it’s true. I used to care way too much about how things “looked,” about how things appeared to outsiders, and so I held myself (and my children) to unattainable standards of perfection—which I tragically discovered is one sure way to sabotage any chance at real happiness.
Thank God, things are different now. My daughter only had to tell me once that she was not ready to dive headfirst. After that, I let it go. I let it be. I figured that in time she would be dive certified. And if she is content to begin her competitions by jumping off the side, then I should be, too.
Fast-forward five months to our most recent swim meet …
It was time for my daughter’s 25-yard freestyle event. She stepped up toward the blocks with the other competitors. As the other girls climbed onto the blocks, she stepped down onto the edge of the pool where she is accustomed to doing her fake-out dive into the water. She extended her arms so they covered her ears and was in dive position waiting for the start-buzzer.
Suddenly, the official held up his hand and told the girls to relax.
He said something to my daughter’s coach. My husband and I nudged each other. We knew this delay had to do with our child—the freckle-faced girl with unruly curls peeking out beneath her swim cap. I could see the official shaking his head. He was telling my child she was not permitted to dive off the side. Through hand gestures, I could see he was giving her two choices: Dive off the block headfirst or start from the water.
After approximately ten seconds of careful consideration, I watched as my daughter made her choice.
And when she did, I had an unexpected emotional reaction. Warm, silent tears began dripping down my face.
My daughter did not climb on the starting block and make the dive of her life. Instead, she gently slid herself into the water.
After giving one last look up at her competitors standing high upon their respective platforms, she gripped the side of the pool. With one hand extended she was ready for take off, looking forward in determination.
And when the buzzer sounded, the other girls dove in and my daughter pushed off the wall with all her might. As she propelled herself to the other side, I could not stop the tears, nor did I try. Because despite a tumultuous start, my child was smiling like she always did when she swam; I could see that joyful, goggle-clad face each time she turned her mouth for air.
When my daughter hopped out of the pool, she briefly conversed with the lane timer. A huge grin broke out on her water-kissed face when the timer informed her that she beat her best time. And when my child walked toward me, I swear she looked taller. Bigger. More grown up. My new hero walked toward me.
It might seem odd. I write this story as though some grand achievement occurred. And if I were to view this experience using 21st century standards of success, there is nothing note-worthy here. My child did not win her race or any of her other three events that day—nor did she dive from the blocks.
But I didn’t view this experience through the eyes of mainstream society; I viewed it using a beautiful “Hands Free” perspective … and that makes all the difference … a life-changing difference.
And what I witnessed in the water is the essence of grasping what matters—in particular, that image of my child sliding herself into the water as the anxious onlookers waited for her to climb onto the block.
How easy it would have been for her to say, “I am not good enough.”
And walk away.
How easy would it have been for her to declare: “I am not a real swimmer.”
And refuse to try.
How easy it would have been to shamefully hang her head in defeat.
And give up.
How easy it would have been to miss an opportunity to shine.
And never try again.
But this child did not take the easy route. Instead, she courageously did what she needed to do to participate. And for her that meant rejecting the pressure to do what everyone else was doing and do what was comfortable for her.
My child may not have dove in headfirst, but she gave it her all … toes first and accompanied with a smile. She didn’t let an unusual entrance ruin a perfectly good swim, a perfectly good meet, a perfectly good day, or a perfectly good life.
Suddenly this child’s moment of “weakness,” became her moment of unimaginable strength.
Friends, I am simply the messenger on this life-changing journey to grasp what really matters. And today’s message is brought to you by one of my greatest teachers along this “Hands Free” journey. Today’s message is this:
Living life fully takes courage. And sometimes it may mean doing things differently than everyone else.
Living life fully is not in the first place finish, the ribbons, or the perfect form; it’s the joy you feel in your heart because you were brave enough to try.
Living life fully doesn’t require diving in headfirst, sometimes it means getting your toes wet to see what you are made of.
And finally …
Living life fully means becoming an unsuspecting hero to those who mistakenly let perfection sabotage their happiness—because if you haven’t heard the news: Happiness trumps perfection. Every. Single. Time.
Just watch the happy kid in the swim cap.
She is living proof that it takes an imperfect dive to fully embrace every drop of your beautiful life.
In our high-pressured, achievement-oriented society, we are lead to believe it’s all or nothing … it’s win or go home … it’s about being the fastest, the best, and the standout among the rest … for ourselves and for our children. But what if we were to focus less on outside influences and expectations and instead celebrate personal triumphs and inner joy?
Becoming truly “Hands Free” for me meant I stopped shying away from living my life because I thought I couldn’t be perfect … or that I might fail … or that others would disapprove … or that I wasn’t “good enough.”
Through this journey, I learned living “Hands Free” means going after a dream with a less than perfect entry … and just acknowledging I showed up, I tried, counts for something … something that matters.
Will you join me in redefining standards of success for our life endeavors? Our children can learn so much about living joyfully simply by watching us live.
Thank you for being a part of The Hands Free Revolution . Your presence, comments, and words of encouragement are truly among my greatest joys.