The art of resilience – there’s never a wrong age to learn it

This is a story about my girl Lucy. A story of resilience and dogged determination – two values I regard highly. It’s a story whose lesson most adults could learn from, and a story which is equally valid when applied to dealing with tough situations in our business as it is here in the childhood swimming pool.

Lucy was determined to give the school swimming trials a go. As a grade 3 it was the first year she was eligible. Not many of her friends were keen to try out, in fact there were only 8 girls out of about 55 who were attempting it. She’d been equally excited and nervous all week, unsure of what to expect, but really wanted to give it a crack regardless. She’s a great little swimmer but not what I’d call a natural fish.  However, she’s very competitive with herself, so she wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass her by.

Her race was up first and it was the compulsory freestyle – not her favourite stroke, but a necessary one. I could see the nerves on her face, but she patted her friend on the back to encourage her and made a joke at the starting line to cover up her feelings.

She started strongly and completed her first lap in 5th place, but on the way back, took in water, lost confidence and fell apart. She just stopped and completely broke down – in front of one hundred of her school mates, teachers and parents. She simply couldn’t swim another stroke. I stopped dead. Waiting. She was mortified, upset, alone, embarrassed and utterly distraught. I felt her pain in the pit of my stomach and just wanted to dive in and have the pool swallow us both up.

After I pulled her out of the water she was inconsolable for 10 minutes and yearned to disappear. She had wanted so much to finish the race and feel good about herself, but that goal was destroyed in a split second.  In those blubbering 10 minutes, she blurted out that she wasn’t going to swim any more races. She was ashamed and wanted to go home. She hid her face in my chest and sobbed. Though she knew backstroke was coming up, which was her favourite, she just couldn’t bare the thought of getting back in the pool.

It was in that moment that a major parenting dilemma washed over me like a tidal wave.

Not my first mind you, but this was a rather large and public one.  Do I calm her down, not give in to theatrics and then firmly encourage her to get back on the horse, (hoping like hell she wouldn’t fall apart again, and would therefore be proud of herself for continuing)? Or do I let her curl up in my arms, revel in her misery for a bit, and call it a day? I was terrified of making the wrong decision and being perceived as the pushy ‘heartless’ mum, or, equally bad, the mum who let her kid give up. I fought the tears in my own eyes and the bile in my throat, as I felt every inch of her embarrassment and pain in my own body, but I had to make a call.

I chose the former… because I know my daughter.

After the freestyle races were all done, about 30 minutes later, her age group was called for backstroke. I looked up in the stands and there she was, wrapped in her towel, hesitating. I could tell she wanted to do it, but was so frightened of making a ‘fool’ out of herself again that she was rooted to the spot. Then after what felt like a split second, she was in front of me on the blocks ready to race.  I don’t know what propelled her forward but there she was.

I couldn’t have been more proud, or more terrified.

But she got in that water and raced her heart out. She didn’t win, but she finished and was beaming. She was back on the horse and the day was suddenly fun again.

I thought that was it, that she had done what she needed to redeem herself. But no! There she was, minutes later, lined up for the breaststroke race. I was REALLY nervous for her this time, because 50 m breastroke isn’t easy for anyone, let alone an 8 year old who only learnt it last year! But she did it, and she kept her form, and she didn’t come last in her heat either!!! Remarkable.

And then, the unthinkable. She fronted up for the butterfly race. My god, really Lucy? You’ve proven your point hon.

But no, she was there to race and race she would. Most of the kids didn’t even do the breaststroke race, let alone attempt butterfly, but there she was, giving it a red hot go.

She didn’t quite finish her 50 m butterfly (umm, neither would I!!) but she gave it an amazing shot. And this time, there was a different reaction to not finishing.  She didn’t fall apart. She didn’t cry. She didn’t feel out of her depth.  She was so chuffed that she’d even gotten in the pool for that one, when only 6 out of the 18 in her age group did, that she was actually pleased she’d made it to the 35 metre mark.  There was no sign of the earlier humiliation she had suffered.

It turns out she was swimming against both grade 4 and 5 girls, as well as the handful of grade threes. It also turns out that many of the boys who swam well in their freestyle didn’t even give the other strokes a crack for fear of not doing well. And not that it really matters at all what the other kids did or didn’t do, but it was interesting to see this behaviour play out.

Lucy showed more heart, desperate determination and resilience than I’ve seen displayed in a lot of adults.

She had been mortified, but managed to pull it together to ensure she left those trials with her head held high.  In the aftermath, she appeared to have moved on from the humiliation.  She was even able to muster annoyance that she didn’t win a ribbon or make the team, but I know she was also quietly pleased with how she played the game.

They’ve been taught about resilience at school through the use of a puppet called Ricky. But until this incident, it had all just been theory, concepts, a worksheet.  THIS swimming pool incident was practise, at its finest.  Once the dust settles I know Lucy will realise that she learnt a serious lesson that day, one that will stay with her for life and become part of the fabric that makes up our little lady.

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It wasn’t fashionable to teach my generation to be resilient.  There were no puppets, no worksheets, no awards for resilience at assembly.  I guess we just learnt it as a result of being told to ‘dust ourselves off and get on with it’, or via the oft-muttered Aussie phrase: ‘she’ll be right mate’.  Perhaps there is greater need to teach these skills now, in the new digital era, with increased media exposure, the age of celebrity, terrorism and bullying.

But it’s not only the kids who need to learn resilience.  Entrepreneurs need resilience. Business owners need resilience.  By the bucket load!  When you build a business, you will encounter many ups downs and roundabouts. You must be prepared to have setbacks but then pick yourself up and keep going. If you don’t, you might as well not even start. Short of sounding like a doomsayer, it’s true! Running a business is extremely rewarding but it is only that way because of the obstacles you must overcome and the dust you must brush off to get to the reward.

Entrepreneurs also need heart. A big bold, lion-sized heart that is filled with determination.  People will challenge you, your ideas will be scoffed at, your fortitude will be tested.  And yet, you must keep believing in your value, your offering, your ability to make change.  You must keep demonstrating that you can and should be doing whatever it is that you do. You need to keep kicking and paddling. Because if you don’t, who else will?

We can’t always have our mum standing by to pull us out of the pool.
You do need to learn how to get out, then get back in between those lane ropes again – on your own.

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