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A “dirty” words vocabulary lesson

It is interesting to me that certain words have gotten such a negative connotation. I recently was being interviewed for a job and my would-be boss asked me about a few of the plans I would put in place, should I be offered the position. Because I was prepared for this question, I was able to rattle off a few things, from small-scale projects to the big “pie-in-the-sky”, if-money-was-not-an-issue dreams. My interviewer listened, seemingly entertained and smiled; “you are a very ambitious person”, she said. My heart dropped. My facial expressions probably communicated my feelings about the comment, as she quickly followed her statement by “but that isn’t a bad thing”! I am not sure where or when in the course of my life I got beaten down so hard that a simple word like ambition made me feel defeated. Isn’t that ironic? The very word that evokes desires to pursue a dream is one that somehow has become a dirty word that makes one feel like they need to apologize for their aspirations. Ambition, and other words like it, need to be restored as good, healthy and desirable attributes to attain. Both on and off the deck.


The adjective AMBITIOUS is described by the Webster Dictionary (kids still use dictionaries, right?) as “having the desire to be successful, powerful, or famous”. It is also defined as “one who is aspiring to achieve a particular goal. But somehow, our world has turned that adjective into something that is completely unacceptable. The term has become pejorative. People often equate an ambitious person with one who is ruthless and uncaring. Somehow, ambition is being likened to callousness and even possibly soullessness. I would propose that we restore the merits of ambition in our sport and in our children. I would offer that we want our athletes to be driven by ambitious dreams, by self-seeking goals, by aspiring ideals. Of course, those ideals, those dreams, those goals all must be accompanied by the balance of team spirit, and sportsmanship. They must be carefully weighed against the desire to see friends and teammates being successful in their own endeavors. They must not lose sight of the humanity that brings purpose to what is driving them. But ambition is not a dirty word and we shouldn’t be afraid to use it; we should motivate our children to be ambitious people. Ambitious swimmers. Ambitious athletes. Ambitious teammates.


As I continued to ponder the various scenarios that lead me to become afraid of being known as ambitious, I started thinking about other terms that have suffered the same unfair condemnation. The next word that immediately came to mind was TENACIOUS. Somehow, I have come to view that word more as a word-picture -- when I hear the adjective, I immediately think about a dog with a bone. A tenacious person is one who is “persistent in maintaining, adhering to, or seeking something valued or desired”, according to Webster. Tenacity should be something we desire for our children. Being tenacious means that our athletes are strong, steadfast, determined and focused towards their goals. It is with ambition that our children will formulate their ideals. It is with tenacity that they can progress towards achieving these goals. There is nothing wrong with being tenacious. There is nothing remotely embarrassing about being known as a person with great resolve, laser focus, and intense determination. Yes, we may also think about a tenacious person as one who just won’t let things go…..you may be reminded of that telemarketer who would not hang up the phone even after you asked him to please take you off the call-list (never happens right?). The word could evoke the idea of stubbornness. You could think of someone who is tenacious as someone who just won’t let things be in an argument. But a tenacious person needs not be argumentative. He or she doesn't have to be rude, or stubborn (although I would argue that one may need a good dose of stubbornness to be tenacious). For our athletes, that tenacity shows up every day, on deck, same place, same time, same level of commitment, same razor-sharp focus. That tenacity helps them to combat busy-ness and find productivity in the pool. That tenacity allows them to go one more lap in the mile, one more swim around the buoys in an open-water 5k, one-more set with their drag-socks on. That tenacity wins the races, gets them back on the block after being DQ’d, helps them go through physical therapy after an injury. That tenacity is what makes them SMAC-ers.


Our swimmers should be ambitious so as to have dreams and formulate goals. They should be tenacious in the pursuit of those dreams. And, in that tenacity, they must be RIGOROUS. I know what you are thinking -- You don’t like that word. Leave it to the chemist to bring back repressed memories of those hated science and math classes where rigor was a dirty word. For many, the adjective evokes the idea of rules, regulations, a strict adherence to the application of formulas and measurements. But a rigorous person is also someone who is “scrupulously accurate, precise”. Swimming takes an incredible amount of rigor. It may not be pleasant. But the truth of the matter is that as demanding a sport as is swimming, greatness is only achieved through consistency and rigor. To be rigorous does not mean to be intolerant. It does not symbolize intransigence. It does not require severity and stringency. Being rigorous, as a swimmer, means that every race, every stroke, every movement is done with purpose, with precision, with accuracy. Every practice is swam without compromise. Every set, every drill is done meticulously. That rigor, coupled with the tenacity that is required to accomplish goals brings about the strength, the conditioning, the muscle memory that allows our athletes to get the cuts, to go the distance, to achieve their ambitious dreams.


Ambition, tenacity, rigor -- three words that have been associated with negative connotations in a dog-eat-dog world where everyone is “in it” for themselves. But to be a great athlete, to be a great swimmer, to be a great human, we all need to be ambitious, tenacious and rigorous. Perhaps the last few months have even reminded us of that. Perhaps we can see that while those adjectives have been dirtied by the business world, there is really nothing wrong with them. Maybe we can come to realize that though their reputation has been tarnished, though we may have thought of them as pejorative terms, there is a place for such adjectives in our vocabulary. I understand that we must wash them clean of the stigma that may have been associated with their use. But it may be worth asking ourselves whether it would be all that bad for our children to be ambitious, tenacious and rigorous. I would argue that those are qualities that probably already reside in them -- and yes, they are qualities.



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