What can we learn from Josh Zuchowski?


By Rachel Lutz//Correspondent

Last week, we learned about Josh Zuchowski, a 9-year-old swimmer who recently won five gold medals and the high-point trophy at the Santa Clause Invitational in Florida. Josh’s friendly rival, 10-year-old Reese Branzell, wasn’t at the meet, and Josh missed the competition. But what makes this story so special is that Josh graciously gave his high-point trophy to Reese, who was hospitalized with a bacterial infection.


The accompanying note read: “You were an inspiration for me wanting to swim fast. I would rather get second with you at the meet than win with you absent.”


So what can swim fans everywhere learn from Josh’s mature display of sportsmanship? Experts dish out a few tips. 

Figure out What Competition Really Means
Josh and Reese have been competitors for years. Josh wrote in his note that he has admired Reese since he was 7 years old. “The better the competition is, the more opportunity you have to improve and excel,” said sports psychology consultant Dr. Alan Goldberg, Ph.D. If you look up the Latin derivative of the word “compete” it literally meant “strive in common” and “seek together.” Goldberg advocates for a return to a truer meaning of competition, where everyone strives to improve by pushing each other, but also rooting for each other. Even the Olympic motto, Citius, Altius, Fortius, means Higher, Faster, Stronger. “We sometimes ask kids, ‘Why doesn’t it mean fastest, highest, strongest?’” said Positive Coaching Alliance Chief Impact Officer Tina Syer. “Even if we’re the best in the world, we can still get faster. It’s about our own best personal performance.” 

Coach Positively
At the Positive Coaching Alliance, their online and in-person seminars stress double-goal coaching: striving to win while teaching life lessons through sports, said Syer. Generally, if coaches or parents hear that their swimmers’ top competition has been sidelined, their knee-jerk reaction is to be excited to grasp that opportunity. Instead, teach swimmers that no matter what, you should compare yourself against yourself – not yourself against others. If a swimmer wants to honor their competition the way Josh did, make sure they follow through and it isn’t just a passing thought, said Syer. 

Explore the Truth Behind Winning
Winning isn’t about having the fastest time or scoring the most points, according to Goldberg. Instead, it’s about athlete development and learning valuable life lessons. In competitive sports, there is an over-focus on winning and times and beating other people. Syer commented that this mentality may come from professional sports: where if you lose the game, you’re in jeopardy of losing your job. To overcome that, Goldberg suggests adopting a different attitude toward faster kids in the pool. By using Josh as an example, swimmers everywhere can create a ripple effect to make for friendlier competition where swimmers push each other. Syer also observed that athletes generally demonize and put down our opponents, but instead, Josh respected and honored him. 

Spread the Word
Beyond the good sportsmanship model, more positive stories like Josh’s should be in the headlines. “At the highest level, people should tell Josh’s story,” said Syer. “If I was coaching swimmers, or frankly any sport, I would want to tell my kids this story. And then say, ‘I hope all of you would be like Josh: that you’d rather swim in a race with your No. 1 competition at full strength to push you, than have him be out so you could take first place.’” 

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