I remember the first time my son participated in a swim meet that had preliminaries and finals. It was his first year swimming and the meet was held at the US Naval Academy. During preliminaries he tied for second alternate in the 50 free. That meant that if he won the swim-off and two other swimmers who had already qualified for finals decided to scratch that he would get to participate in finals that same evening. As we watched the other events and waited for his swim off, we heard the announcer periodically stop to share the results. He would name all of the swimmers who qualified for finals before stating, “You have 30 minutes to declare your intent to scratch.” We knew what scratching meant, but thought the inclusion of the words “declare your intent to” a bit odd. Truth be told, it wasn’t until last week, four years after I heard it the first time, that I looked it up. Turns out that declaring your intent to scratch is a means of delaying your decision. That is to say that if your decision to scratch from an event is contingent on how you place in one or more subsequent individual events, you may delay your decision to scratch from an event until no later than 30 minutes following your last individual event. To preserve this right, the swimmer or the swimmer’s coach must indicate that intention. 

Back to Annapolis…my son won the swim off and earned that “coveted” second alternate spot. Seeing as it was the first time he made it that far into the process, we proudly left the pool, enjoyed a nice lunch and eagerly came back for finals. After warm-ups and waiting for his finals to begin, we learned that no one had scratched and none of the swimmers failed to show up. Veteran swimmers know to expect that, but we were not yet a veteran swimming family. In reality, if you think about it, why would anyone scratch from finals if they qualified and weren’t hurt? 
In my profession, our version of “finals” are promotion boards. It is where a select group of senior officers selects the best of the fully qualified for promotion to the next rank. In my case, being selected this time around would mean becoming an Admiral. And having been the Executive Assistant to a Four Star, I know what that life entails. Unlike swimming, there is no swim off, but there certainly is an opportunity to scratch. Unfortunately, there is no opportunity to declare one’s intent to scratch. As my wife and I contemplated what selection would mean, there were scenarios where being selected seemed exciting. Using the “intent to scratch” model, If we could keep our family at our current duty station until “x” and we were assigned to “y”, promotion and continued service would be an honor. But service in the military does not afford the luxury of such control and being overly accommodating to the individual is not healthy when leading a team. Because we were not “All In” on accepting any and all potential scenarios selection for promotion might require us to execute, I scratched again this year. In doing so, I am not saying that I expected to be selected and I am not saying I don’t want to serve at that level. Then again, I guess that’s exactly what I am saying…at least the latter.
Swimmers scratch from finals in one event when performance in another event takes priority. I remind myself again this year that highly motivated professionals choose to scratch from promotion when performance in other parts of our life take priority or when we anticipate that the professional trajectory we are on will provide us with diminishing levels of joy and fulfillment. I am not proud of the fact that I scratched and I certainly am not quitting on my teammates. But I am pleased that I remain committed to my personal priorities, that I know what type of service to others brings me true joy, and that I have a partner in my life with whom I am fortunate enough to navigate these decisions. Scratching from something is a one way trip; there isn’t a do over. But blindly taking my mark on the blocks for the next event without giving the potential outcomes proper consideration is a sure way to a less than optimal outcome. 
I wish my fellow teammates all the best as their records of performance await lane assignments and are appropriately placed on the blocks for board consideration. I hope the best of the fully qualified get the nod. And I trust that those selected are truly committed to leading at the next level regardless of assignment. Whether or not I am prepared for the challenge, I am not currently prepared to give up what I have for what might be. And if we aren’t ready to do that, it’s time to scratch. We owe that to the team. That said, I am preparing myself for what might be once I transition to the civilian world. I am ready to stretch in ways I haven’t been stretched. I am ready to embrace the unfamiliar outside in favor of the very familiar inside.
And for those who have seen “The Greatest Showman,” I guess I am ready for the other side. I’m ready to “trade that typical for something colorful.” Clearly, I am having a little fun with the song lyrics. Truth is, my career to date (and especially of late) has been atypical and colorful. Part of me already feels as though I have made the transition, but deciding to say goodbye to a life in uniform that is 30 years old and counting isn’t simple. Though I won’t let go until the end, scratching marks step one of a long list of deliberate steps in a  transition plan my partner and I stand ready to execute.
  • Have you ever chosen to scratch?
  • What criteria do you use when considering whether or not to scratch?
  • Was there ever a time you wished you had scratched?