The fun and excitement I’ve garnered playing tennis, basketball, running, volleyball and golf have been a blessing for as long as I can remember.
But far more significant than the fun and excitement have been the life lessons sports have taught me. And the good news is, you don’t have to be Michael Jordan to reap these benefits. Ordinary athletic skill will do.
Look no further than my hand-eye coordination-challenged older brother Andy, who’s butt I kicked when we were kids in tennis, basketball, ping-pong…you name it. He responded to these childhood shellackings by taking up distance running in high school where he destroyed me and everyone else. He eventually became a star of the Harvard cross-country team and ran a 29:30 10K road race. But I digress…
Back to the question at hand. What are these crucial life lessons we can all learn by playing sports?
1. Experiencing the genius within
The most direct experiences I’ve had with the brilliant, mysterious, omnipotent entity inside me, something we ALL possess, have come through sports. There have been countless times playing tennis, to which I devoted the lion’s share of my athletic attention, where I’ve hit a great shot and then immediately wondered, “How the heck did I do that?” Here’s how. Because my mind had precisely NOTHING to do with hitting any of those great shots. It was 100% inner instinct. “I” had nothing to do with it.
The lesson? I learned firsthand that getting “myself” out of the way was critical to success, which, of course, is critical to succeeding at just about anything. Whether you’re a songwriter, a pianist, or a salesman, the key to maximizing your performance is to get your mind out of the way and let your inner genius do the work. Sports provide the ideal proving ground for experiencing and realizing this dynamic.
2. Conquering fear of failure
I tell my kids all the time: The only way you can become a winner is to learn to be okay with losing/failing. The irony is that people choke in pressure situations because they’re afraid of failing.
I tell my kids that when Michael Jordan demanded the ball to take the final shot, the last thing on his mind was, “Man, I better make this or everybody’s going to think I’m a big loser!” To be honest, the greats like Jordan and Tiger Woods don’t think anything when the pressure’s on (see #1 above). The bottom line is, the best athletes don’t give a hoot when anybody thinks of them.
The lesson here is obvious: Sports give us an actual playing field for working on any fear of failure we may have in other parts of our lives. “I’m not going to go for that promotion because if I don’t get it I’ll look like a big loser.” No. You just go for it! And see what happens.
For those of you with kids, this might be THE most important reason to steer them into some kind of athletic endeavor. Sports will help them, if you and others counsel them properly, to develop a thick skin when it comes to not worrying about what others think of them. I can’t think of too many things more important for kids to learn than that.
3. Learning to emphasize process over outcome
I’ve noticed in the last several years that most great athletes emphasize process over outcome. What does that mean? It means they put their focus on doing the work (process) and not on winning the Super Bowl/Wimbledon/Masters (outcome). All of their energies go to hitting the weight room, jumping rope, hitting thousands of practice golf shots, serving buckets of tennis balls, etc.
A quintessential example of this was what LSU football’s wide receivers did in the summer of 2019. Jamarr Chase, Justin Jefferson and Terrace Marshall each caught 10,000 passes that summer. 10,000! What happened in the 2019 season? LSU went 15–0, won the national championship and that team is considered by many to be the best in the history of college football. Chase, Jefferson and Marshall combined for 51 touchdowns, which is absolutely unheard of. How did they pull it off? By focusing on process over outcome.
So if you’re taking up golf, don’t focus on breaking 100. Focus on practicing your putting. And your short chip shots. And developing a consistent swing with your driver. Do all those things and you’ll eventually break 100.
Again, the lessons in life are obvious. If you’re a writer on Medium, don’t constantly check your reader stats or worry about achieving some arbitrary number of followers. Put ALL of your energy into writing the best stuff you can and then let the rest take care of itself.
This is another great one for the kids. Teaching them, through sports, to focus on the work and not the outcome would pay them dividends throughout their lives.
4. Developing discipline
While running on the cross-country team in high school, I had to get up at 6 a.m. when it was dark and cold to get to school by 6:30 for our morning workout. It was brutal. Truth be told, I didn’t make it every morning. But I did most of the time. And it proved to be incredibly valuable throughout my life.
Because what is discipline? My definition is simple: Getting yourself to do something you don’t feel like doing, but that is good for you.
As for our lives, discipline is required in myriad areas. Everything from getting into the office at the crack of dawn to prep for that crucial client presentation to cracking down on the carbs and sugar because you’re having troubling fitting into your jeans.
Playing sports is fun and the exercise is great for our physical and, more important for me, mental health. Sports’ help in developing valuable life skills makes this a no-brainer.
So if you aren’t already playing a sport, give it a shot. Just about anybody of any age can play golf and even tennis.
And if you have kids, get them into a sport. It doesn’t have to be the center of their lives. They can still do piano, acting or whatever else they’re into.
Because with good parental guidance (i.e., not pressuring them to be the next Tiger Woods), sports can teach your kids to not fear failure, help them develop discipline and favor process over outcome, all of which will serve them well in adulthood.
Maybe most valuable of all, though, sports will teach them that success in all endeavors comes when we get ourselves/minds out of the way and let the brilliant, conscious self within guide our ship.