Heart racing, body aching, and gasping for breath, you remind yourself that there’s no quitting now. You have already played your heart out for the last 60 minutes and your team is counting on you.
You close your eyes, take a deep breath and refocus your mind because it all comes down to this moment. What happens next can be the difference between success and defeat. You find your composure and dig deep.
High intensity moments like these are common in the competitive sports arena, but we sometimes forget that these experiences translate into real-world learning opportunities. Athletes – especially student athletes – sometimes fail to see how the benefits of participating in athletics weave into our everyday lives.
Situations that unfold between the goal posts, on the oval, or under the net very often mimic the competition-like settings that also challenge us off of the field. These situations can include getting ready to give an important presentation, working tirelessly to balance a hectic work-life situation, or even trying to cut that extra weight around the mid-line.
So how do these similar, but contextually different, challenges connect? How does training and competing for sport translate into our everyday lives off the field?
1. Dealing with Defeat
As I was preparing this article, I received the news that I had not been accepted into a highly sought-after opportunity. The news came after months of planning, in which I envisioned reaching the ultimate success.
I found the disappointment to be very unsettling, causing my mind to jump in a million different directions. Doubts began to cloud my thinking. I was wondering if I was good enough or if it’s time to throw in the towel.
But many successful athletes are trained into optimism, so that your mind refuses to dwell on the setbacks. Just as you would in an athletic competition, where you may have dropped that important pass, missed that critical shot, or suffered an unfortunate injury, you accept in life that stuff happens and that tomorrow is another day. The idea of quitting and hanging up the cleats is actually not on the table; getting back on the practice field is the only option.
Succumbing to defeat, or to the taboo word of the year FAILURE, is not an option. A simple setback is not going to stop you from taking that last-second shot. Experiencing those key moments in competition, when everything is on the line, actually helps individuals grow in off-the-field situations.
The more you are able to find composure and success on the playing field in those tipping-point moments, the likelier you will be able to find your composure and success off the field when something doesn’t go as planned.
2. Delayed Gratification
If you only enjoy activities that offer immediate results, then athletics may not be for you. To truly excel in the world of sports, every athlete must be meticulous and consistent in their training in the hopes of experiencing a positive outcome in the future.
In most situations, you will probably encounter significant pain and struggle before you start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. In life, just like when lifting weights, the only way to get stronger is to lift heavier weights and tear some muscles. Only when you push yourself through the pain can new heights be reached. The fruits of your labor are not realized for weeks or even, sometimes, months.
In most situations, we hope that with consistent hard work, we will reach a desired outcome. Yet it is the athletes who are aware of the likelihood of encountering pain and slow progress in the short term when chasing a dream.
As an athlete, you learn that it takes time to see real results. The only way to get there is to embrace the longer time-frame and to adopt an unwavering work ethic.
Whether you compete in a team sport like soccer or an individual sport like track and field, the people you surround yourself with are one of the greatest determinants of your success.
“No two minds ever come together without a third invisible force, which may be likened to a “third mind.” When a group of individual minds are coordinated and function in harmony, the increased energy created through that alliance becomes available to every individual in the group.” – Napoleon Hill
In individual sports, it’s your training partners who will push you in training sessions each day to make you better than you were the day before. In team sports, it’s your teammates who each play an important role in creating a strategy that allows you to reach maximum results on game day.
Both situations require that you utilize others to grow within your respective game. Each person plays an important role in driving their own growth, as well as that of every other member of their team.
The teamwork built through sport translates into successful team dynamics and leadership off of the field. Athletes understand the necessity of working together and realize that a greater impact can be achieved as a collective, rather than working only independently or in isolation.
The connection between practice and competition is best characterized as a love-hate relationship. The practice is an athlete’s homework, while the competition is their test.
Competition offers athletes an objective moment of self-realization, standing as an “I told you so” that underscores what has or has not been built through practice. When the sweat and blood transform into winning, it’s much easier to appreciate those long hours of dedication.
However, it’s often the daily grind that happens behind the scenes – once the athlete steps off the winner’s podium and gets back to work – that goes unrecognized. When it comes down to it, the only person who truly cares about who you are during practice, is you.
No one cares if you made ten three-point shots in practice if it doesn’t transfer into the game. Similarly, in the real world, no one cares how hard you work if you don’t produce results.
Your bosses aren’t concerned that you were up all night working on the presentation; they will judge your work only by what is presented. Were you able to blow the client away or did you flounder it the midst of pressure?
I realize that this attitude seems insensitive.. I don’t create the rules, so don’t shoot the messenger! The point is that, as athletes, we are forced to come to terms with this reality at an early stage. Your supporters won’t be concerned that you are eating fast-food or not taking care of your body, but they certainly won’t be impressed when you arrive unprepared for competition.
The results or the endgame are usually what people evaluate, not the process.
5. A Winning Mindset
As you move up the competitive ladder from amateur to professional athletics, your mind becomes the most important muscle that you must train. In college and in the pros, everyone trains at a high-intensity. Everyone commits equal time to in the weight room and the practice fields, hoping to maximize their athletic potential.
The question I always get asked, “But if this is the case, then why is it that competition results vary so greatly on game day?” As a former professional track and field athlete, I understand that defeat at the finish line usually begins in the blocks.
The true champions are the ones who are able to find the warrior mindset before the gun even goes off; the ones who envisioned themselves crossing the finish line first. If persistent training and incredible hard work build the base for success, it is the competitive mindset that uncovers the athletes who are winners.
6. Work/Life Balance
If you have played any type of athletics during the academic season, then you understand the work-life balance you must juggle when it comes to improving your athleticism, your grades, and your social life.
Did I forget to mention sleep? You fit that in wherever you can! As student athletes, learning to manage your time effectively is quite beneficial. Everyone has different strategies to overcome procrastination and ways of re-ordering their lives to make sure they can complete important tasks, foster close relationships, and enjoy personal time.
It’s easier in high school and college, even though while you’re in it you think otherwise, to manage work-life balance. When you have a family and in the workforce that balance can be even more so difficult to manage. Working to find ways to master this juggling act early on can save you much needed time and frustration.
7. Leadership and Community
As the Founder and President at Empower2Play, and while working with several high school students through our Global Ambassador program, I have seen how leadership and building connections come naturally to great student-athletes of any age.
Athletics has a way of bridging communities, overlooking differences and getting everyone working together for a shared vision. Sports teach individuals to consider the well-being of the team over their own success. Maybe that’s why for centuries sports have been used as a vehicle to bring communities together from all walks of life.