Life Lessons from Sports for Life After Sports

As a nationally ranked junior tennis and squash player, I developed numerous strategies for how to win on the court. Anyone who grew up playing high-level sports can relate. The amount of knowledge and expertise young athletes acquire about their sports is in many cases greater than a lot of people ever learn about their professions. But one day – for all of us – athletic careers come to an end. The transition from athlete to regular person is incredibly challenging and something several athletes never quite get past.

Many athletes hesitate to pursue something outside of sports – choosing coaching, sports management, or commentating instead— out of fear that they will never attain the same skills in another area that they achieved in sports. For them the “sunk costs” are too high to entirely start over in a world distinct from sports.

I write today to assert that there must be (and is) a way to connect triumph in sports and regular life – to leverage the strategies and lessons learned in competition to be more successful outside of sports:

1. Respect everyone, fear no one.

The first part, “respect everyone,” is not about common courtesy. “Respect everyone” means respect everyone’s abilities. Because the outcome of a match is never guaranteed, counting an opponent out before the match begins is simply poor preparation. Billie Jean King’s book, Pressure is a Privilege, recounts how in the months before King played Bobby Riggs in the famous “Battle of the Sexes,” Riggs repeatedly and very publicly asserted his dominance and imminent victory. At the end of the match – drenched in sweat and surprised by defeat – he told King that he underestimated her. Not having sufficient respect for King was his biggest mistake.

While maintaining a healthy level of respect for all opponents and teammates is crucial – both in sports and in regular life – nobody can be successful without controlling fear. No matter whom I faced in a tournament, I knew that if I feared her too much, I stood no chance at defeating her. The same is true in everyday life. For example, students at prestigious academic institutions commonly suffer from “imposter syndrome,” believing that Admissions made a mistake in accepting them and that they are under-qualified compared to their peers. That type of self-doubt and fear can only hinder achievement.

2. Confidence is crucial.

Similar to the concept of “fear no one,” if you do not believe you can do something, it will not happen. Amelia Earhart surely would not have become the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean had she imagined crashing the plane throughout the entire journey.

Competitive athletics taught me various methods to increase my own confidence. When I was getting dressed for my first tennis tournament final, my mother said to me, “If you look good, you feel good. If you feel good, you do good.” Ever since, I have thought about that before the first day of law school, job interviews, presentations, and dates. I also put on my game face, do some jumping jacks to get my body warmed up (even for an exam), and pop a few power poses in the mirror. I also practice self-talk to internalize that I am capable of the task at hand. If you ever watch professional tennis players in action, they constantly talk to themselves: They yell, “Come on!” after a good shot, command themselves to “keep focused,” and instruct themselves to win “just this one point, right here.” I did that on the court, and I continue to encourage myself in similar ways off the court (although less audibly now). This is yet another method that allows me to stay competitive and on my game in life after sports, but to simultaneously still feel connected to my identity as an athlete.

Rafael Nadal engaging in self-talk after a victorious point
Rafael Nadal engaging in self-talk after a victorious point

Similarly, visualization is a key part of preparation and making things happen. Billie Jean King writes in her book, “Envision the situation and your desired outcome, feeling it, using all your senses to experience the scene in your mind until you really believe it.” Before matches, I used to picture myself running down and returning every ball until I tired my opponent out. Today, I use visualization before any high-pressure situation in both school and the workplace.

3. Be prepared for anything.

On the court, the better player does not always win. Variables we can and cannot control affect every match: Sudden precipitation mid-match can cause rain delays and a change in momentum when play resumes. A referee’s bad line calls can be frustrating to the point of getting in your head. An injury can make it difficult to run or hit certain shots normally. Champions understand that nothing is guaranteed and to be prepared for the unexpected.

The patience and adaptability that develop from understanding this are invaluable in everyday life. In the courtroom, for example, a prosecutor’s opening statement might be interrupted by the defense counsel’s continuous objections. Even when overruled, objections interrupt the flow of argument and are distracting to the presenter. Even worse, sustained objections prohibit the presenter from continuing his line of argument; he must regroup and go in another direction entirely. Competitive athletics – and being prepared for the unexpected – is great preparation for tricky professional situations like this.

4. Communication matters.

Phrase it well. I learned at an early age to ask, “That ball was in, right,” instead of, “Was that ball out?” when I was not sure if my opponent called the ball in or out. Why? The former question is more likely to result in my opponent conceding that my shot was in. The latter question, in contrast, causes my opponent to believe that I thought my shot was out and would find her calling it “out” acceptable.

The same communication lesson applies in everyday life. “I am ready for more responsibility” is more likely to result in promotion than, “Should I stay in my current job for the time being?” People naturally are influenced by what other people find acceptable, and thus tend to answer questions in the affirmative in order to agree with the speaker’s remarks.

24-hour rule. Another lesson sports taught me was “the 24-hour rule.” The rule prohibited the athlete, as well as parents and coaches, from criticizing the athlete’s performance until 24 hours after a match. This gave everyone a chance to cool off and avoid spitting criticisms that might later be regretted. To this day, my parents and I often remind each other to abide by the “24-hour rule” before confronting someone at work about an issue or responding to a nasty email, for example.

Body language is key. Every high-level athlete knows that that body language is one of the most critical forms of communication. Even when I was tired or frustrated in a match, I made sure to bounce on my toes, stand up straight, and look ready to run all day. This was partially for myself (to keep a positive attitude), but it was also to show my opponent that I was still in the match and eager to fight. While the effects may not be as immediate, it is just as important to communicate through body language strength, energy, and readiness in regular life as it is in sports.

The importance of strong body language cannot be understated... just ask Wonder Woman!
The importance of strong body language cannot be understated... just ask Wonder Woman!

5. Play to your strengths.

In regular life, society obsesses over weaknesses and improving them. In sports, however, athletes discover what they are good at and pursue it. A talented soccer goalkeeper does not obsess over being a poor defender; instead, he commits to goalkeeping and strives to become the best goalkeeper he can be.

Perhaps this mentality should be applied more in the world outside of sports: Instead of getting down on ourselves over our weaknesses, we might be better served by focusing on our strengths, improving them, and using them as weapons to attain success.

Calling attention to weakness is something that athletes rarely do. A tennis player never confesses to her opponent that her backhand is her weakest shot! Yet I see so many men and women in everyday life publicize their perceived flaws (they gained weight, their skin is broken out, etc.). This is an issue because people’s perceptions of others are naturally affected by the way others perceive themselves. If not pointed out, many of these “flaws” would never even be noticeable to anyone else! Most athletes have developed such confidence in themselves that they prefer to (and should) continue to advertise their assets instead of their flaws.

6. One point at a time.

One of my coaches used to tell a story about a competitor, who was up a set and at 5-1 in the second set. She started wiping her hand on her skirt, preparing for the handshake at the end of the match. Her opponent, however, won the next game. At 5-2, the competitor was still wiping her hand. 5-3, still wiping. Finally at 5-5, she stopped wiping her hand and focused on winning the point in front of her.

To avoid being like the story’s protagonist, tennis champions possess a “one point at a time” mentality. Athletes in other sports similarly are trained to think in the present. It keeps them focused by preventing them from dwelling on the past or thinking too far ahead in the future.

Outside of sports, though, many people struggle to live in the present. While it is important to weigh consequences of past decisions and be wary of the future, it is best to then bring our attention back to the present and focus on the task at hand. Athletes have been trained to do just that and should continue to employ the strategy in life after sports.

While many of these methods and strategies seem like common sense, athletes (unlike others) have lived and breathed them from early ages. They have developed them through actual practice rather than simply hearing them. A former athlete’s internalization of these lessons make him or her uniquely qualified for many professions and life challenges that inherently involve competitiveness, strong coping skills, and self-confidence. There is certainly life after sports, but what former athletes have learned from sports can and should play a huge role.

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