Playing sports is fun, but the practice field teaches more than just athletic skills. As any athlete will tell you, learning to play within the confines of the rules of a game teaches invaluable life lessons that will apply to just about anything you pursue for the rest of your life.
The discipline to practice a skill isn’t about perfection. In sports as in life, perfection is a concept often discussed but rarely seen. But the pursuit of an ideal is valuable in and of itself, both on the field and off. Playing sports reinforces the idea that honing a skill is valuable not just because it will increase your efficacy, but also because becoming better at something is a reward all its own. So training doesn’t just improve the mechanics of your free throw or your putt, it resets your instincts so that when you get into the game, you respond the right way.
Check Your Priorities
Becoming a skillful player of any sport requires significant sacrifices of time and energy. It requires commitment and, above all, prioritization. In order to make time to practice, a certain amount of leisure time will have to be given up. And once you’re practicing, every minute of batting practice means forgoing a minute of fielding practice. This means players have to understand how and when to spend their best energy and must know when it’s time to say no. The skill to discern between what is absolutely necessary in the moment and what can be sacrificed is absolutely essential to any academic or professional pursuit. How many professionals can you think of who have difficulty saying no or managing their own time? Playing sports directly develops this skill.
Play Well With Others—and Share the Credit
Nobody likes a ball hog. It is a cliché at this point to say that sports teach teamwork, but it’s such a commonplace expression for a reason. Not only that, but “learning teamwork” isn’t just about learning to trust others. It’s also about learning to share credit for success…and for failure. Being a good teammate means passing the ball to somebody else. If they score a goal? Their success is your success and everyone celebrates. And if they miss the net? You pass it to them again next time. Knowing how to congratulate others and celebrate their wins is as vital as forgiving them for their losses, and negotiating the divide between these is an essential life skill.
Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained
Risk is concomitant with reward. As the saying goes, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. Unspoken in this old adage is the fact that you definitely don’t make 100 percent of the shots that you do take. This isn’t just true on the courts and fields where your game is played. No matter where you go in life, the principle holds that in order to achieve great success, you must take risks. But this is not a recommendation for recklessness: Sports are filled with opportunities for risk-taking, and repeated exposure to these opportunities is the best training for developing a sense of when it’s a good time to take the shot and when it might be better to pass it up.
You Won’t Always Win—and That’s Okay
On both micro and macro levels, sports teach us about the value of failure. Whether practicing or competing, athletic pursuits are built out of moments of triumph and moments of defeat. No matter what game you’re playing, it’s important to accept success with humility and to experience defeat with dignity. Accepting that every risk won’t pay off, that every game will not be a W and that every play won’t go your way is key to being able to play effectively. Becoming paralyzed by loss is not an option. The same holds for life.
Experiential learning opportunities don’t end with team sports. If you’re interested in making sports part of your impact on the world, consider the online Master's in Sport Management* program from the University of Kansas.
*This program is a Master of Science in Education (M.S.E.) degree in health, sport management, and exercise science with an emphasis in sport management.