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What Life Skills Can We Learn From Sports?

October 31

For many people, the value of a traditional education is clear: Knowledge improves decision-making, which is valuable for personal and professional life. However, a balanced approach to living can often include athletics and, as any athlete knows, physical education isn’t just about dominance in games and channeling aggression. In fact, competitive sports teach life skills in a uniquely memorable way, instilling functional and interpersonal abilities that are useful on and off the field.

Competitive Sports Teach Self-Confidence

Portrait of confident basketball coach.

“I don’t think it’s bragging to say I’m something special.”
—Muhammad Ali

Writing for Sports Psychology Today, Mike Edger noted, “Confidence is a player’s belief in their ability to perform well in any situation, practice or game.”1

As any basketball player quickly learns, driving to the hoop assertively will yield better results than a tentative approach will. An assertive defense is most effective at flustering opponents. To play any sport well requires a great deal of self-confidence—to make decisions on the fly and to respond to the actions of one’s teammates. Confidence can also help a person relax and avoid frustration, anxiety, or uncontrolled aggression. No matter what sport you play, practice helps you build the confidence to know that when the moment comes, you'll be prepared to act.2

Valuable Life Skills Gained

In Psychology Today, Dr. Barbara Markway wrote, “Self-confidence is linked to almost every element involved in a happy and fulfilling life.”3 Her article details five essential benefits to everyday life afforded by healthy self-confidence:3

Soccer teammates gather hands in a circle.

Less Fear and Anxiety

The more confident you become, the more you’ll be able to calm the voice inside you that says, ‘I can’t do it.’ You’ll be able to take action in line with your values.

Greater Motivation

Building confidence means taking small steps that leave a lasting sense of accomplishment. Think of the satisfaction that comes with learning a language, mastering a challenging piece of music or taking on a new skill. As your confidence grows, you’ll find yourself more driven to expand your abilities.

More Resilience

Confidence gives you the skills and coping methods to handle setbacks and failure. It doesn’t mean you won’t sometimes encounter failure, but you’ll know that you can handle challenges without being crippled by them.

Improved Relationships

Self-confidence can breed deeper empathy. When you’re not preoccupied with your own self-doubt, you can be the person who reaches out to help others.

Stronger Sense of Your Authentic Self

Confidence roots you in who you really are. You’ll be able to accept your weaknesses, knowing they don’t change your self-worth. Your actions will be in line with your principles, giving you a greater sense of purpose.

Competitive Sports Teach Teamwork

Any team sport emphasizes the team over the individual, though each sport instills a different sense of how teams work and play together. For example, football players are routinely taught that a good teammate submits to the goals of the team. The pace of the game requires flexibility and a willingness to dig deep and grind out a win.4 Basketball moves much more quickly, and players have to develop a sixth sense regarding where their teammates are on the court and the trust to know they’ll get to where they’re most needed at a moment’s notice.5 Baseball has a slow pace and teammates’ actions can be fairly isolated from one another, but focusing on shared objectives is still the first step toward success.6

Team of young football players stacking hands before match.

The Benefits of Teamwork in Real Life

The sport-based concept of teamwork translates into the professional world as collaborative problem-solving. “Behind every genius is a team,” says John J. Murphy, author of Pulling Together: 10 Rules for High-Performance Teamwork. “When people play off each other’s skills and knowledge, they can create solutions that are practical and useful.”7

Murphy was quoted in an article for Atlassian. In it, author Tracy Middleton listed these among many professional benefits of teamwork:7

Increased Potential for Innovation

A report from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that teams made up of members from diverse backgrounds (gender, age, ethnicity, etc.) are more creative and perform up to 35% better than homogeneous teams do.

According to Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect, “True success and breakthrough innovation involves discomfort. Discomfort pushes you to grow. This is where difference of experience, opinion, and perspective come in. Diversity is a well-documented pathway to unlocking new opportunities, overcoming new challenges, and gaining new insights.”

Happier Team Members

By surveying more than 1,000 team members in diverse industries, Atlassian found that, in environments that encourage honest feedback, mutual respect, and personal openness, team members were 80% more likely to report higher emotional well-being.

Enhanced Personal Growth

Portrait of a personal trainer in sportswear at the fitness center or gym.

“By sharing information and, essentially, cross-training each other, each individual member of the team can flourish,” said Murphy. Working with other people provides opportunities to learn from their varied experiences and perspectives, as well as from their mistakes.

Less Burnout

Ben Wigert, lead researcher for Gallup’s workplace management practice, has noted that team members can provide emotional support for each other because they can empathize: They often understand the demands and stress of completing work even better than managers do.

Smarter Risk-Taking

People working alone might be hesitant to get creative and take chances. When working as part of a team, individuals know they have the support of the entire group to fall back on. That security typically allows teams to take the kind of risks that lead to exciting, innovative results.

Fewer Mistakes

Murphy noted that, if everyone on your team encourages and inspires each other and you have fun together, you’ll feel less stressed. That’s both a personal and a professional benefit, as, “Studies show that stress makes us stupid and leads us to make more mistakes.”

itness, mountain and runner running on a trail in nature for exercise.

Competitive Sports Teach Self-Discipline

Picture a basketball player standing in a driveway, persisting in sinking free throw after free throw until it’s too dark to see anymore. Self-discipline is a requirement for success in any field, and sports instill the value of discipline in players from early in their careers. Practice might make perfect, but it can still be difficult for athletes at all levels to get out of bed and get to the gym or the field, day after day, to achieve peak performance. Sport is a rare pursuit in which we receive immediate feedback for our actions: If you take a shot a certain way and it doesn’t succeed, you can immediately adjust your approach to improve. Because of this instant feedback loop, athletics are a perfect training ground to develop attention to detail and the discipline to improve.8

Valuable Life Skills Gained

Sport’s lessons in self-discipline teach a great deal about how to handle life’s challenges.


Self-discipline often means forgoing instant gratification in favor of long-term success. It requires and develops strong focus on the goal of succeeding at the endeavor at hand. It’s essential in sport—and when studying for exams, preparing cases for trial, creating presentations for a board of directors, and in any other important challenge in life.


Loss is inevitable. As an athlete, when your opponent takes the day, you have to deal with the disappointment of loss and move on.

In life as in sport, sore losers complain and lay blame. The more disciplined, more productive choice is to congratulate the winner and continue working to get better. When someone else’s success does not seal your self-image as that of a loser, you’re empowered with a growth mindset: the knowledge that you can always improve—in sport, academics, business, the arts, interpersonal skill, and in any undertaking.

Hard Work

Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, and difficulty. I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life.”

By learning to appreciate the value of hard work—the accomplishment it makes possible, the satisfaction it brings, the strength it develops within us—we become equipped to progress and empowered to take on challenges in every facet of our lives.

Competitive Sports Teach Leadership

Team leader talking to teammates at boot camp.

In sports and in life, sometimes you have to lead and sometimes you have to follow. Sports help to develop the discernment to know whether you’re acting as a leader or a follower at any given moment. In most sports, a coach acts as an ultimate leader who sets the goals and tempo for the entire group. But even within a team, leaders emerge no matter their title or role. In volleyball, each player might be selected by their coach to fulfill a unique role on the team. But experience teaches players that just because you have a role to play doesn’t mean you won’t be called to fill in for somebody else at a moment’s notice. Leadership in sports isn’t theoretical. It happens moment by moment, just as it does in non-athletic settings. Because of this, the type of leadership learned in sport will serve athletes throughout their lives and careers.9

Important Life Lessons

Leadership Can Be Learned

Many people, especially kids, don’t see themselves as leaders. Sports can instill in us the skills that define good leaders: empathy, communication, the ability to listen, awareness of others’ strengths, positive reinforcement, methodical planning in the pursuit of goals. Whether younger players grow up to use their leadership skills on the field, at school, at work or in volunteer pursuits, those lessons will prove their value again and again.

Portrait of an African American Football coach smiling.


When it comes to navigating challenging moments between a student athlete and a coach, Dr. Deborah Gilboa urges parents to step out of the role of moderator. Instead, she favors helping athletes to take responsibility for having hard conversations. “If they’re not in danger, they’re just uncomfortable,” she says. “This is a chance for them to learn new communication skills and improve their emotional intelligence.”10

Anyone who has ever asked for help, worked through a disagreement with a friend or loved one, negotiated for a raise, or spoken up when treated unfairly can vouch for the importance of confidence in those conversations. By requiring advocacy backed by communication skill and emotional intelligence, sports can teach us to stand up for ourselves compassionately and successfully.


Leaders in sport have to strike a delicate balance. They’re called upon to maintain clear vision while remaining open to new ideas; follow a strict work ethic while being able to adapt; demonstrate grace in victory and in defeat (while teaching the value of both); hold high expectations without being cruel; and persevere through difficulty without losing perspective.

This kind of resilience—this strength combined with flexibility—is a hallmark not just of leaders in any field, but of mature adults and top-quality professionals.

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