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What Professional Sports Can Teach You about Your Career

  • September 15, 2020

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It's well-known that playing sports can teach you vital skills that can help you later in life, even if you never become a professional player. But what if you never even played sports as a youth?

While things like teamwork and discipline are best acquired by actual play, you can still gain specific lessons just by being a sports fan. Here's how staying in tune with your favorite sport can help improve your career outlook.

Never stop improving

Professional athletes are guaranteed to be the cream of the crop. Those who don't make it through the youth ranks are effectively weeded out; pro teams and sponsors won't back them. It's survival of the fittest at work.

And yet, once athletes make it to the highest level of any sport, you'll notice that the most successful pros aren't necessarily those with the greatest natural ability or even experience. The likes of LeBron James and Cristiano Ronaldo have plenty of talent, but they have also continually sought feedback and improvement in every aspect of their craft. They remain at the top of their respective games when others their age would have faded into retirement.

Roger Federer, widely considered the greatest men's tennis player of all time, once played without a coach. And in perhaps the most intensely individual sport of all, he dominated. Then he met his career rivals, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. After struggling, he made changes and welcomed new coaches and voices onto his team en route to recovering his top ranking in 2012.

The takeaway is clear: talent is never enough on its own. You can be great at what you do right now, but there will be others coming along who are younger, more motivated, and equipped with new skills. You can benefit from leadership coaching or mentorship in a specific area to keep improving and making progress in your career.

Make use of data

Many sports have an accepted set of practices, bordering on tradition; experienced players and coaches will say, this is how the game should be played. And the older the sport, the more firmly established its body of conventional wisdom.

But every now and then, something changes. Maybe it's specific to that sport, such as the rules on hand-checking in basketball, or improvements in racket technology in tennis. Or it could simply be general advances in nutrition, recovery, and fitness practices that improve athletes' strength, speed, and endurance.

The unwritten tradition of basketball was that you don't win championships with jump shots, let alone three-point shooting. Every great team needs a dominant big man who can score in the paint. But Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey had other ideas.

An MIT graduate and statistical consultant with no playing experience, Morey used data to determine that the three-point shot could be the most valuable play in basketball. He built a roster around this concept, leveraged the skills of James Harden, and changed the NBA by taking three-point shooting to extreme efficiency.

Conventional wisdom is valuable, but it also needs to be challenged. And modern data analytics gives us the tools to do so. Don't be afraid to go where data-backed insights are leading you. It will distinguish you from the rest of the group-thinking pack.

Develop intangible qualities

What happens to professional athletes after they retire? We tend to remember their playing careers because they step out of the spotlight after calling it quits on their sport.

But most athletes leave the game in their 30s. With so much of their lives ahead of them, they are faced with the challenge of navigating a different career.

Former players make naturally good coaches, scouts, trainers, agents, and recruiters. Those with a gift for communication can easily land a role in the media as analysts or commentators. The hierarchies of professional organizations frequently welcome athletes into management positions.

But sometimes an athlete takes a more unorthodox approach to their second chapter. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson effectively harnessed his larger-than-life personality, turning from pro wrestler into a bona fide action star. Kevin Johnson, point guard and floor leader for the Phoenix Suns, became a successful politician. And the late Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant was en route to a richly varied and successful post-NBA career.

Pro athletes spend most of their early lives training with an intense focus on specific skills. But along the way, they accrue many intangible qualities and a resilient mindset. Those things transfer anywhere.

The lesson here is that you, too, can transition into a new career. You aren't defined by the tasks you've been doing each day; think about what else you've developed along the way. Transferable skills and a growth mindset will go a long way towards getting you on track if you decide to change course.