Want to Learn Powerful Lessons in Mental Strength? Play Sports in School

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Are sports programs in high school and college worthwhile investments, or a distraction from academics and/or real-world career preparation? originally appeared on Quora – the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Rob Ennals, Product Manager at Quora, Former PM at Google, on Quora:

People often criticize college sports because they take time away from academic studies. This seems to be based on the assumption that college sports are a less valuable preparation for the real world than academics, and I’m not convinced that is right.

Sheryl Sandberg and Hillary Clinton have both said that they think the most important trait you can have is resilience. I believe that one of the best ways to learn resilience is college sports.

I was a lightweight crew rower at the University of Cambridge in the UK. It took up a lot of my time, but I think it contributed more to who I am today than if I had spent twice that amount of time studying. Perhaps the best way to summarize this is with some of the phrases that I used to use when I was an athlete:

  • Pain is just information – If you do a sport that involves a lot of pain, then you either learn to mentally detach yourself from pain, or you crumble under its weight. Feeling pain doesn’t mean that you stop, it means that you treat that pain as information about whether you are injuring yourself or are likely to exhaust yourself too early. In the workplace, this translates into a greater ability to emotionally detach yourself from negative things going on immediately around you, and thus an ability to stay cool under pressure and focus on the big picture.
  • Go down in style – If your sport involves competing with other teams then you are going to compete with other teams who you strongly expect to thoroughly beat you. But likely defeat isn’t scary – it’s exciting. It’s an opportunity to “go down in style.” Losing to a better opponent isn’t something to fear, but an opportunity to show the best of what you can do, to learn from the experience of competing with the best, and maybe even to score an upset victory. A true athlete would much prefer an epic defeat against a team they admire than a predictable victory against a team they have nothing to learn from. In real life, this means athletes learn to be comfortable trying audacious things that might not succeed.
  • Death or glory – Athletes use this phrase to mean “I’m about to take a calculated risk that has a high chance of failure.” In a sporting competition, you either win, or you lose. If it looks like you are going to lose, then you amp up your appetite for risk to increase your chance of winning, in full knowledge that you are also increasing the chance that you will fail more dramatically. This instinct for knowing how much risk to take in a particular situation pays off well in real life.
  • Beast mode – Beast mode is what you do when it looks like you are almost certainly going to lose, and so you don’t need to worry that recklessness will throw a game you would otherwise have won. As an athlete, I used to love the moment when it became clear that defeat was near certain because it meant that I could relax about the risk of screwing up, and just go full throttle – which sometimes led to an upset victory. This ability to go full throttle at the right times helps in real life too.
  • Take one for the team – In team sports, often one player needs to inflict damage on themselves to set things up for the team to succeed. This same technique is often useful in the workplace, where a standard method is for one person to intentionally draw anger towards themselves in order to set up co-workers for success.
  • Epic defeat – An “epic defeat” is a defeat that you are proud of, because you didn’t hold back, you took the right risks, you took one for the team, you acted with honor, you went down in style, you learned from the experience, and you became stronger as a result. Go to a bar with a group of athletes, and you’ll hear more tales of their epic defeats than of their mediocre victories. Exchanging such tales is how athletes learn from each other. Epic defeats are how you learn – both in sports, and in real life.
  • Eyes on the prize – In sports, it’s tempting to get distracted by the pain of the current moment, and forget the bigger goal you are focussing on. Eyes on the prize tells you to remember the high-level goal you are striving for, and avoid getting distracted by what’s going on immediately around you. This is also the core of business strategy.
  • Sparring makes you stronger – Much of the time an athlete spends in training consists of mock competitions with team-mates. Athletes thus get used to “sparring” with their closest friends, with everyone understanding that sparring doesn’t imply a lack of respect. This skill is important in the workplace, where it’s important that people be comfortable with co-workers challenging their ideas. To an athlete it’s totally natural to strongly criticise someone’s work and then invite them over to dinner.
  • Haters gonna hate – As an athlete there are few pleasures greater than to walk past a crowd of opposing supporters, give them a smirk, and think to yourself, “yeah, you hate me, but I’m in the game, and you are in the audience”. If nobody hates you, it just means that nobody notices you. As an athlete, you learn to be totally okay with being disliked. You don’t ignore it, but you learn just to treat it as information, and you don’t over-react to it. This attitude is imperative in the workplace, where it’s nearly impossible to bring about significant positive change without making someone dislike you.

If the aim of college sports were to become a professional athlete then it would be a huge waste of time – almost nobody is going to take things that far. But that’s like thinking the aim of studying high school math is to become a professional mathematician – it’s missing the point. The point of sports is to teach you resilience, to teach you to work in a team, and to give you an instinctive sense of how to take risks.

Like anything, it’s possible to take sports too far. Academic studies matter too and you don’t want to dedicate yourself to sports beyond the point at which the trade-off makes sense. However, I do think that college sports have a significant ability to build character traits that will serve you well later in life. I think this is particularly true when the sports are painful, regularly take you to the point of exhaustion, involve frequent losses to stronger teams, involve frequent upset victories where you expected to lose, involve contact with people who dislike you and involve working as part of a team.

All this comes with the disclaimer that I’ve only seriously competed in one sport, at one university, in one country, with one set of team-mates. Other people may have had very different experiences.