Since the earliest days of the Olympics in ancient Greece, sports have been used as a metaphor for life. Sometimes this is obvious, such as the military skills of the javelin throw, boxing, and wrestling, but more often, it is the personal and team skills of the ‘tribe’ or individual that are tested in a game. The same is true of sports today, and even more importantly, what we can learn from them.
We can learn a tremendous amount from playing sports, and even from watching them from the sidelines. These lessons can teach us a great deal about ourselves as well as give us strategies that can be applied to everything from card game strategies to careers, parenting to personal relationships.
Perhaps the biggest lessons you can learn from sports is how to win and lose with grace. In sports, as in life, there will be good days and bad days for even the most successful players. The skill is learning to deal with the two outcomes without getting too carried away with your success or your failure. As Rudyard Kipling wrote in the poem ‘If’: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat these two imposters just the same...”.
If anything, we often learn more from our mistakes and failures than we do from an easy win. Mistakes are how we learn, from the time we take our first staggering steps. The thing to remember, however, is that making mistakes is fine just as long as you learn from them. We all need to take the time to analyze what we did wrong and where we could improve, rather than letting that negative internal voice take over and beat ourselves up for not being instantly successful.
Sports are a great platform for learning to control that negative voice. Games aren’t always fair, and decisions will sometimes go against you. It’s up to you whether you let your internal dialogue mutter and complain about it, or you get on with the game. Life, too, isn’t always fair, and the sooner you understand and make peace with what you can and can’t control, the easier life becomes. Wasting energy feeding negative thoughts will get you nowhere, especially if the only one you complain to is yourself.
Some of the most inspiring stories from sports are the great comebacks. This year’s Superbowl LI, where the New England Patriots came from being down 21-3 at halftime and 28-9 at the start of the final quarter is a classic case in point. The Patriots were clearly living in the moment and focusing on one play at a time rather than worrying about the score. They had no choice; a 19-point deficit would have been overwhelming otherwise and would have probably left them paralyzed with a mentality of defeat at the sheer scale of the task ahead.
We can all relate to that situation, where the enormity of our situation overwhelms us and freezes our minds in panic. Yet, if you learn to live in the moment and take each task as it comes, you can often achieve much more than you think, and sometimes, like the Patriots, overcome the biggest odds to succeed.
However, living in the moment does not mean letting your emotions run wild. Passion and commitment are as important in life as they are on the sports field, but they need to be controlled and channeled if they are to work for you and not against you. Letting it boil over into frustration and anger will not help matters, but channeling it into focused energy and drive can be very powerful.
Many sports also teach us the value of working as a team. Even the best of the best cannot win alone; they need the support of their team around them. Learning to work as a team, and to win as a team, rather than as an individual is a particularly useful skill for life given that few people work completely alone and we are all part of various types of teams, from family and friends to work colleagues, clubs, and associations. Learning the dynamics of teamwork on the sports field can then make you a much more valuable team player in life.
So, the next time you take to the field or switch on the TV to watch the big game, take a moment to consider the game of life that is playing out before you. There is so much that we all can learn from every game if we approach sports with an open mind for self-improvement. You can learn how to channel your energy, win with humility, work on a team, and so much more.