Article Written By Jordan Pickett, Asst. Volleyball Coach at Southwestern University

College Sports Helping Your Future Career

When an athlete decides to pursue the top 3%, that elusive elite athlete status, which plays collegiate athletics, the majority of the focus is on the 4 years in university. That was the focus for me: grow as a player, learn to be a great teammate, earn a spot on a college roster and play college athletics.

However, as an adult, I have realized that being a college athlete brought me so much more than memories, records, and even friendships. College sports are the perfect catalyst for learning major skills and values needed in the workplace. College sports improve career potential by teaching athletes how to:

  • Perform under stress/pressure
  • Improve leadership as a skill
  • Communicate clearly and efficiently
  • Use team dynamics to reach a goal
  • Take risks to grow confidence  
  • Overcome failure
  • Reap the benefits of passion and hard work
  • Manage a winning mindset

Performing Under Pressure

College sports is like a live-action video game: where are the obstacles? How do we overcome them? What skills do I have? How can I use what I have to achieve my goal? What if I don’t achieve my goal? These are only some of the racing thoughts that go through an athlete’s mind as the pressure mounts in a game. 

It is 24-22 in the 3rd set; you are down by 2 sets, and it is your serve. The score is 80-81 with .2 seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter, and you step up to the free throw line. What happens next? 

As an ex-collegiate and ex-professional volleyball player, I will tell you that some high-octane matches in my career stick out, but I have few distinct memories of specific situations. What remains, though, after all these years is this organic ball of memories, of feeling pressure, sometimes failing, and sometimes succeeding.

College sports prepare the athlete to perform under pressure. The way a college athlete can stay calm focused, and shut out distractions is unmatched by the majority of students and workers in the workforce. No matter what career field an athlete goes into, there will be pressure. There will be deadlines.

There will be gut decisions and intensity. The skill of performing under pressure may be new to some of their future coworkers, even some of my coworkers, but not to me. I can perform well because of the pressure situations playing college sports provided for me. 

Improving Leadership as a Skill, Not a Trait

Before becoming a college athlete, I believed some people are leaders and some people are not. Many believe leadership is about making people listen and respecting you. Leadership is a skill in which someone can influence others to achieve a goal. In any career, leadership is necessary. Leadership is needed if you manage a team, if you are in sales, or if you are in finance, even leading yourself is essential. 

College sports teach athletes that leadership is learned. Athletes learn to lead themselves by managing their time, making sure their practice gear is prepared, initiating conversations about team dynamics, etc. 

While there are captains that may have honed the skill of leadership longer, I believe everyone is a leader. Because of the structure of sports, there are constantly opportunities to lead. To lead by example, to lead by integrity, to lead by holding teammates accountable, to lead by expecting the best from others, to lead by keeping your word, to lead by compassion and listening, to lead by change and growth. Leadership is essentially influence. 

Many are not good leaders. I may go as far as to say that athletes who do not do well in college sports (as far as do not enjoy their experience) do not take on the task of improving their leadership.

College sports demand the person involved to elevate. Every one of these scenarios that require growth, will play out in the workplace. Great leadership leads to improved performance, promotions, bonuses, and a greater sense of accomplishment. The leadership cultivated through college athletics is an anomaly compared to the general population in careers. 

Communicating Clearly and Efficiently

The pace of most sports demands a change in communication from everyday superfluous speech to an efficient and concise style. Athletes communicate on the field and court with direct verbs, inspired encouragement, and timely feedback.

According to the combined efforts of an article on marketing and entrepreneurship, and Harvard Business Review’s meeting cost calculator, $25 million are wasted per day in unproductive meetings. This leads to over $37 billion per year in America being thrown out because of inefficient meetings. 

College athletes learn that less is oftentimes more when giving feedback. College sports develop the skill of efficient communication, which will not only better the athletes' career, but also the company’s. 

Using Team Dynamics to Reach a Goal

If I am being frank, post-college sports, I was shocked at how many people in different career fields do not work well on a team. Many people do not know how to see the positive aspects of others’ contributions.

They do not know how to let go of control to allow the chaos and creativity that happens when multiple humans work together. They do not know how to accept responsibility for their part even when something was not entirely their fault. 

They do not know how to appreciate that other people’s strengths are an asset rather than a competitive advantage against them. Those are things that a college athlete learns. Even in individual sports such as tennis, golf, or swimming, a team aspect is still learned.

The team dynamics learned while playing college sports will advance an individual’s career because they can work with anyone to achieve their goals.

Young College Athlete Holding A Soccer Ball On College Campus

Take Risks that Grow Confidence

Confidence is a major determinant of success in any career. Without confidence, it is extremely difficult to complete the demands of any job. Confidence can be grown through keeping your word to yourself. College sports grow confidence differently. One way is when you see a risky situation, a situation where you could fail, where you feel fear, but you go for it. Confidence also grows when you are afraid, and you take the risk anyway. The outcome of the risk does not necessarily matter. Courage itself is what grows confidence. 

Imagine a midfielder on the soccer field passes the ball to the forward, way too far out in front. The forward started to run. The other team’s defender sprints toward the forward. The forward hesitates in her mind for a moment. The team’s defender is coming in too fast and the ball is almost out of bounds anyway— “and last time I did this she cleated me” Yet! The forward sprints. She goes for it. She gives it her all… I have not played out the whole scenario here, but that moment of a brave “yes” creates confidence. 

College sports are full of tiny seemingly unimportant opportunities for courage in the face of adversity. When athletes take those risks, opportunities for confidence that will benefit them, in the long run, are used to their advantage.

Overcoming Failure

Success is built upon how we handle failure. We all fail. We will continue to fail. It is a part of learning. It is a part of development. Babies fall hundreds of times before they learn to walk. Children write out “J”s and “r”s backward many times before they learn to spell. Hockey players miss thousands of shots in the process of a make. Yet, many people in the workforce do not handle failure well. They take on success as an identity, not an opportunity. Failure and success are accessories to growth. Growth and progress are the goals. They are the goal of college sports and life. All athletes miss the tackle and lose the race at some point. However, because we are designed to improve, we as athletes go to practice the next day. 

Whether a college athlete makes a career out of being a homemaker, a dentist, an entrepreneur, a newscaster, or a travel blogger, it is more likely that when they fail they will pick themselves up again and go to “practice” again the next day. College sports reframe the way we think about failure, which in turn breeds success in athletes' post-college careers.

Reaping the Positive Benefits of Passion and Hard Work 

Participating in college sports is incredibly rewarding, but any ex-college athlete will likely tell you it was one of the hardest things they had ever done. The significant things in life that have meaning require passion and hard work. College sports build the belief that passion and hard work reap positive benefits. 

It is possible to go through college, and life without ever living with passion, or working hard enough to feel the sweet relief and pride that come with achievement. College sports require a different level of focus, physical strength, and mental strength than a regular student college experience does.

I believe college sports are widely televised and watched by local sports fans because we, as humans, love to see anomalies. We love to see the glory of an athletic play. We love to see the heartbreak of season-ending loss. We love to see the softball home-run record broken in her home state. We love to see the raw celebration of a stuff block or a comeback in the 4x400. Living with authentic passion and hard work is deeply satisfying.

That satisfaction becomes a way of life, not something you ‘just do’ while in college sports. Playing college sports teaches the athlete that passion and hard work breed fulfillment, then that fulfillment is created in part in their career. Passion and hard work become hardwired into their character and DNA. Just like sports, when a person lives with passion and hard work, people watch. Employers notice. Coworkers are drawn in. People are recognized. 

Managing a Winning Mindset

Lastly, one of the most challenging aspects of college sports is managing your mindset. The collegiate athlete must learn to compartmentalize, to know when to ask for help, to learn how to find rest, to see positivity in hard situations, to push themselves when their bodies want to quit, to shut out competing thoughts, and most challengingly to fight their “lizard brain”. 

Some sports psychologists refer to the limbic system as their lizard brain. The limbic system is in charge of fight, flight, fear, and freezing up. The human brain is designed to help us avoid danger, stay safe, and take the easy path. College sports demand the opposite. The limbic system defaults to “don’t do that”. College sports require us to “do”. The challenge is that the limbic system has to actively be fought. 

When you see a gymnast breathe before she starts her beam dismount she is fighting the limbic system that reminds her of her failures. This is an active process. This active, intentional process is key to enjoying life, and to succeeding in a career. The limbic system will say “Don’t speak up in that meeting, you will sound stupid.” It will say, “Don’t apply for that job, you don’t belong there.”

So, when you or your athlete’s limbic system says “don’t try out for that team,” “don’t email that school,” or “don’t set that goal,” I challenge you to do it. College sports have been instrumental in advancing my career, and in helping me be successful in any career area I have tackled.

These are only a few of the skills and traits that are cultivated in college sports that benefit an athlete's career. I hope you play with passion, communicate clearly, improve your leadership, and especially overcome failure to play college sports.