This post by Brewster Knowlton originally appeared on LinkedIn.

I was fortunate enough to play college lacrosse at one of the top division three programs in the country – Western New England University.  Four years of fall ball, freezing mid-January practices, welts, bruises, triumph and defeat taught me more than I could have ever realized.  

For those of you who never played college sports, let me paint a picture for you of a typical day.  

9:50 AM: Wake up, throw together a quick breakfast and head to class
10:00 AM – 10:50 AM: Class
11:00 AM – 2:00 PM: Tell myself to get ahead on homework and projects, ignore what I told myself and play some video games, have lunch.
2:00 PM – 2:50 PM: Class

Up to this point, the day seems like any other college student’s day.  But while the average college student’s day might end here, mine and my teammate’s day was just beginning: 

3:00 PM – 4:00 PM: Stretch, get treatment and therapy for nagging injuries, review practice plan, and watch film on our upcoming opponent.
4:00 PM – 6:30/7:00 PM: Practice. Let’s just say practices were more enjoyable in April or May than on freezing mid-January nights.
7:00 PM – 8:00 PM: Watch extra film, ice up, head home. 

Looking back, I realize that the time from 3 PM to 8 PM every day taught me more valuable lessons than any professor in a classroom could have (and I had some pretty good professors!).  

College athletics taught me these six lessons below that can universally apply to business and life.

1. Calm is Contagious

I first heard this phrase when reading Rorke Denver’s book, Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior.  Rorke Denver was a US Navy SEAL officer and an All-American lacrosse player at Syracuse University.  When discussing his SEAL officer training, he discusses how “calm is contagious” when leading men.  

Handling adversity is a part of every practice and every game.  Refs make bad calls, players make mistakes, and, sometimes, things just don’t go your way.  The team that handled adversity the best was much more likely to come away with a victory.  When adversity strikes, does your team implode?  Does this adversity create panic?

In stressful situations or when facing adversity, a calming presence can quickly spread throughout the rest of your team.  When cool and collected under pressure, problems can be addressed and resolved more effectively.  

Calm is contagious.

2. Individuals Don’t Win – Teams Do

We have all heard this lesson before.  How many times have you heard, “there is no ‘i’ in ‘team'”?  Athletics certainly reinforces this concept.  

As a goalie, most people thought that my objective was simply to make as many saves as possible.  While that certainly is a good goal to have, the games where I had the most saves were the games we most often lost.  If I had to make 16, 17, or 18 saves in a game, we were giving the other team way too many opportunities to score.   

Success depends on each individual of a team doing their part well.  Sometimes a goalie might have to make 15 saves.  Other times an attackman might need to score five goals for us to get a win.  But one individual’s success, when ten people are on the field for your team, doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome.  When each member of a team does their part well, teams tend to excel.  When one individual plays outside of their role, is too selfish, or tries to do too much, the chances of team success falls.

Individuals don’t win – teams do.

3. Humility Is Critical to Success

My freshman year, I led the nation in goals-against-average and was second in the nation in save percentage.  I was fortunate enough to have an unbelievable defense in front of me making my job that much easier.  Our team finished in the top ten, and we lost to the eventual national champions by one goal in the NCAA Quarterfinals.  That success, however, went right to our heads.

I can say that I, personally, didn’t work nearly as hard as I should have during the summer between my freshman and sophomore year.  Confidence turned to cockiness which carried all the way throughout that year.  

Take a guess how that year went?  

It was the worst individual performance I have ever had and directly led to the team underperforming as well (it’s tough to win games when your goalie struggles to make saves!).  To this day, when teammates get back together, we talk about how poor we performed that year.  

Humility is more critical to success than we often realize.  Remaining humble and continuing to work hard is essential.  Someone is always trying to be better and work harder than you; remaining humble and matching or exceeding your competitor’s efforts are the only way to out-perform them.

Humility is critical to success.

4. Film Review Matters

After every game, our coaches would analyze film and split it into relevant clips for the team.  Film reviews were one of the greatest ways to learn where we excelled and where we needed to improve.  Slowing the game down and viewing it from a different perspective taught us players a lot.  

Film review can be used in business.  How often do you and your team review performance, processes, and procedures?  Taking a step back and asking the hard questions about processes and performance is critical to improving future operations.  Like using film reviews to improve on-field performance, use “film reviews” in business to ensure that everyone is performing well.  Use this time to identify flaws in processes or performance and improve them quickly.

Even in business, film review matters.

5. Leadership Doesn’t Always Need to Come from the Top

Former US Navy SEAL officers Jocko Willink and Leif Babin recently released a fantastic book, Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALs Lead and Win.  In one of the chapters, they discuss how individuals need to lead up and down the chain of command. 

Leadership doesn’t always have to come from the top.  Players might see something that a coach does not.  A freshman might see something that a senior does not.  Feeling comfortable to lead up and down the chain is critical for any team’s success. 

Goalies are like the quarterback of the defense – responsible for identifying the location of the ball, the current defensive scheme, and the formation of the offense.  As a starting freshman goalie, I was forced to become a vocal presence on the field and communicate with the other six members of the defense.  One of the defenders in front of me was our three-time All-American senior captain – an intimidating person for a young, inexperienced freshman like myself.  If he saw something differently, he could change my calls.  But, if I saw something that he didn’t, it was my job to make the necessary adjustments.

Successful teams, on the field or in business, enable teammates to lead up and down the chain.  A bank teller might have insights that the CEO would never realize without that teller speaking up and leading up the chain of the command.  Likewise, strong, humble leadership is needed at the top to ensure everyone is working towards a common goal.

Leadership doesn’t always have to come from the top.

6. The Best Lessons Are Sometimes Learned in Defeat

Winning has a tendency to mask some of your weaknesses.  It’s easier to overlook mistakes in a game when you still achieve victory.  While a loss is always a disappointment, some of the best lessons can be learned in defeat.

In April of 2009, we were ranked #9 in the country.  We travelled an hour and a half to face Tufts University who was ranked #10 at the time.  Fresh off a big win over our in-conference rival two days prior, the team’s confidence was high.  Unfortunately, our confidence was a bit too high, and Tufts dominated us 15-4. What should have been a great battle between two top-ten teams turned into a big disappointment. 

Instead of “turtling” (as coach liked to say) and feeling sorry for ourselves, the next day of practice was one of the most intense that I can remember.  Accepting that our poor performance was not an option, the team was quickly able to address flaws in our game.  We tightened some things up defensively, in the clearing game, and on offense.  Because of what we learned from that defeat, we ran through the rest of our schedule and received a first-round bye in the NCAA Tournament.  Guess who our first opponent was in the post-season? Tufts University.

Their dominating performance over us in April enabled us to learn valuable lessons.  We learned from our mistakes and developed a resiliency to handle the stress of big games.  Once again, we headed to Tufts University for a big matchup.  This time, however, we came away with the win, 12-9.

It’s easy to focus only on the outcome.  But buried within each outcome, whether it is victory or defeat, are lessons that can be learned.  Facebook, Amazon, Google, and other large companies do a lot of things well.  They also have failures from time to time.  Those organizations remain successful because they continuously learn from their efforts – regardless of whether the outcome is positive or negative.

The best lessons are sometimes learned in defeat.

Final Wrap-Up

The four years spent playing college lacrosse were some of the best years of my life.  I learned a lot of lessons, made a lot of friends, and we won a lot of games (which doesn’t hurt!).  

Looking back, I realize that there were some great lessons learned from being a college athlete.  These lessons continue to drive how I build my business, interact with others, and compete to achieve success.  Hopefully you can apply some of these lessons I have learned to your business, teams, and life.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *