How I realized that playing basketball made me better at everything else.
When I was a kid, there were two things I loved: basketball, and learning. I used to play basketball until my arms and face were coated in sticky sweat, and then go up to my room to read aloud to my stuffed animals (they were great listeners). When I was 10, I decided that I was going to play in the WNBA, and if that didn’t work out, I was going to become a lawyer. The lawyer part was my mom’s idea, because I argued so much.
Yet even with my love of learning, I always thought of basketball and education as either/or activities. I could either work on basketball to further my goal of going pro, or learn science, math and history to further my goal getting into law school. My A in Physics couldn’t help me be a better basketball player, and my commitment to leading my basketball team to the state tournament couldn’t help me be a better lawyer-in-training. I was so wrong.
This mentality continued through my time playing college basketball for the University of Kansas, and through my first job, until one day, it hit me:
Everything I learned playing basketball made me better at my job.
Wait, you say. Everything?
My epiphany happened like this: After college, I got a job in New York doing tax compliance for EY. Yes, my childhood lawyer dream was replaced somewhere during college by an embarrassing but genuine love for tax law. EY is a huge public accounting firm with over 200,000 employees. In the tax and audit world, the months leading up to a major deadline are known as “busy season”, which is code for “Clear your social calendar, because you will be spending 6 days per week at the office, and eating all of your meals at your desk.” It sucks.
One night, during a particularly hectic week, I walked into the women’s bathroom on my floor, and found a colleague about my age near the sinks, crying. She explained to me that busy season was wearing on her. She was sleep deprived, she was stressed, and she felt overwhelmed by the pressure of finishing all the work before our deadline. I just stared at her.
Now, I want to clarify something. I was sleep-deprived and stressed too, and I felt sorry for her. But, in that moment, the main emotion I felt was giddiness. I wanted to run out of that restroom whooping and hollering, waving my arms around and laughing like a crazy person. Because, as bad as I felt for my colleague who was struggling, you know what her words made me realize?
Surviving the stress and pressure of busy season was the hardest thing she had ever done. And it wasn’t even in my top 10. All the intense lifts and conditioning workouts, the pain of close-game losses, and the thousands of tedious hours of practicing this or that fundamental skill had toughened me up, and shown me that I was capable of a lot more than I thought I was. My time spent honing my basketball skills wasn’t a waste at all–if anything, it was an advantage!
Let’s take some common interview questions, for illustration:
+ Can you perform under pressure? Sure. I’ve done it a thousand times in close-game situations.
+ Can you receive and apply constructive criticism? Uh, yeah! You should hear how direct and brutal some of my coaches have been in pointing out my flaws.
+ Can you work well with others? Yes, I’ve had teammates from all different backgrounds, political beliefs, races and religions. Many of them are now my closest friends, despite our external differences.
+ Can you learn and adapt to changing environments? Yup. You should see the thick scouting reports on the other teams (including their plays!) that I memorized before every game, on top of my academic demands as a full-time college student.
+ Can you dedicate yourself to a task? With all due respect, if I can practice the same move 200x in a row, and drag my teenage butt out of bed at 5:30 AM to lift weights, I’m certain I have the staying power to complete whatever you throw at me.
This was a complete breakthrough for me. From that day on, I started thinking more concretely about how my basketball skills could translate to being a better employee, getting that next promotion, and succeeding in the workplace. Because we’re friends now, I’ll even tell you a secret: sometimes before a big meeting or difficult task, I say a phrase in my head to pump myself up. It’s a phrase that my KU Jayhawk strength & conditioning coach Andrea Hudy would say (err, scream), before our team attempted a really difficult drill. Be an athlete.
Be an athlete. To me, that means you should attack whatever you’re doing. Go all in, confident you will succeed and prepared to do whatever work is necessary to get there. Get after it.
So, this is my advice to you: Be an athlete. Think hard about how the skills you are learning in your sport translate to the qualities of a great employee. Be prepared to explain this to an interviewer, who may have no sports background. And believe in yourself. If you’re a competitive athlete, that means you can do just about anything.