Sports Tips for Life

As I reflect on the frenzy and disappointments of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, I was struck by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s unprecedented win. No number 16 seed had ever won in the history of the tournament.

So I asked:       What lessons can we learn from their experience?

                         How can we apply it to our own lives?

I was instantly reminded of the many lessons I have learned, playing the game of tennis.

As the underdog, you are afforded the luxury of less stress. Not only was Virginia a number one seed in the South region, but also the number one team in the nation and the favorite to win the tournament. Expectations that come with:  

Pressure from: Within the player   

                         Their team

                         Their school

What about:    The school’s hometown

                        The region of the country

                        And the nation as a whole

Everyone processes and copes with pressure differently. The key is not to allow it to take over and sabotage your goals.

The Successful Underdog

What helps the underdog perform at a higher level?

When you are not expected to win or succeed, you tend to relax. In tennis, you will hear the announcer say the player is able to swing more freely. Their stroke is more fluid and they do not tighten up. When the pressure is on in basketball, and the player tightens up, we often see air balls or bricks against the backboard. Who can blame them with the knowledge there is an arena full of people and television sets around the world watching. Those who overcome these fears, at least in the tennis world, are said to be good at having amnesia.

One of the best things a person can do, in any possible negative situation, is to stop looking at the past, stop dwelling on the results of the last test or last job interview, and instead focus on the future. Moving forward, one step-at-a-time, allows you to see more clearly. In tennis, coaches talk about purposefully forgetting the last point, especially if you lost it, and to use certain techniques to refocus. You may see a player turn their back on their opponent and go to their strings. The idea is to take some deep breaths, focus solely on your strings, and clear your mind of the last point. Do not allow the flood of analysis careening around your head to cloud your play or judgment.


Rather, approach the next point as if it’s the first point. When we make assumptions about what is to come, we tighten up, lose focus, and usually miss the shot. In a test situation, we may forget the material or in an interview begin to say “um” or “uh,” which speaks to the idea that you are nervous, not prepared, or worse, reciting from memory. You want to practice and be prepared, just not sound it. Stay focused, every question is a first question and each one a new opportunity to win. Do not assume because you did not nail the first one, each one after is doomed. When our predictions come true, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy and propels further down the rabbit hole. Stay positive and focused, to ensure success!

Play to Win, Do Not Play to NOT Lose

It is a whole lot easier to give up, than it is to fight. It is, however, those who are truly successful that are the biggest fighters. Most successful business people, athletes or actors will tell you of the numerous failures they experienced, but they never let it stop them. In tennis and basketball, the player will tighten up and focus on playing defense. Worse, they will stop taking risks and hitting winners or sinking balls.

Be Positive

Body language is another key to success. Walking onto the court with head down and shoulders slumped tells your opponent that you are not up for the challenge. More importantly, you are sending the same message to yourself. Maintaining control over the things you can, means walking into an interview or test making eye contact, shoulders back, and your head held high.

Ultimately, it is about controlling the things that you can control. Your attitude, body language, and reaction to each situation. Having the right amount of amnesia to forget the last test or interview and realize each one is a chance to improve and do better, moving you closer to your goals.

Practice Makes Perfect

You need to focus on controlling the elements you can control. You cannot control the questions you are asked on a test or in an interview. There are however your notes and research that will allow you to be fully prepared.

For a test: Reread your notes, write a practice test or do practice problems, go on Quizlet, or study with a friend. Do anything that enables you to learn the material and better understand what it means.

For an interview: Look at the number of books and websites that will coach you through how to answer different interview questions and practice executing them. As a student, seek out help from your career development office. Find someone who will help you prepare the answers and listen as you practice.  

Most of all: Practice, Practice, Practice! Every successful musician, chef, or athlete will tell you how many hours they spent honing their craft. Success comes to those that put in the time. That does not mean you need to spend hours a day, be reasonable and use your results to judge whether you spent enough time preparing or not.

Learn from Your Mistakes

Ultimately, we all need to learn from our mistakes, if we are going to be successful in the ventures we pursue. I guarantee basketball players were hesitant to call time out after the University of Michigan’s Chris Weber mistakenly called a time out, one the team did not have, with seconds left in the championship game. The mistake resulted in a technical foul and in the end, the national championship. Boom! Lesson learned, know before you get on the court whether your team has any time outs!

For you: Take notes after the test to evaluate how prepared you were. Compare correct answers to your notes, were there any discrepancies, was anything missing? If you did not receive the grade you thought you were going to get, go to your professor and ask for help. Understanding where you made your mistakes is necessary, so you do not make them again. This is especially critical in a class where the final is cumulative. There is nothing worse than making the same mistakes twice.

After an interview, write down as many of the questions you are able to remember and evaluate how well you thought you did. Contact a career coach to discuss with them how it went, so they may offer suggestions for future interviews. If you do not get the job, follow up! See if the interviewer will reveal where you fell short. Were there skills you lacked and are they something you can work on, or was it something else? Feedback allows you to work on the things you can control in order to improve your chances the next time.

If you are looking for some extra easy reading, I highly recommend the book, The Art of Doing by Camille Sweeney & Josh Gosfield. The book highlights the success of ‘super achievers’ and how they have accomplished their feats. It features 36 chapters on 36 achievers from a number of different walks of life; an opera star, tennis champion Martina Navratilova, the New York Times crossword puzzle editor, and even a high-wire artist. Read one chapter or read them all, each one brings a unique perspective of success and tips to take with you.

The bottom line: do not put too much pressure on yourself, it will not serve you well. Do your homework, put in your best effort, control what you can and make things happen.

Good Luck!!