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7 Ways Sports Empower Youth With Critical Life Experiences

Heart racing, body aching, and gasping for breath, you remind yourself that there’s no quitting now. You have already played your heart out for the last 60 minutes and your team is counting on you.

You close your eyes, take a deep breath and refocus your mind because it all comes down to this moment. What happens next can be the difference between success and defeat. You find your composure and dig deep.

High intensity moments like these are common in the competitive sports arena, but we sometimes forget that these experiences translate into real-world learning opportunities. Athletes – especially student athletes – sometimes fail to see how the benefits of participating in athletics weave into our everyday lives.

Situations that unfold between the goal posts, on the oval, or under the net very often mimic the competition-like settings that also challenge us off of the field. These situations can include getting ready to give an important presentation, working tirelessly to balance a hectic work-life situation, or even trying to cut that extra weight around the mid-line.

So how do these similar, but contextually different, challenges connect? How does training and competing for sport translate into our everyday lives off the field?

Coach AK pursue dream quote

1. Dealing with Defeat

As I was preparing this article, I received the news that I had not been accepted into a highly sought-after opportunity. The news came after months of planning, in which I envisioned reaching the ultimate success.

I found the disappointment to be very unsettling, causing my mind to jump in a million different directions. Doubts began to cloud my thinking. I was wondering if I was good enough or if it’s time to throw in the towel.

But many successful athletes are trained into optimism, so that your mind refuses to dwell on the setbacks.   Just as you would in an athletic competition, where you may have dropped that important pass, missed that critical shot, or suffered an unfortunate injury, you accept in life that stuff happens and that tomorrow is another day. The idea of quitting and hanging up the cleats is actually not on the table; getting back on the practice field is the only option.

Succumbing to defeat, or to the taboo word of the year FAILURE, is not an option. A simple setback is not going to stop you from taking that last-second shot. Experiencing those key moments in competition, when everything is on the line, actually helps individuals grow in off-the-field situations.

The more you are able to find composure and success on the playing field in those tipping-point moments, the likelier you will be able to find your composure and success off the field when something doesn’t go as planned.

2. Delayed Gratification

If you only enjoy activities that offer immediate results, then athletics may not be for you. To truly excel in the world of sports, every athlete must be meticulous and consistent in their training in the hopes of experiencing a positive outcome in the future.

In most situations, you will probably encounter significant pain and struggle before you start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. In life, just like when lifting weights, the only way to get stronger is to lift heavier weights and tear some muscles. Only when you push yourself through the pain can new heights be reached.  The fruits of your labor are not realized for weeks or even, sometimes, months.

In most situations, we hope that with consistent hard work, we will reach a desired outcome. Yet it is the athletes who are aware of the likelihood of encountering pain and slow progress in the short term when chasing a dream.

As an athlete, you learn that it takes time to see real results. The only way to get there is to embrace the longer time-frame and to adopt an unwavering work ethic.

sports empower youth

3. Teamwork

Whether you compete in a team sport like soccer or an individual sport like track and field, the people you surround yourself with are one of the greatest determinants of your success.

“No two minds ever come together without a third invisible force, which may be likened to a “third mind.” When a group of individual minds are coordinated and function in harmony, the increased energy created through that alliance becomes available to every individual in the group.” – Napoleon Hill

In individual sports, it’s your training partners who will push you in training sessions each day to make you better than you were the day before. In team sports,  it’s your teammates who each play an important role in creating a strategy that allows you to reach maximum results on game day.

Both situations require that you utilize others to grow within your respective game. Each person plays an important role in driving their own growth, as well as that of every other member of their team.

The teamwork built through sport translates into successful team dynamics and leadership off of the field. Athletes understand the necessity of working together and realize that a greater impact can be achieved as a collective, rather than working only independently or in isolation.


sports team talking

4. Self-Realization

The connection between practice and competition is best characterized as a love-hate relationship.  The practice is an athlete’s homework, while the competition is their test.

Competition offers athletes an objective moment of self-realization, standing as an “I told you so” that underscores what has or has not been built through practice. When the sweat and blood transform into winning, it’s much easier to appreciate those long hours of dedication.

However, it’s often the daily grind that happens behind the scenes – once the athlete steps off the winner’s podium and gets back to work – that goes unrecognized. When it comes down to it, the only person who truly cares about who you are during practice, is you.

No one cares if you made ten three-point shots in practice if it doesn’t transfer into the game. Similarly, in the real world, no one cares how hard you work if you don’t produce results.

Your bosses aren’t concerned that you were up all night working on the presentation; they will judge your work only by what is presented.  Were you able to blow the client away or did you flounder it the midst of pressure?

I realize that this attitude seems insensitive..  I don’t create the rules, so don’t shoot the messenger! The point is that, as athletes, we are forced to come to terms with this reality at an early stage. Your supporters won’t be concerned that you are eating fast-food  or not taking care of your body, but they certainly won’t be impressed when you arrive unprepared for competition.

The results or the endgame are usually what people evaluate, not the process.

[bctt tweet=”Practice is a youth athlete’s homework, competition is their test. @CoachAK”]

5. A Winning Mindset

As you move up the competitive ladder from amateur to professional athletics, your mind becomes the most important muscle that you must train. In college and in the pros, everyone trains at a high-intensity. Everyone commits equal time to in the weight room and the practice fields, hoping to maximize their athletic potential.

The question I always get asked, “But if this is the case, then why is it that competition results vary so greatly on game day?” As a former professional track and field athlete, I understand that defeat at the finish line usually begins in the blocks.

The true champions are the ones who are able to find the warrior mindset before the gun even goes off; the ones who envisioned themselves crossing the finish line first. If persistent training and incredible hard work build the base for success, it is the competitive mindset that uncovers the athletes who are winners.

Aristotle quote sum of its parts

6. Work/Life Balance

If you have played any type of athletics during the academic season, then you understand the work-life balance you must juggle when it comes to improving your athleticism, your grades, and your social life.

Did I forget to mention sleep? You fit that in wherever you can! As student athletes, learning to manage your time effectively is quite beneficial. Everyone has different strategies to overcome procrastination and ways of re-ordering their lives to make sure they can complete important tasks, foster close relationships, and enjoy personal time.

It’s easier in high school and college, even though while you’re in it you think otherwise, to manage work-life balance. When you have a family and in the workforce that balance can be even more so difficult to manage. Working to find ways to master this juggling act early on can save you much needed time and frustration.

7. Leadership and Community

As the Founder and President at Empower2Play, and while working with several high school students through our Global Ambassador program, I have seen how leadership and building connections come naturally to great student-athletes of any age.

Athletics has a way of bridging communities, overlooking differences and getting everyone working together for a shared vision. Sports teach individuals to consider the well-being of the team over their own success. Maybe that’s why for centuries sports have been used as a vehicle to bring communities together from all walks of life.

In fewer than 100 days, the world will be coming together for the 2016 Olympic games to celebrate not only athleticism, but also sacrifice, determination, and peace. Through athletics we learn how much we are truly one, global family.


AK Empower 2 PlayThis is a guest Post by Coach AK.


Coach AK, President and Founder of Empower 2 Play is a Social Entrepreneur, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, educator and risk-taker who has worked with thousands  of students and athletes from around the world.

Through his travels to over 30 countries, he uses the power of sports and diplomacy to empower and provide opportunities to children and families living in impoverished communities.


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3 Ways High School Athletes Can Improve Their Communities | Goods Giving Back

Wednesday 25th of May 2016

[…] as high school athletes gain critical life experiences from the sports they play, volunteering for any one of the above organizations will not only contribute to their […]

Yael Eliyahu

Saturday 21st of May 2016

Though I am still a student athlete (true, it's only for a couple of more weeks....) I would say that this is absolutely true. My brother and I have been taking martial arts for the past year, and it has translated into our ability to effectively handle stress, and for me it is a great way to maintain focus on my schoolwork. (Just stretching my muscles in the morning makes a huge difference.) We've learned a lot from martial arts. Just this week, I watched my brother persevere through something I never expected him to finish. I can't really think of a moment where I was more proud of him. :-) Thanks for writing this article, you've written many of the things I've said before, and mentioned a few other points besides.


Saturday 21st of May 2016

Thank you for reading and for the kind words. It's such a wonderful gift, being able to move our bodies in ways that also bring us peace of mind. Best of luck to you in your schoolwork and martial arts.


Saturday 21st of May 2016

My 10 year-old just recently finished a soccer season with a local YMCA team. I have never been much of a sports person, but the positive self-esteem change I saw in my son was quite amazing. He had this sense of accomplishment and a feeling of belonging that I had not seen in him before. It was a very low pressure league and the kids had a blast. I will definitely try harder to encourage him to take up team sports in the future!


Saturday 21st of May 2016

Thanks for the stopping by, Dara. It's wonderful to hear your son had such a great experience and low pressure leagues are the way to go. Another benefit to sports? I had a work friend years ago who talked about "athletes hours" and how well they understand time management because they had to get a lot done in a day.

I hope your son continues to enjoy his sports endeavors.

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