How to be a successful athlete

Or…How to be a successful ANYTHING

Over the past two decades I have had the wonderful opportunity to be involved with wonderful people in the sporting world. I have sat with, interviewed and broken bread with high school, collegiate and professional athletes. Each one has a unique story about his or her growth in their sport of choice and I have relished the chance to understand how these gifted and inspiring individuals overcome adversity to become better athletes and people.

It is encouraging to see a whole new crop of athletes emerge each year, particularly in the high school ranks where the nuances of their craft bring deeper meaning in life as it does on the fields of play. I see that yearning in their eyes that thirst for knowledge and the appreciation for hard work. I feel a certain sense of pride for these young people. Perhaps it is because my own sons are the same age with the same aspirations, the same motivations, and the same desires.

Over the years my conversations with these young people have taken a different tone. Gone are the youthful and glorifying overtones of a star-struck writer eager to earn respect. The obvious, sometimes misguided leanings of a blathering fool have been replaced with tinges of parental counsel that most kids detest out of the mouths of their own parents but somehow become okay when uttered by a random stranger with a salt-and-pepper mane who has been around the game as an outsider on the inside.

I am more guarded with my praise even when an athlete has obvious talent. I am careful when handling the delicate ego of my young charges because I have witnessed firsthand the uncompromising and unforgiving feeling of defeat of a promising future left unfulfilled. I am very cognizant however opportunity. I’m so aware of the tenuous tightrope these young people walk in order to fulfill that potential that I find myself catechizing on the realities of the world they are about to enter, force-feeding parental propaganda that an imperative understanding earning an opportunity does not end when one is given – it has to be earned daily.

In today’s fast-paced, business-like athletic and academic environment, endurance is understated.

Earlier in my writing career I spoke on several occasions with a young man out of Salt Lake City whose astronomical rise to national prominence in the game of football was a rare occurrence in this part of the country. Like most young Polynesians he came from a humble, working class home. His parents loved and supported his dreams. He had older brothers who were just as talented but chose another path in life.

When tragedy struck the family and the sudden death of his father left an indelible mark in their home it became evident that a life outside of football was not only plausible, it was understandable.

But the young man seemingly buoyed by his faith and the determination to overcome the odds and perhaps memorialize his proud father with every sack, every tackle, every fumble recovery and batted-down ball, persevered, battled through the adversity and became one of the most intimidating men in college football. Haloti Ngata is now one of the most feared defensive linemen in the National Football League. How did he overcome? How did he succeed? I have no clue but I do know one essential ingredient that is essential to all stories like Haloti’s – he persevered.

There are many stories like Ngata’s. Sadly there are even more who fall through the proverbial educational chasm. There are others who succumb to the hardships, the familial pressure to exceed expectations or the daunting burden on campus to be “The Man.”

Colleges and universities are scrambling to fill the void felt by these Polynesian athletes and to understand the cultural divide that is so troubling to young Polynesians who are grappling with what sometimes seem to be insurmountable odds. On high school and college campuses across the nation, from sandy beaches to snowy climes the battle cry is still the same, “Succeed at all costs” and yet it still seems like these young people are not properly equipped for the rigors and challenges of negotiating the disparity between the traditional role they play in their home and the formidable part they play in the classroom and on the field.

Understanding this void has prompted many colleges and universities to employ Polynesian advisors and coaches to help in the transition to college life which I believe is a step in the right direction. But what is being done at the high school level to help retention rates? What can be done to encourage, promote and assist young Pacific Islanders who have academic and/or athletic goals that extend beyond a high school diploma?

The only concrete advice I can give in my limited understanding of the issue is to reassure these young people that there is hope and hope can only be attained through perseverance and by enduring to the end. Examples like Ngata and Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o are not as rare as they may seem. And again I reiterate that the commonality that exists in all stories of success is perseverance.

And to that end I borrow the words of Sir Winston Churchill – “Sure I am of this, that you have only to endure to conquer.”

2 thoughts on “How to be a successful athlete

  1. Transitioning from college athletics to life in the real world is one thing I wish colleges took more time to help us athletes with. They help us turn our potential into success on the college playing field, but only so few move beyond that field into a life as a professional athlete. In the grand scheme of things, how our parents and family raised us is a huge influence on how we handle ourselves beyond college, but it’d be nice to see the institution we devoted so much time, effort, blood, swear and tears devote time to preparing those of us who did not become pro-athletes, become extraordinary people in other aspects and places off the field. (I’m thinking aloud now). lol thanks for wonderful posts!

    1. I agree and your experience is shared by many student-athletes and students in general. Perhaps a few more “life” classes to help transition into professional life would be beneficial? Great ideas!

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