The Value of Sports
Last week, the head coach of the Louisville men's basketball team, Rick Pitino, was implicated as a key player in a federal investigation of bribing recruits by paying their families large sums of money. This is almost certainly the end of his coaching career, especially given his suspension for that whole prostitute episode earlier this year. Collegiate and professional sports have been the topic of emotionally charged debate over the past few days, and not for the reasons people usually get worked up over sports. From NBA star Stephen Curry to the NFL's leadership, our focus has turned from winning and losing games to a discussion of the values expressed by these athletes, coaches, and owners through their actions. Sports are a big part of many Americans' lives, and when our feelings for our sports teams are combined with our feelings about politics, these discussions can get emotional. But of all of these headlines, I have to admit, the college basketball scandal hit me the hardest. It's not just that college hoops have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. It's that these scandals fly in the face of why we hold sports so dear in the first place.
Why do we want kids to play sports, especially team sports like football and basketball? Why do we spend our afternoons and weekends driving them to practices and games? Why do we drop thousands of dollars on gear, lessons, and summer camps? Is it simply because sports participation seems to be a requisite for college acceptance these days? When the high school guidance counselor told us to put team sports on our college applications and resumes, it wasn't because colleges believe getting smacked around makes us better people, or because they believe tackling is one of the selection criteria of the high-paying tech jobs of the future. It was because it showed that we could be team players; that we learned something about leadership, unselfishness, hard work, learning from failure, and how to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. Those are the values that sports teaches us.
If you know me well, you know that despite my valiant efforts at athleticism, I am an utter failure at most sports. You also know that I bleed Carolina blue. UNC basketball has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. I grew up in Chapel Hill, NC, and was born in the hospital on campus. I have to admit, it's usually a Great Day to Be a Tarheel - they tend to win a lot. But UNC basketball means more to me than just national championships and banners in the rafters of the Dean Dome. It wasn't just that they won, it was how they won. A lot of that comes down to the coach, and when I was a kid, that coach was Dean Smith.
When you start a company, you're doing a lot more than selling a product. If you're doing it right, you're building a team. You're establishing a culture. You're promoting values. You're enabling personal growth. You're becoming a leader. For many entrepreneurs, there's not clear guidance on how to do these things. So, you read a lot, and look for lessons from the people who have done it well. People like Dean Smith.
Coach Smith promoted a culture of learning on his teams, both on and off the court. During his tenure, the men's basketball team achieved a graduation rate of 96.6%. Of all his quotes, he is best known for his perspective on learning from mistakes:
"What to do with a mistake: recognize it, admit it, learn from it, forget it."
This is something I've emphasized with my team at QIC. Starting a company makes you very humble very quickly, because you screw stuff up all the time. But you can't live life with a running tally of your - or other people's - mistakes in the back of your head. Find the lesson, learn it, and move on. And as the leader, recognize that any failure is ultimately yours.
One of my favorite things Coach Smith implemented is "pointing to the passer," or acknowledging the player who set you up with a great shot. To make sure the scores table records an assist, the player who makes the shot points to the player who passed them the ball. This reinforces the idea that every contribution is valuable and that no one player can win a game by himself.
Dean Smith had countless strategies for building successful teams, but the thing he was perhaps best known for was his personal relationship with his team members. Even after they graduated, he checked in with each of his players and their families, and helped them in any way he could. In his book The Carolina Way, he says:
"The most important thing in good leadership is truly caring. The best leaders in any profession care about the people they lead, and the people who are being led know when the caring is genuine and when it's faked or not there at all."
Lessons like these are why sports are important. It's not just about winning and losing - although strong teams tend to come out on top - it's about making yourself a better team player, a better leader, and ultimately a better person. In all the debates about sports, politics, and ethics right now, let's not forget that we're all part of the same team, and we need each other to win.
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