20 Life Lessons That Don't Work in Sports
Cliches may elicit groans or beg for a more contemporary replacement, but there's a reason why they persist despite being almost universally loathed. Cliches often hold true, regardless of how clumsy they seem in the 21st century.
And one area that is perpetually begging for a cliches to make an appearance is the life lesson. I'm talking about those antiquated little statements that always show up on little throw pillows or on generic motivational posters.
These lessons persist, because we all make the same dumb mistakes or develop the same bad habits from generation to generation. It's actually a little depressing when you think about how predictable people have become.
However, there is one universe where these long-accepted life lessons transform into bad advice: sports. For athletes and teams, life lesson cliches that generally apply to our lives become a Bizarro guide for professional and/or personal failure.
Here are 20 life lessons that, quite simply, don't translate to sports.
It’s OK to Make Mistakes
It’s often said that making mistakes is OK as long as you learn from them. But the real world is often far more forgiving than the sports world, which is known to be fickle and impatient.
Arkansas didn’t wait around to find out what Bobby Petrino learned after a motorcycle accident proved to be the revelatory catalyst for an awful lot of bad behavior. And players are routinely cut after being arrested...or arrested again.
The thing about sports is that the number of mistakes an athlete or coach is allowed directly corresponds to how critical he or she is to a team’s success. Former Cleveland Browns coach Rob Chudzinski was fired after less than a calendar year on the job because the team can go 4-12 with or without him.
But would the Los Angeles Lakers have won without Kobe Bryant? Would the Pittsburgh Steelers have continued to win without Ben Roethlisberger? Would the Baltimore Ravens even be the Ravens without Ray Lewis?
I guess the takeaway here is that it is OK to make mistakes, even if you don’t learn from them, as long as you’re important enough.
Cheaters Never Win and Liars Never Prosper
The whole thing about cheaters and liars never winning or prospering is not usually true in life, and it’s not usually true in sports either.
Cheaters win all the time. How many times did Lance Armstrong win the Tour de France while blatantly cheating? About a billion. Sure he was “stripped” of his titles decades later, but he still enjoyed living as an American hero for all that time.
And as for prospering? Well, Alex Rodriguez may be a national pariah and suspended for the entirety of the 2014 season, but he’s still one of the richest, most overpaid athletes in sports, and he has been for quite some time.
Never Take Things Personally
If there’s anything we can take away from the investigation into the very ugly conduct of Richie Incognito and his cohorts toward former Miami Dolphins teammate Jonathan Martin, it’s that sometimes things are taken personally. And rightfully so.
Singling out a teammate (or teammates) for constant ridicule is personal. Whatever Michael Crabtree said to Richard Sherman at some point to make him angry was personal. As was the “ME-DI-OCRE” press conference Sherman used to fire back at him.
Maybe athletes are more likely to take something personally because they’re more likely to face personal attacks. Some are public and play out in the media, while others play out within the four walls of a locker room. Or maybe they're just oversensitive hotheads.
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is a tired cliche that people often find solace in after something bad happens—like "everything happens for a reason." The idea that you can take something positive away from an otherwise wretched situation is understandably comforting.
Sometimes, it actually can happen, but not in sports. An athlete who suffers a serious injury, or a series of injuries throughout his career, is not going to be made physically stronger by them. And this is a world that places a premium on physical strength and fitness.
In sports, what does not kill you won’t make you stronger, but it will slowly chip away at you to the point where it threatens your livelihood or even ends your career. Penguin great Mario Lemieux had the talent of Wayne Gretzky, but he played nearly 600 fewer games because of an endless string of health problems.
You/We Are Not the Center of the Universe
There are few things in real life that are more obnoxious than people who behave as if the entire universe revolves around them. As though the sun sets when they go to sleep and the world ceases to exist again until they wake from their slumber.
The thing about those people is that the real world provides a system of checks and balances, and they’re often punished in different ways for such behavior. In the sports world, no such system exists and athletes can go on believing the sun shines out of their ass for years.
Because of the money they make and the attention that is often lavished on them, many athletes operate under the mistaken assumption that they are, in fact, the center of the universe. But stars that burn the brightest tend to flame out in dramatic fashion.
That reminds me, has anyone heard from Terrell Owens lately?
Nobody Is Perfect
In reality nobody is perfect, but in sports there are a few athletes who seem to get damn near. Derek Jeter, Tom Brady, Andrew McCutchen, Henrik Lundqvist and Chris Paul are among the many that seem to be straddling perfection.
Superstar athletes are, by definition, athletic, in addition to being talented, successful and sometimes very easy on the eyes. If U.S. soccer star Alex Morgan isn’t perfect, I don’t know who is.
Celebrate Small Victories
In any team sport, or even in individual competitions like the Olympics, at the end of a season or competition, there’s only one champion left standing. That leaves a lot of losers on the outside looking in, which is why championships alone shouldn’t determine success.
But the win and win now mentality, which is particularly pervasive in the NFL, doesn’t allow much time to savor minor achievements. Consider San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who led his team to two NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl in his first three seasons in San Francisco but failed to win the big one.
Frustration from coming up just short is understandable, but the decision by eight Niners players to skip the Pro Bowl in 2014 reeked of Harbaugh’s unpleasant intensity. Granted, how can he be expected to celebrate a small victory when Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll barely celebrated a championship.
Stop and Smell the Roses
Speaking of Pete Carroll not stopping to smell the roses! Recently, he led the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl championship in franchise history, in just his fourth year at the helm in Seattle.
Said Carroll in his post game press conference, “The first meeting that we’ll have will be tomorrow. That starts tomorrow. Our guys would be surprised if we didn’t. ... We’ll take this in stride.”
Apparently celebrating anything these days is out of the question.
Take Care of Your Reputation, It’s Your Most Valuable Asset
When athletes are making money and people are tripping over themselves to fawn all over them, it’s easy to lose perspective. Especially because a premium is placed on how they perform, while everything else is an afterthought.
Although it’s been demonstrated time and time again that being a loathsome human being will eventually catch up to you, many athletes continue to disregard that and behave like grade-A jagweeds.
In recent years, Terrell Owens, Richie Incognito, Manny Ramirez, Gilbert Arenas, Lance Armstrong and Alex Rodriguez have all behaved in ways that have ultimately impacted their job status and their bank accounts.
And yeah, I don’t care if Kris Humphries remains gainfully employed, fake-marrying a Kardashian definitely qualifies as loathsome behavior.
Live and Let Live
Live and let live means just that—you live your life and I’ll live mine. Although there will always be people who are inexplicably obsessed with what everyone else is doing, it’s an extremely freeing philosophy to those of us who are smart enough to embrace it.
But when it comes to sports, particularly team sports, one person’s success is (at least) partially tied to the success of the group. That creates an atmosphere in which athletes are led to believe they have a say in the way their teammates live their lives.
The most obvious example of this is the ongoing debate about openly gay players in the NFL. While some players have been supportive and most have stayed silent, there seems to be a vocal minority who have taken their questions and concerns public.
Though the tide finally seems to be turning, people like Jonathan Vilma are always going to be around. These are the people who care more about polluting the atmosphere than making it better.
Turn the Other Cheek
“Turn the other cheek” and “an eye for an eye makes us all blind” both say essentially the same thing, with one painting a more grisly picture to make the point. The point is that two wrongs don’t make a right, which is yet another way to say exactly the same thing.
Not only does this idea not carry over to sports, but there are at least two sports that are fundamentally built upon the exact opposite of the premise. MLB’s “unwritten rules” are an arbitrary code of conduct concocted by players and enforced by lunatic pitchers who routinely peg the opposition with fastballs.
The NHL is similar in that most teams employ a fourth line of “enforcers,” which is just code for "marginally talented goons who are there mostly to throw their weight around." Supposedly, this system exists to protect the good players, but all their presence does is perpetuate the same broken cycle.
Win Without Boasting, Lose Without Excuses
I was hesitant to use Seahawks superstar cornerback Richard Sherman as the example for a life lesson that is all about sportsmanship because of how heated people got about his passionate outburst after the recent NFC Championship Game.
That being said, he is just too perfect and timely an example. Sherman obviously represents the "win without boasting" part given that he considers getting to boast about it one of the best parts of winning. I don’t consider that to be the worst thing in the world.
Making excuses after a loss, however, is an entirely different story. There are certain athletes and certain coaches out there who always seem to have a bone to pick after any and every loss. The New England Patriots' Bill Belichick certainly comes to mind.
Everything in Moderation
In sports, moderation is a very foreign concept. Many athletes tweet in excess, spend money in excess, make bad decisions in excess, go through women and have children in excess—and some even eat in excess.
Surely you’ve heard the expression “less is more” at some point. Well, in sports, less is not more...more is more. And sometimes even that’s not enough. Like Charlie Weis at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Time Heals All Wounds
I’m not even sure how true this one is in life, but the idea that time heals all wounds is certainly not a life lesson that carries much water in sports. Athletes are highly competitive and very passionate, meaning they aren't likely to brush things off.
Losing in the Super Bowl or the Stanley Cup Finals is something that has the power to haunt athletes for years, if not forever. Being passed over in the draft, slighted by the media or discounted by almost anyone along the way can fuel entire careers.
The first person who came to my mind as an example was the late, great Joe Frazier. During his boxing career, he and Muhammad Ali had one of the nastiest rivalries the sports world has ever seen. Frazier was on the receiving end of countless Ali barbs.
In recent years, Ali has had nothing but warm words for Frazier, but even if it was all just a part of Ali’s manufactured persona, Frazier never forgave him. After his death in 2011, an ESPN article really said it all: "Joe Frazier hated Muhammad Ali." And that was just the headline.
Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover
While the old adage of not judging a book by its cover may occasionally apply in sports, more often than not, it seems that what you see is what you get.
You think Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, at 6'4" and 307 pounds, looks like kind of scary dude? Well, guess what! He is. Maybe he’s a nice guy in his regular life, but on the football field, he’s a mercenary. Suh has a menacing smirk because he actually plans to menace people—maybe even multiple people...at once.
If an athlete is large and intimidating just to look at, there’s probably a reason for it. Just like there’s a reason that kickers and punters, for example, are usually scrawny—the reason being they don’t need to be large and intimidating.
Taking them at face value alone, you're going to be right far more often than not.
The Truth Shall Set You Free
The only thing worse than being caught doing something bad is later being caught in the lie you used in an attempt to cover up the aforementioned something bad.
Generally speaking, the public is relatively forgiving of athletes and other celebrities. Though it depends on the nature of the offense, a frank confession and a sincere apology go a very long way. Perhaps, in some cases, even longer than they should.
That being said, it’s much harder to forgive a liar. Cheating the game or engaging in criminal behavior isn’t acceptable, but the damage is localized. The minute an athlete starts lying, people feel compelled to take sides and either defend or denounce him.
Then, when liars like Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez, Lance Armstrong and Pete Rose are eventually exposed, the public is outraged. The defenders feel personally deceived, while the denouncers have their jaded world view confirmed...once again.
Yet the lying persists.
Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness
We all know that money doesn’t buy happiness. It can go a long way toward it by eliminating the financial stress that dogs most people, but it’s not magic. Look at all those lottery winners who end up even worse off than they were before.
Of course, you wouldn’t know it by the way some athletes spend their money or by the unsavory ways some have used to get it—like supplementing their income by dealing drugs or running a dogfighting operation.
The more joy a person takes in his material possessions, the less he has in his real life. Much like boxer Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr., who isn’t going to stop burning through his earnings until there’s literally nothing left. So until about five years after he retires.
On the bright side, if the secret to happiness is found at the bottom of a giant stack of cash, Mayweather is likely to be the first to find it.
Don't Sweat the Small Stuff
Not sweating the small stuff is a good rule of thumb to reduce stress in the lives of us normals. Getting bogged down in details, obsessed with phantom competition or becoming fixated on one part of your life to the detriment of the other are all things that cause more grief than good.
Unless you’re a professional athlete.
Getting bogged down in details is what Peyton Manning is doing in the film room for hours each day. Obsessing about phantom competition is what drives LeBron James to up his game every time he hears Kevin Durant mentioned as an MVP candidate on ESPN.
James and Durant may meet in the NBA Finals again at some point, but their paths don’t cross often playing in different conferences. The best athletes have an obsession with being the best, and you can’t become the best without meticulous attention to detail and a blazing competitive fire—one so intense that it can be fueled even by nonsense in the absence of anything else.
A Bird in the Hand Is Worth Two in the Bush
As coach of the New York Jets way back when, feisty loudmouth Herm Edwards famously once said: “You play to win the game. Hello! You play to win the game! You don’t play it to just play it. That’s the great thing about sports—you play to win!”
It was one of the few things Edwards has ever gotten right.
It’s why Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher called a fake punt in the BCS Championship, which turned the tide of the game in his team's favor. It’s why Michigan’s Brady Hoke went for two with 32 seconds left against Ohio State in 2013 when an extra point would’ve tied it up and ended up losing.
It’s why coaches sometimes overthink themselves and make absolutely insane decisions—like switching up a game plan late that has been working all day or going for it on fourth down early when a chip-shot field goal would put three points on the board.
Don’t Take Yourself/Life Too Seriously
When talking about sports, the use of exaggerated military and war terminology is commonplace. Hyperbole about athletes “going to war” or “going into battle” together presumably is used to stoke the foxhole mentality, resulting in an us against the world situation.
The only problem? Not only does it marginalize actual members of the military, sometimes it gives athletes the mistaken impression that what they do is far more important than it really is.
Sports are important to a lot of people, and they're understandably important to those playing them, but they don't involve a life or death situation.
I don’t think there’s any better example of an athlete taking himself too seriously than Kellen Winslow Jr.’s infamous “I’m a soldier!” rant in 2003. Then playing college ball for Miami, the combustible tight end made quite a spectacle of himself after a 10-6 loss to Tennessee.
Said Winslow, “It’s war! They’re out there to kill you, so I’m out there to kill them. We don’t care about anybody but this U. They’re going after my legs. I’m going o come right back at them. I’m a solider!”
Except that he's not a solider. He's actually just a football player and not even a particularly impressive one.
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