Behind the Madness: Lessons from Women Who Played College Sports

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For many college sports fans, we’re entering into one of the most hallowed times of year … NCAA March Madness! As with most things during a global pandemic, this year will look a little different but, despite these changes, the upcoming Final Fours will still have many of the elements that make them a beloved sports tradition. The brackets! The Cinderella stories! The falling confetti during One Shining Moment! What’s not to love?

Which is why I would venture to guess the vast majority of people go straight to the madness that comes in March when they hear the phrase “college sports.” Others may think of ESPN’s College Gameday and the football played on crisp Saturdays in the fall. This, of course, makes sense. Division I basketball and football are the highest profile college sports, shown on TVs in homes, restaurants, and bars across the country. 

But I’m here to tell you that there’s so much more to college sports than just the games you see on television. Especially for women. 

Diving for a softball is a lesson of college sports - you fall and get back up.

That’s a picture of me from my glory days as a Division III women’s basketball and softball student-athlete at Knox College, a small, liberal arts school in Illinois. I didn’t receive a scholarship to play sports. Not a single game was televised. And I didn’t play in a stadium filled with hundreds of thousands of fans. In fact, I’m fairly confident I never played in front of 100 fans. But that doesn’t make my student-athlete experience any less important or life changing, particularly as a woman. I could fill an entire book about how the four years I spent passing and hitting a ball translated into life-long friendships, the tenacity to fight breast cancer, and the road to my professional career. But these types of lessons don’t belong just to me.

I am lucky enough to be surrounded in both my work and personal life by accomplished women who played college sports. So to these women – who are now teachers, lawyers, athletics administrators, doctors, stay-at-home moms, and counselors – I posed the following question: “What is the number one lesson you learned from college sports and how has it impacted your life?” 

Here is what they had to say.

Perseverance

Whether it was described as grit, determination, work ethic, or discipline, every single woman said being a student-athlete taught her how to persevere. Some, like me, called upon this inner strength when faced with a serious medical diagnosis. Others referenced it when talking about new motherhood and job challenges. But, no matter the circumstances, one thing was clear. All of these women had at one point struggled and fallen down. But, because of the determination they learned through sport, they all knew without a doubt they could pick themselves back up again. 

How to be a good teammate

The women also credited sports with teaching them how to be good teammates. Many pointed out the key to this is knowing your role, which doesn’t always mean being the leader. As a former basketball student-athlete said, “A lot of people will say playing sports taught them leadership skills. But not everyone can be a leader. So, for me, I learned how to take on any role that would help achieve success.” Similarly, a former soccer student-athlete shared that, after being a starter for three years, she lost the top spot to an underclassman during her senior year. While she could have let her bruised ego win, she decided to take pride in serving as a mentor to her younger teammate. After she graduated, her school went on to win several conference championships and she is proud that she played a part in setting the stage for that success. 

Balance and focus

Whether it was the bottom of the 7th with 2 outs and runners on 1st and 3rd or managing classes, homework, practice, and community service, college sports taught these women how to (as one former track and field student-athlete described it) “get your mind right.” The ability to find calm in the chaos and manage multiple competing interests has continued to serve these women well in their professional careers as well as motherhood. This is also supported by scientific data, which has repeatedly shown that girls and women who play sports report lower levels of depression and overall better rates of mental health

The importance of community and friendship

Almost every woman spoke about the power of community and friendship, particularly female friendships, they experienced while playing sports. Several women noted that, as student-athletes, they were expected to be engaged in the larger campus community, which instilled the importance of social and civic responsibility. Others talked about how playing sports provided them an immediate sense of belonging when they arrived on campus and that those relationships have continued to grow decades beyond graduation. As one former student-athlete shared, “They aren’t just my teammates from college. They’re my teammates for life. We’ve continued to be there for each other, long after our playing days were over.”

Confidence

Last, but certainly not least, many of the women mentioned how sports gave them the confidence to be themselves, even when breaking with traditional societal norms. As one former field hockey student-athlete said, “Sports taught me it was okay to be competitive. Society seems to expect women to always play nicely, but sports taught me there is value in ambition and motivation.” Another former student-athlete credited sports with giving her the confidence to push herself “a little bit harder, or be a little bit louder, in order to be taken seriously as a woman.” This too plays out in scientific data, particularly in regard to professional success. While only 6% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, over 90% of those women played a sport at some point and over 50% played a sport in college.  

The women I spoke with came from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences. Their path to and through collegiate athletics was in no way the same. Some graduated five years ago while others graduated over 20 years ago. Yet, despite these differences, all of our answers had one thing in common … playing college sports changed the trajectory of our lives. The lessons learned during all of those magical, hard, winning, and losing days have stuck with us long after we’ve hung up our cleats and continue to guide us as women, professionals, and mothers. 

So as you’re settling in to watch the Final Four, you should certainly be impressed with the amazing athletic skill displayed on your screen. However, don’t forget the hundreds of thousands current and former female student-athletes who may never appear on your TV but are grateful every single day for their opportunity to play a sport they love.

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