Sports Can Help Teach Leadership in Politics

Six years ago, I graduated from college deemed to be “educated” by the institution to which I shall be forever indebted — literally and metaphorically. With regard to my college degree and vast amount of acquired knowledge, my adviser left me with these parting words of wisdom. “Its fool’s gold brother, its fool’s gold.” He was right. Most new graduates, myself included, enter the professional world with a theoretical understanding of how things work. They know what the books say. But the books don’t provide first-hand experience. So when it comes to practice, many young minds lack savvy. This is particularly prevalent in politics. While an increasing number of young people are politically aware, their understanding of leadership in politics lacks perspective.

But the post-college world educates us in its own way. For me, it has been through athletics. While some laugh at the idea, sports is an avenue that has proven enlightening. Whether it is as a coach, a member of a team or individual competition, there are identifiable parallels between athletics and politics. And if we become more than just spectators, the athletic venue will provide insightful lessons in leadership and, ultimately, success.  

First, identifying the problem is only a small portion of leadership. One must also find an answer. Everyone can tell you when something is wrong. And believe me, they do. However, there are a fewer number of people that have an idea of how to solve the problem. And ultimately, who can get the varying personalities within the team to commit to the solution.

In the 1980 Winter Olympics, the United States hockey team entered the competition as a mere afterthought to a dominant Soviet squad. The U.S. coach, Herb Brooks, was charged with finding a way to do the unthinkable to win the gold medal. He did just that. But it wasn’t easy. Brooks had a method. He was brutal, obsessive, borderline sadistic — and the pundits were highly critical.

The political landscape is largely the same. People will vehemently tell you what is wrong, and then boldly point their finger at who is to blame. But where they fall short is their ability, or willingness, to provide a real solution.

Next, no system, style of play, or person is infallible. Nevertheless, people are incensed when things aren’t perfect. Case and point, the New York Yankees. A slow start in April is tantamount to intense and often scathing criticism from Yankee fans and media.

Stop. Take a breath. The organization has 27 World Series championships, 16 more than the next closest franchise. The season is eight months long and isn’t determined in the first 30 days.

This resonates on the field of politics. People expect big things. However, desire for instant success is often unrealistic and, in turn, lends itself to unhappiness. That isn’t to say people should be satisfied. That is equally disparaging. But eras of greatness, whether athletic or political, aren’t built overnight. 

Finally, in athletics those who tell you all the reasons you can’t do something are never in short supply. Examples are endless. Of those, Roger Bannister stands the test of time. In 1954, Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier in the mile. But not before scientists and critics told him all the reasons why it was impossible.

Tune-in to any mainstream news syndicate and we are inundated with such criticism. In politics, no matter the politician, the party, liberal or conservative, anyone who shares a goal and a course of action is derided as aloof and out-of-touch, their plan bound to fail.

But while the athletic venue educates us in some of the less attractive aspects of the human personality, it also provides a window into critical elements of the human spirit. Whether it is Herb Brooks and his gold medal hockey team, the New York Yankees with their 27 World Series championships, or Roger Bannister doing what most believed to be physically impossible, athletics are an everyday example of how vision, coupled with passion and perseverance, can elevate us to greatness.

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