The #SoftSkills I Learned Through Team Sports

posted in: so, Soft Skills, Uncategorized | 4

This Sunday morning I was encouraged to join the #sunchat.  I am not going to lie, I was quite intimidated in doing so seeing how many people from all over the world were on it!  The conversations began and I just followed along until I found something that sparked my interest.


It was the idea that Jeff Veal shared that school sports programs are a spot for students to embrace the soft skills  and Lute Croy’s response that moved me to reply.


twitter chat


The conversation continued, but this is the part that got me thinking.  Is this really the case?  Are my coaches the reason for the soft skills I gained in sports?  Did they explicitly teach me these lessons?  Or is it the experiences that made me who I am?  I honestly don’t remember having these conversations with my coaches where we would discuss these ‘soft skills’ and how they would apply to my life later on. It is only now, as an adult, that I reflect on their true impact on me and who I am today.


I started reflecting on my own experiences.  I have been on skates almost for as long as I could walk.  I grew up playing competitive ice hockey in Chatham, Ontario, where I began at a young age to learn the hard way some of the soft skills that have made me who I am today.


I learned what it meant to sacrifice for the greater good of the future.  I played on two competitive (or travel) hockey teams growing up; one girls and one boys.  I played both because: 1. I loved the sport, and 2.  it was what was going to make me a better hockey player.  Playing for a team like this required a commitment.  I had to sacrifice things such as parties with my friends, red feather weekends, Halloween nights out trick-or-treating, etc.  This sounds very trivial now, but to a kid between the ages of 8-15, who also wants to spend time with friends, it wasn’t always an easy pill to swallow.


These sacrifices paid off when I was asked to attend Shattuck St-Mary’s Prep School.  It is a Prep School in Faribault, MN that is known for its ice hockey.  I was thrilled at the opportunity, however had to again make a sacrifice to move to Minnesota on my own (to live in dorms) without my family at the age of 14.  The opportunity was one that I could not pass up, and this small concession paid off when I was given the opportunity 3 years later to attend and play ice hockey for Brown University.


As I think about my time at Brown, I also can’t help but think about other lessons I learned through my experiences playing hockey.  In sports, in one single game, you have the chance to demonstrate, practice, tweak and  perfect, a plethora of soft skills.  That is just one game.  Multiply that by a whole season full of games and practices, not to mention the ‘extra-curriculars’ that take place outside of your sport.


Respect, Sacrifice : Respect is something I hold in high regard.  I wasn’t fond of every coach I had, nor did I always agree with every decision my coach made, but I had to trust that whatever that decision, that they were doing it for the greater good of the team Being part of a team means that you follow that person and you put 110% effort towards what benefits the team.  If I wasn’t sure, I would sit down with my coach and ask them why.  Give them the opportunity to explain, and 9 times out of 10 they would have a very valid reason for their choices.  Sometimes in team sports, the coach would make a decision that meant that I sat on the bench.  It wasn’t something personal, it was just that they thought there was someone that could do that specific job or task better than I could.  This went both ways.  There were also times when I played more than other people, because the situation or job at hand was something that I was better at than others.  This was my coach putting confidence in my strengths and using each player to the best of their abilities.


I learned collaboration and teamwork as well.  When you are on the ice, everyone has a job to do.  As soon as someone starts trying to do other peoples’ jobs, the system breaks down because a weakness is formed.  If we trust our teammates to do their jobs and we do ours to the best of our ability as well, success will be had.


I learned to be adapt. Not every game plan is going to run smoothly and exactly as planned.  If someone ends up out of position, their teammates are not going to tear a strip off of one another. This is not good for team morale.  Instead, we adapt,  We change.  We cover for our teammate until they can get back into position.  We help them out and provide support where support is needed.

I learned persistence and that pain is temporary.  When you are down 3-1 with 10 minutes left in a game, the game is not set in stone.  You have a choice to make a difference.  You fight long and you fight hard to do everything you can to come back.  Just the same, if you are winning 3-1.  The game is still not over and you have to maintain that persistence and will to win in order to keep the lead and pull the win off in the end.  It requires hard work, and grit.  Your lungs might be burning, but you don’t give up, because when you do, that’s when the other team will capitalize.  The physical pain that you feel will go away when you have a chance to rest, but the emotional pain you feel when you know you didn’t give it your all will linger with you much longer.

I learned humility.  In order to learn from my mistakes and accept criticism I had to be humble and acknowledge my personal strengths AND weaknesses.  No one is perfect!  Mistakes are great because they are learning opportunities.  We used to watch video footage of the games we played the night before, in order to pick up on the mistakes we had made and to discuss what we could have done instead to improve.  Sometimes I was the one picking up on the mistakes and sometimes they were being pointed out to me. Either way, I learned that these people that were pointing out the mistakes were not doing it to cut me up and make me feel bad, they were doing it because they wanted to make me a better hockey player.  It was my job to take the advise (feedback) they gave me and make the necessary changes to improve my game.


Part of being humble, is also learning to win and lose with class.  In a big win, not rubbing it in peoples’ faces and in a devastating loss, learning to take responsibility and still congratulate those who were victorious.  Take the loss as a opportunity to reflect and figure out what can be done better for next time.


I learned time management.  In the NCAA, student athletes are required to maintain a certain GPA in able to keep their eligibility.  Essentially, if I didn’t keep my grades up, I wouldn’t be allowed to play hockey.  We were practicing hockey 2-3 hours a day, plus would have team weight-lifting a few times a week.  Our games were on weekends, Friday and Saturdays, and if we were on the road we left on Thursday nights usually.  We had to be responsible and proactive to tell our professors that we weren’t going to be there for the Friday classes and to catch up on what we missed.


Finally, I learned that strong leaders empower a team.   I will admit, I am still learning how to be a strong leader, but am lucky to be surrounded by what I would consider many of them.  The best captains I ever have had in hockey, led by example.  They weren’t always the people who had something to say in the locker room, but when they hit the ice you knew they were all business and that they were going to leave it all out there.  Between hockey and work, I have learned that attitude is contagious, so its important to choose to have a positive impact, rather than a negative one.  It takes a true leader to be able to stay positive when things just aren’t going the way they were planned.  Strong leaders provide a support and make every member of a team feel welcome and valued.


These are soft skills that I learned through sports and that my coaches have taught me, whether they intended to or not.  They are skills I have gained because of my experiences (through the act of doing) and I have now been able to acknowledge where those came from through self- reflection.


I consider these lessons invaluable because of how I have been able to apply what I have learned to so many different aspects of my life and continue to do so.


What do you think? Do the lessons need to be explicitly taught, or are they innately learned through life’s contexts and experiences?

4 Responses

  1. I think this absolutely can be true (providing coaches model these skills in a positive way). But I also think that, for kids who weren’t good at sports (that’d be me), the experience can be exactly the opposite. I was taught in my attempts at team sports that natural talent meant more than effort, that winning was more important than being kind, and that it’s ok to laugh someone who isn’t as skilled. I’m not saying that the coaches were teaching these things, but they happened and they had a definite impact.

    On the other hand, I would argue that I learned all of these soft skills through band and drama. I could literally rewrite your post based on my experiences in those two contexts, making minimal substitutions.

    I don’t think team sports are the ideal place for teaching so-called soft skills. And my high school jock friends would argue that band and drama weren’t ideal. I think, like so many other things, it depends on student interest and passion.

    It’s almost impossible to learn soft skills if you are in a situation that you hate every day. But if we love what we are doing we can learn all the soft skills we will ever need – even (and especially!) when things get difficult. And I think that’s what we need to keep in mind in our classrooms.

    • I agree that these skills can be learned in any team situations, not just sports. I was not trying to suggest that sports are the only way to learn them, just that its what I know because it is what I was a part of. I have continued to learn in the different ‘team’ settings that I am a part of now, such as working in a school. I agree that these same skills would have been learned through any team setting, such as band and drama as well, and that students will flourish in learning and practicing these skills when in situations that are of interest to them. However, I don’t agree that that we ONLY learn from those positive experiences and I’m still not sure that it is up to just the coaches to model the skills. I would agree that students have a better chance of flourishing under circumstances where they are having success and where they are confident, but again, I think every opportunity is a chance for learning. While I have had a lot of success with hockey, I am not as talented at other sports. In University I decided that I wanted to try-out for our D1 Lacrosse team. I had played a bit of lacrosse in high school, but was never great at it. I made the team (only because I would have been the only person cut) but trust me, I sat the bench the entire season! My teammates (and coaches) called me Gumby (I guess I have a tendancy to be clumsy and people tell me I run like I skate – whatever that means lol) But I just laughed. I was ok with that. I accepted my role and was just happy to be part of the team.
      I have had many different coaches (or leaders/bosses) in my life as well, and would argue that I have learned just as much from the ones that weren’t great role models, as from the ones who were. I also played and participated in many different actvities. Maybe those lessons were of ‘what not to do’, but they were lessons none-the-less. In these more negative situations, I personally feel we have a choice to make. We can choose to be angry and resentful, or we can choose to learn from it. From coaches I didn’t particularly like, I learned to still respect their decision, I learned that I needed to still put 110% effort in for the greater good of my team, I learned that the world does not revolve around me and not every decision that was made was to ‘slight’ me or ‘put me down’. If anything, I learned to work harder because I didn’t want to be in that position next time. It also taught me to support those around me, regardless of whether or not I was a key player, to be able to laugh at myself, it made me human and I realized that I am not perfect and I can always improve. I still had a role, even if it was just to cheer on my teammates and keep morale high. I guess that’s kind of how I take on most things in my life now.

  2. “However, I don’t agree that that we ONLY learn from those positive experiences and I’m still not sure that it is up to just the coaches to model the skills. I would agree that students have a better chance of flourishing under circumstances where they are having success and where they are confident, but again, I think every opportunity is a chance for learning.”

    I don’t think we ONLY learn from positive experiences. I think you are exactly right when you say that students have a better chance of flourishing under circumstances where they are successful – especially when they are just learning the skill. If a student doesn’t have the skill of perseverance, for example, and they hate math class, then math class probably isn’t the best place to teach the skill. It would likely be more successful to teach them how to persevere with a problem in an area they do enjoy, and then once they have the skill, to apply it to math class.

    I, too, think we learn as much from our trials as from our successes. But if we are looking to teach soft skills to students who do not yet have them, we are likely to have more success if we actively work on those skills in places where a student is already feeling comfortable and successful.

  3. I played sports in high school although I wasn’t a strong athlete. I also played trumpet in a band but was never really good at that. The teachers and coaches were good to me. Taught me how to practice and what skills I could work on. I appreciated their efforts.

    But the best determination, grit, collaboration, teamwork and feedback I experienced was with a computer. The ability to create something from nothing – watch it work, watch it fail – that was super cool. Instant feedback. It made me driven to put products on the internet and watch people like or hate them. I became determined to build something that people would find useful – beginning in high school. I learned how to be a part of an internet team of people I have never met. I learned how to collaborate. I was self taught. Or maybe I wasn’t. Maybe it was those authentic experiences – similar to what was mentioned above – but behind glass. It’s all the same, really.

    We learn from our successes. We learn from our failures. We learn from our experiences. The context of learning is what is really important, not necessarily the specific examples.

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