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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


The Lessons We Can Learn from Great Athletes

I love it when I get opportunities to meet and converse with interesting people. About a year ago, I was preparing to speak at a conference, and at my table, I met a fellow presenter who’s now become a good friend. He’s a well-known business and leadership coach named Don Yaeger, who utilizes the lessons he garners from his conversations with legendary athletes and coaches to illustrate timeless principles to the rest of us.

Every time I speak with Don, I’m reminded of how many leadership principles the world of athletics has to teach us. In so many ways, sport imitates life. Just reflect for a moment about what successful student and professional athletes embody:

  • Drive and ambition to go to the next level.
  • Resilience when it comes to handling loss or injury.
  • Work ethic as they endure and even enjoy the daily grind.
  • Problem-solving skills as they overcome adversity or obstacles.
  • Emotional Intelligence as they navigate relationships with teammates.

I was reminded of this again a few months ago when reading a particularly insightful blog from Don Yaeger on Forbes. In it, he brings up the lessons we can learn from coach P.J. Fleck, who leads the little known Western Michigan University Broncos. From change, to impressions, to leadership culture, there is a lot to learn from even the least well known of athletic programs. It’s a great post you should read when you get the chance.

May I make a suggestion for all of us? I think we should be studying these leaders from the world of athletics. Reading their books, seeking their wisdom. They have too much insight for us to ignore. Here are a few simple suggestions for how you and your students can get the most out of the stories and lessons from both coaches and athletes:


Encourage your students to take up team activities (like athletics) that require discipline and commitment.

There are always lessons to be learned when students get involved and compete with a team to achieve a goal. From the beginning, unveil the big picture of how sports can teach life. During the midst of hard points in their athletic journey, stop and ask them to reflect on what they’re learning and kind of person they want to be.

Watch inspiring athletic movies together and spend time discussing them.

From Remember the Titans, to Jerry McGuire, to Brian’s Song, to Heaven Can Wait, to Miracle, to Eight Men Out, to The Pride of the Yankees, to Chariots of Fire, to Hoosiers, to Field of Dreams, to A League of Their Own, to The Natural, to Bull Durham, to Rocky, to Raging Bull, to Rudy, to Coach Carter — these films can be incredible fodder for discussions about important life principles. When we show them to student athletes, they always go over better than a talk or a lecture. Set a date to watch a movie, provide food, and allow time for discussion.

Pick a coach you respect from the past or present and read their biography or autobiography.

I would suggest you can start from the following for reflection:

  • I Never Had It Made: Autobiography of Jackie Robinson
  • Wooden: A Coach’s Life
  • When Pride Still Mattered: The Life of Vince Lombardi
  • Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero
  • The Life: The Story of Michael Jordan
  • Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times
  • The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter
  • Coming Back Stronger: Unleashing the Hidden Power of Adversity (Drew Brees)

You may also want to consider subscribing to Don Yaeger’s blog to get introduced to leaders you should know. Famous athletes and coaches aren’t the only source of wisdom in our culture, but they are some of our most inspiring voices. There’s never any guarantee of success in any form of leadership or coaching, but in the words of legendary Alabama head coach Bear Bryant, “It’s not the will to win, but the will to prepare to win that makes the difference.”

Take initiative, inspire, and challenge your students now. You’ll prepare them for a future they’ll then be ready to face.

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  1. sheila on November 4, 2015 at 11:17 am

    Tim please remember teams that are fine arts and or academic teams like band, chorus, one act play team, speech team, dance team, cheerleaders, Academic Decathlon, and Quiz Bowl these are teams too! I have students who excel in these and would like parallels drawn to their leaders/coaches along with the athletic parallels. Enjoy the entries you make, thanks.

    • Tim Elmore on November 4, 2015 at 3:33 pm

      Hi Sheila, I completely agree and encourage students to join those as well. Those teams and activities can build great life and leadership skills in young people, just the same as other sports.

      Thanks for continuing the conversation.

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The Lessons We Can Learn from Great Athletes