Timothy R. Clark: Learning life's lessons from football

Published: Monday, Sept. 24 2012 7:05 a.m. MDT

Taysom Hill (4) of the Brigham Young Cougars celebrates scoring BYU's touchdown during NCAA football in Boise, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. Are there lessons of enduring value to take from football?

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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Bill Shankly said, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” Lest you start nodding your head in agreement, let me point out that the famous team manager was actually talking about soccer. You see, every passionate proponent of every sport thinks his sport is the center of the universe. I was the same way once upon a time.

On Dec. 29, 1988, BYU played Colorado in the Freedom Bowl in Anaheim, Calif. We beat the Buffaloes, 20-17. It was my final game, and I can still recall the sense of finality that washed over me as I pulled the sweaty shoulder pads over my head for the last time. Nearly a quarter century has gone by. I don’t pine for those days as some ex-players do, but I’ve certainly asked myself if it was worth it.

Football is not a lifelong sport. I was duly reminded of this as I lay in a hospital bed the other day, recovering from my seventh knee surgery. All told, that makes ten surgeries, all of which have resulted from injuries sustained playing a silly game that I love and yet curse. No one ever told me your chance of injury is 100 percent if you play Division I football. The only question is how bad. Truer words were never spoken.

“Would you do it all over again?” comes the question. Surprisingly, perhaps — as I sit here icing my knee — the answer is still yes, but not for the reasons you might imagine. Football was my game, but it’s not inherently superior or more virtuous than badminton or synchronized swimming. I know that’s heresy to some, and yet it’s true. However a prominent piece of Americana football may be does not change the fact that it is merely a game. If you have a basement hall-of-fame room arrayed with trophies and a shrine for self-worship, what does it all really mean?

Are there lessons of enduring value to take along with the scar tissue, the limp and the arthritis? I can’t run around the yard with my kids anymore. That’s a high price to pay. So what do I have to show for it? A few artifacts that will end up adorning the walls at Applebee's?

The lesson of repetition. The lesson of repetition is the lesson of consistency, grinding routine, productivity and skill building. Repetition is the input. Muscle memory is the output. The deeply grooved patterns of productivity that come from repetition have been something to carry forward into all aspects of life.

The lesson of isolation. When you are injured in college football, it is always sudden, always dramatic and never expected. You are removed from circulation and your life changes instantly. From that moment, your coaches, teammates and the fans treat you differently. Football may be a team sport, but in the end you suffer adversity very much in isolation. To overcome the lingering bitterness of having to leave the field is an enormous challenge. If you can overcome the trauma of that experience, you can overcome most of the trials that life brings.

The lesson of the distortion. A third lesson is to recognize the temporary nature of the experience. Success on the gridiron can bring a young man a bit of notoriety. But the status you enjoy is fleeting and will end as quickly as it began. Football creates a distortion field that has the power to convince you that you just might be a little more special than the next guy. Don’t fall for it. Ultimately, the lights will go out and your career will end. If you have learned to feed on adulation, you’re in trouble. If, on the other hand, you kept things in perspective, if you avoided the intoxicating influence of visibility and disproportionate attention, you will have learned a priceless lesson. In due time, life will require that you go for long periods of time without reward or recognition. If you can do that, you’ll win the private victories that really matter. And when you do lose, which you’re bound to do some of the time, you’ll learn from it and move forward.

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. His newest book, "The Employee Engagement Mindset," has just been released from McGraw-Hill. Email: trclark@trclark.net

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