Posted in the Yale Daily News on April 23, 2019
The recent admissions scandal, in which parents cheated to get their kids into top colleges and universities, triggered questions about the value of recruiting athletes. Because parents and coaches faked the athletic status of a handful of kids, some people have questioned the value of college athletics and recruiting.
Yale President Peter Salovey says athletic competition “is essential to the mission of a great university,” whether it is varsity, club, intramural or recreational. Student-athletes learn “self-discipline; how to work as part of a team; how to subordinate an individual goal to a group accomplishment; and how to be resilient in the face of failure,” he says. Salovey’s words ring true to me.
You may shrug off his comments about the virtues of athletics as cliché. You might think athletics teaches good values, but so do less brutish pursuits. But there are few endeavors like athletics that prepare young adults to lead and subordinate the self to the group. And you don’t need to be an Olympian to reap these rewards.
An avid sports fan and psychologist, Salovey knows athletes necessarily fail, and that resiliency in life is key. Addressing our football team in 2016, Salovey said athletes “show us how to believe in something larger than ourselves, how to be relentless, how to be honest with ourselves, [and] how to improve.” He said the best scholars and leaders know how to achieve difficult things, and athletes teach others not to give up despite difficult losses.
Nearing my halfway mark at Yale, I have become friends with many athletes and am grateful to know such promising, determined and “restless” students of all backgrounds who juggle sports with academics, on-campus jobs and social activism. Some liken Division 1 sports to a full-time job, the commitment typically topping 30 hours a week on and off the field. But it doesn’t feel like a job, and it’s been the most formative experience of my life.
Still, I wish I could go through Yale twice, first as a student-athlete and second to seize other opportunities. There are so many events I would attend if I had the time, including a capella, comedy and dance performances, film screenings and plays. These wouldn’t exist without students investing their time and talent, just as athletes do in their sports. Diversity at Yale is a treasure. What is the goal of universities if not to enlighten and introduce students to those different from them?
Athletes enrich our culture. Imagine not being able to escape the snow by ducking into the warmth of Payne Whitney to watch basketball, volleyball, squash or a swim meet. Imagine no Harvard-Yale football game or the other nine games our Bulldogs play. Imagine not being able to pack the Whale to scream at Yale’s opponents on the ice. Imagine being without the heightened emotion, spirit and fun that sports bring to our campus.
Truth is, most athletes would play in an empty stadium. Many do. We practice and perform because we love competition, strengthening our bodies and minds and fighting what my coaches call the “never ending fight to get better.”
Athletics teaches lifelong lessons. Its extreme highs and lows teach us to regulate emotions, suppress unwanted or destructive thoughts and focus on the controllable and positive outcomes. Athletics demands strategy, grace and a competitive mindset. “In our understanding and practice of competition and combat, athletics rests on a spectrum with military violence on the one end and chess on the other,” Hellenic studies professor George Syrimis told us in his seminar “The Olympic Games: Ancient and Modern.”
Take my sport. In the Mohawk language, lacrosse translates as “little brother of war.” Native Americans played lacrosse to resolve disputes without (much) bloodshed, toughen warriors, celebrate religion and create community. Lacrosse brings us together on Saturdays at Reese Stadium, where rowdy students share bleachers with local kids who bring small sticks to play catch during halftime.
I have learned as much from lacrosse as I have from the brilliant professors here. Anyone who has been in the thick of athletic competition knows how cerebral it is. From the sideline of a college lacrosse game, the first thing you notice is the noise. You hear a player talking his teammate through any number of plays. He might have a split second to scroll through his mental encyclopedia, including the five-page scouting report, the game plan, the location of the play and the speed. If he misjudges, it can jeopardize the game.
Developing “Lacrosse IQ” requires hours of studying film, memorizing a binder full of X’s and O’s, learning coded vocabulary and accepting criticism. Our coaches also teach us to deal with failure and to reset mentally in an instant.
Students hone leadership skills while participating in activities like performance groups, student government, debate, community outreach and faith and service groups, which also teach working for a common cause, looking out for the well-being of others and being accountable, dependable and loyal, says Thomas Beckett — Yale athletic director for 24 years and a former professional baseball player.
Excellence in anything requires obsession. I’ve been obsessed with lacrosse since I picked up a stick at age eight. I’d pound the ball against the same spot on my garage wall then return to my studies happy and relaxed. Because athletic recruiting exists, it provides many kids with a North Star, something to strive for, a beacon of hope. It models how to chase goals and dedicate yourself to a cause. Students who pursue passions with all their might are likely to transfer this force to accomplishing tough goals later in life. Students with driving passions, including athletics, are what make Yale, Yale.