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Life Lessons Through Basketball by Liesl Ulrich-Verderber

It’s been almost 10 years since I’ve touched a basketball. Had you told me that 11 years ago, I would have thought you were crazy. Up to my senior year of high school, I had devoted my life to basketball. Every week was a combination of driving to gyms, lifting, school, and homework in the pursuit of playing Division 1 at an Ivy League school. It would have been inconceivable that basketball wouldn’t play a part in my future or my college experience.

Eventually, your identity will shift from athlete, to, well, something else. And, though your jumpshot will lose it’s accuracy, what you learn from your time as a player stays with you the rest of your life.

Exactly a decade after a knee injury set me on a new course in life, there isn’t a day that goes by in my life as a business leader where the skills I learned on the court aren’t applicable. The grit, leadership skills, and confidence I honed over my life as a basketball player are a central part of who I am and the decisions I make.

Here are just a few of the lessons I left with that I think most of us, wherever we are in our career as athletes or former athletes, can take to heart.

When life gets tough, you get tougher.

A few years ago while sitting outside eating dinner at a favorite restaurant an old teammate of mine walked by. I immediately jumped up, yelled her name and she sprinted over to the table to give me a hug. (It must have been quite a scene for the people sitting next to me to watch these two six foot tall women greet each other so abruptly.) It had been years since we’d been on the court together, or even spoken, but she sat down and had a few appetizers and we caught up.

We were talking about the struggles of our jobs, and managing people and coworkers when she paused. And said something like, “Do you ever notice how quickly people just give up? I feel like, for as tough as Lone Wolf was, it made us so much better at working really hard. It seems like a lot of people don’t know how to do that.”

I’ve thought about that statement for a while now. And it’s so true. If there’s one great lesson I learned from my time as an athlete it’s how to keep working hard even when others would give up. I see so often my friends and colleagues who didn’t grow up playing athletics at a high level really struggling to focus, work harder, and push through when things are difficult or not going their way.

Grit isn’t something you learn overnight. It takes hours of practice. Of working hard, coming back from loss, and being forced to find the strength to keep going even when you think you’ve reached your limit.

For most of us, becoming a professional athlete is not in the cards. But those hours spent doing sprints, sweating in a hot gym, nursing twisted ankles, and turning around to play another game after a crushing loss are worth far more than you think years later.

All of that work is building a skill that’s hard to come by: grit.

Grit has gotten me through more long nights and disappointments to levels of success and happiness I could never have imagined. Learning to have resilience is hard won, but there’s a lot of room at the end of the extra mile.

Being a good leader is about being a good coach.

We will all be in positions of leadership one way or another in our lives. When we get there, it’s often hard to know what to do. And as athletes, we have a great advantage when it comes to leadership if we remember what made our best coaches our best coaches.

Maybe they stressed the importance of communication. Maybe they were incredible at looking at the chaos of the last minute of a game and drawing up the perfect play. Maybe they were great at preparing you to be your absolute fittest. Whatever it was, great coaching boils down to leading people to the best position and giving them the best training for their skills.

And that’s exactly what a great leader does. Whether you're a leader as a boss, a teacher, a manager, or a parent, I’ve learned that leadership is about being a great coach. Not only are you coaching the people you’re working with to hone their skill sets and use them to the best of their ability, you’re also coordinating your team (or classroom, or employees, or kids) to work together to achieve the best outcome.

Great leaders are great coaches. They are able to see people’s weaknesses and strengths, look at the landscape around them—no matter how complex—and coordinate a path to success for everyone.

Every time I find myself struggling in a position of leadership I ask myself; “What would Coach ____ do?” and I can usually find an answer that brings out the best in me and my team.

Stand up tall. Your strength is powerful.

First up, stand up tall, ladies!

Remember the swag of really good athletes. That confident “jock walk”. The way great athletes could pull off sweatpants and slides and you knew they were going to be the toughest one to guard?

I’m not saying I was ever that much of a threat, but boy, did I try to pull off that look: a quiet, powerful confidence. I’d try it on at tournaments, walking down the halls of school, getting in and out of my car. And something funny happened, as I practiced walking with confidence, I became more confident. Eventually in college and beyond I traded slides and sweats for heels and blazers but the confidence was still there. I knew how to walk into a room with presence.

So many young people, especially young women, don’t get the space or the encouragement to develop their confidence. Tall girls and strong girls aren’t celebrated as the “norm”, and that weighs heavy on your self confidence.

It wasn’t until I started playing basketball that I found a way to stand taller, to be loud, to be a leader, to communicate clearly, and have the confidence to grow into the person I am today.

Basketball gave me an outlet to see what made me “different” (my height, my size, my intellect) as some of my greatest assets. As a young female entrepreneur in the tech space it’s pretty common to feel out of place, and yet, I can call on the confidence I developed on the court to stand taller and take up space and make a name for myself.

As athletes and former athletes we have a responsibility to stand up, be loud, and take up space. In doing so we not only remind ourselves of how much power we have, but we show the next generation of young girls and women that it’s okay to do the same.

One of my favorite quotes reads, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”- Marian Wright Edelman

Who do we wish we had seen when we were young? Who did we admire when we were young? The more we walk with confidence the more we give other permission for the next generation of female athletes to do the same.

What you learn as an athlete you carry for life.

These days I’m beyond a time where I would identify myself as a basketball player but basketball did shape so much or who I am today. It was a part of my most formative years and I feel fortunate to have the foundation of grit, leadership, and confidence to carry with me every day.

Being an athlete is an incredible privilege, one that I don’t, for a day, take for granted. However our careers come to an end, wherever we are in our journey as athletes or former athletes, we have two important responsibilities. First, we have to thank those that taught us; our coaches, our teammates, our parents, maybe even a rival or two. And second, we have to mentor and support the next generation of athletes and pass on the knowledge and privileges that we were granted.

We female athletes stand on the incredible shoulders of generations of female athletes. We aren’t so far removed from an era where women weren’t even allowed to run the full length of the court and had to wear skirts while playing (seriously, ask your grandma about this). Look how far we’ve come and now, imagine how far the next generation of athletes can go with our support!


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