4 Invaluable Life-Lessons That I Learned From Basketball

Allen Williamson, Amherst College '13

 
 

Pursue Interests Outside of Sports

This is one thing that I did eventually, but wish I had done more from the start. My first couple of college years were spent socializing and having fun.  It’s an exciting time to be a young adult on your own, but susceptibility to distractions can be problematic. Regardless of personal background, people who go to college are being given a great opportunity to learn and explore, with a general expectation of a future return on the investment. It is an opportunity not to be squandered. Looking back at my freshman and sophomore years at Amherst, I could have and should have taken more advantage of the array of on-campus activities offered for student life. I also could have and should have been more steadily committed to my academic pursuits. It took me a while to figure out what subject I was most interested in learning about, though this is not uncommon in a liberal arts education.

By the second half of my college years, I had narrowed down the discipline I was most passionate about (sociology) and found confidence in my voice in the classroom. As an avid consumer of music, I was interested in examining the U.S. music industry from a sociological perspective. By far the best decision I made academically was to write a senior thesis about the influence that technology has had on the music industry in the digital age. It tested my work ethic, my organizational skills, my reading, writing, and critical thinking skills, and my follow through in ways that no other endeavor could have. Finishing my thesis equipped me with an intellectual confidence to tackle whatever job demands came my way. I easily could have chosen not to take on this challenge, but this invaluable experience really sparked my passion for learning.

So go tryout for the campus improv group; go talk to that professor whose work you admire; get involved in student clubs; try to add something new to campus that you think is missing. In retrospect, the only thing you will regret is not having tried something you were interested in.

Wait For Your Opportunity, but Prepare in the Meantime

As a freshman on the basketball team, I was frustrated to not be on the court in games as much as I had hoped for. This frustration could have had a really negative impact, but I tried to be patient. I remember talking to an older alum one day after a home game.. He told me I have talent, but that I’ll have to wait my turn. “Once you get the opportunity,” he said, “make sure you’re ready.” Since then, I committed wholeheartedly to doing extra ball-handling exercises, getting extra shots up, and working out even harder both in and out of season for the next three years. When my opportunity truly came as a starter and co-captain my senior year, I was ready to go and wouldn’t let the opportunity go to waste. That season, I helped the team reach a 30-2 record, including a conference title and a national title. If I had been complacent with my role off the bench, and had lost the motivation to improve everyday as a player, I would not have been as successful helping my team win a championship.

I've applied the same concept to my professional career now as an educator. In my first year at Pingree, a 9th-12th grade co-ed day school north of Boston, I was working essentially as an intern. I observed, I learned, and I was willing to do extra things to make the engine run smoother. I also kept my eyes and ears open for opportunities to stretch myself professionally and grow. My mindset was that the work I was doing was preparing me for whatever opportunities may be presented in the future, there or elsewhere. By my third year at Pingree, I had become the dean of students, overseeing the various aspects of student life outside of the classroom. By then, I had spent two years building relationships within the community, showing dedication to my work, and demonstrating competence when it came to handling difficult situations. Just like it was on the court, I learned that opportunities are best seized after meaningful preparation. You often will not know when an opportunity will present itself, so the best thing you can do in the meantime is commit to improving yourself.

Be a Positive Influence in Your Environment

One thing I think any former student-athlete will tell you is that the concept of teamwork translates directly into any professional environment. Working together with a group of people towards one common goal is the essence of a team. Every member of a team has a role from top to bottom and the healthy functioning of the whole is dependent upon the contributions of its parts. I’ve definitely found that to be the case working at a school. And speaking for myself, I can say that the most successful teams I’ve been on had a really positive environment where everyone supported each other, rooted for each other, and wanted to be on board with the mission. In contrast, the less successful teams I’ve been on had an environment where not all teammates got along and not everyone bought into the team’s mission. Regardless of performance during practice or games, the most important thing a teammate can do in my opinion is contribute to a positive team environment. Show respect, show support, show pride, show brotherhood/sisterhood, show that you care. If you’re lucky enough to be on a team, whether sports related or work related, where everyone contributes to a positive environment, you allow for the team to reach its full potential.

Always Keep an Open Mind

Life can be funny sometimes. It doesn’t always unfold in a linear path, despite our best efforts to plan for it. With this in mind, I stress the importance of being open minded. This goes for both your college experience and your professional endeavors afterward. I had a brief stint playing professional basketball overseas after graduating from Amherst, which was ended unexpectedly. Long story short, I was faced with a difficult decision to put down the basketball and pursue other professional options. An interest in coaching and teaching landed me back at my alma mater, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be doing meaningful work that I’ve really connected with. Being open minded through that process helped me to recognize good opportunities and to be adaptive. It has also helped me form meaningful relationships with different people and learn from them. Be open to trying something you weren’t planning to try; welcome the idea of accepting that you may not have all the right answers; listen respectfully to someone who you might not agree with; be open to changing your opinions over time. Being in college, you are especially exposed to so much that can help you grow as a person. You also have the time to develop skills to cope with the obstacles that are thrown in your path. Experiencing life with an open-mind allows for this development to happen.

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Allen graduated from Amherst cum laude with a Bachelors in Sociology. After a brief stint overseas, he returned to his high school, Pingree where he currently serves as the Dean of Students.