How college basketball taught me to respond to Life's broken plays

Ryan Wright, University of Virgina '14

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It took two colleges in four years,...

followed by three jobs in the first six months after graduation for me to realize that in order to succeed in the real world, I must accept that change is the only thing that would be constant. I played basketball my whole life with the understanding that the outcome would be favorable as long as I approached every workout, practice and game with more rigor and tenacity than my opponent. That said, I was forced to change my mentality as I sought to overcome the obstacles that life threw my way in the years following high school.

I was privileged to attend Hamilton College, where I played a large role on the men’s basketball team upon my arrival to campus in 2010. For a first generation college attendee from Prince George’s County, Maryland, the opportunity to play college basketball at one of the best liberal arts colleges in the world was intriguing to me. I harnessed that intrigue into excitement that compelled me to approach every class with an open mind and every basketball practice with the goal of getting better each time I stepped onto the floor.  As a result, things went according to plan. I earned a 3.3 GPA in first my semester and exceeded in my role as the team’s starting point guard. Everything I believed I wanted at 18 years old was coming to fruition and it all made sense:

  • You go to class, you do your work, you go to study hall, you ask questions and the grades will come.
  • You get extra shots up after practice, you show up early, you comb through your scouting reports and watch film before every game, and you’ll be the man on the court.

These are not only things that I was telling myself, but they were happening. It was at this point, however, that I realized sports do not serve as a perfect metaphor for life.   

What do you do when things go according to plan and you arrive at the desired outcome, but that outcome does not bring about the desired feeling?  What do you do when the scoreboard says that you won but you feel like you’re losing?

400 miles away from home and three months into my college journey, I felt isolated whenever I was not on the basketball court and I felt as if I did not belong on the college campus that I would be calling home for the next three and a half years.  Was it a freshman slump? Would this change? I searched for answers during my first college winter break and I encountered my first broken play when I suddenly yearned for the college experience that my high school friends seemed to be enjoying.

My whole life to this point centered around me being Ryan Wright, the guy that plays basketball, rather than Ryan Wright, the guy who cares about urban development, or technology, or music. During this time at Hamilton, I tried to understand who I was on a deeper level, and realized I had to learn more about the world to gain a passion for things beyond basketball. To put it shortly, I had no plan B. I did know that in order to justify abandoning plan A, making a plan B would require more planning and a stronger justification than plan A. Upon returning for my second semester, I planned to finish my freshman year strongly, give up on my hoop dreams to attend a bigger and more recognizable school closer to home.

What do you do when things go according to plan and you arrive at the desired outcome, but that outcome does not bring about the desired feeling? What do you do when the scoreboard says that you won, but you feel like you’re losing?

That school was the University of Virginia, which I transferred to with the belief that it would afford me the academic and social experience necessary to further develop my passions and areas of expertise outside of basketball. Upon my arrival, I decided who I wanted to be for the next three years of my life. I also realized that it was the first time in my life that I would not have the privilege of relying on basketball teammates that doubled as friends. I had to branch out. I had to find people whose interests aligned outside of basketball, but I did not quite know what those interests were at the time. 

These were challenges that I embraced halfheartedly. On one hand, I branched out by exploring interests such as music, technology, and economic development. On the other hand, I ended up joining the basketball team because I was familiar with not only the habits that I would sustain by being a part of an ACC basketball club, but also because I still saw basketball as a sure way of falling in with a group of friends. Adapting to this new environment forced me to get the most from my time with UVA basketball and expand my horizons and interests outside of the sport. As I honed my passions outside of sports, I was also able to dedicate myself to academics and form academic interests of which I never imagined. This approach helped me strongly through the rest of my college experience until the time I graduated from UVA in 2014.

When I graduated, the momentum from my last three years of college did not carry me into the real world. My entry into the workforce presented me with broken play #2. After spending three years honing my passions, studying subjects pertaining to those passions, and excelling at those classes, I entered the real estate industry, which did not relate to those interests. I could not reconcile going to work every day without being able to connect my work to a deeper passion. It was a foreign feeling. Whenever I practiced or committed to doing something every day, it was for basketball or a class that I cared about far beyond the surface level.  As a result, I jumped from job to job with the hope that the next stop would provide more purpose than the last.

In addition to the lofty goals I set for myself, I had expectations placed on me by those who supported me throughout high school and college. It took three jobs for me to confront that reality, and I committed to not letting my support system or myself down. At that point, my basketball habits took effect. I committed to setting a positive example for my younger sister and I also committed to working as hard as possible at my career so that I could accumulate the resources necessary to improve the circumstances of those around me. Since adopting that mentality, I ultimately found myself at Oracle doing federal government sales, where I’ve been for the last two and a half years.  

Through all the broken plays of my life, I have learned to channel the appropriate skills that I learned from basketball. Resilience, commitment to a team, commitment to a purpose, timeliness, and relentless work ethic are habits that should be omnipresent. However, my journey taught me that the mentality necessary to succeed in athletics is not necessarily the same mentality necessary to succeed in life. Sometimes you do need to abandon something to which you have committed. I found that there is a difference between the task at hand and the purpose for which you live. I had to teach myself that basketball is not life and that basketball is a sport that can teach you how to handle many of the obstacles life throws your way.

For example, it is the best teacher for how to adapt to a broken play.

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Ryan is a former basketball player for the University of Virginia and currently works as a Technology Account Manager at Oracle. Connect with Ryan via Linkedin