What Does “Athletic Success” Really Mean: Navigating the Complicated Road to Sports Dreams

As I watch (and hopefully guide) my fourth (and final) child navigate his college sports dreams, I often wonder what “athletic success” really means to young athletes.  What does it mean to their parents? What does it mean to their coaches? What is the dream and at what point is it actually realized?

“You have to dream before your dreams can come true.” – Usain Bolt, Jamaican Sprinter.

Athletic aspirations often sparkle in the eyes of young athletes, fueling dreams of glory on ESPN, whether it’s the thrill of scoring the winning goal or breaking records on the track or in the swimming pool. However, the path to becoming a collegiate athlete (or professional or Olympian) is a winding and intricate journey filled with challenges, massive sacrifices, and fierce competition in every direction.

Many young athletes devote countless hours honing their skills, driven by a passion that fuels their desire for greatness. Yet, the reality is that only a small fraction will realize their dreams of playing at the highest levels. According to statistics, the odds of making it to the professional leagues or even securing a spot on a collegiate team are daunting.

According to the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), a little over 7% of high school athletes (across all sports) go on to compete at the collegiate level and less than 2% play at NCAA Division I schools.  That means of the roughly 7.8 million students who participate in high school sports in the US, only a fraction will continue their athletic careers in college. The competition for college sports scholarships is intense with hundreds of thousands vying for limited spots, making it a strenuous path to securing an athletic scholarship or even a roster spot in a Division III program.

For some, the dream doesn’t end in college. However, transitioning from collegiate athletics to professional sports is an even more daunting challenge. For instance, in basketball, only about 1.2% of NCAA senior male basketball players will be drafted by an NBA team and of those, only a fraction will have a long-lasting career in the league. Similar low odds apply to other major sports like football, baseball, soccer and hockey where the percentage of college athletes who make it to the professional level remains minuscule.

The road to “Athletic Success” in sports demands not just exceptional talent but also unwavering dedication, resilience, and a bit of luck. Athletes often face numerous hurdles, including injuries, competition, mental pressures, and the need to balance rigorous training schedules with academics or other responsibilities. So… what are we doing if we are setting ourselves up for “failure” if the ultimate goal isn’t really attainable?

We must reevaluate what “Athletic Success” really means. The pursuit of a collegiate or professional sports career is an amazing dream and we should encourage young people to dream. No doubt about that. With that said, let’s reframe what success in sports really means. I speak to athletes all the time and the significant majority of them mention their teammates as the most valuable part of their journey. As an athlete, coach and parent of athletes, being a great teammate is still very high on my list of “Athletic Success”

The truth is that the pursuit of a college or professional career in sports doesn’t guarantee lifelong success. Many athletes confront challenges post-retirement, such as transitioning to a new career, dealing with the physical toll of the sport, and managing finances after their playing days are over. The lessons learned on the ice, on the field or in the pool last for a lifetime.  And despite the overwhelming odds stacked against aspiring athletes, there’s a beauty in the journey itself.

The pursuit of sporting dreams instills valuable life lessons like discipline, teamwork, perseverance, and the ability to overcome adversity. Many athletes, even if they don’t reach the pinnacle of their sport, credit their athletic experiences for shaping their character and providing a strong foundation for their future endeavors.  This is where “Athletic Success” is achieved.

“The only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Basketball Hall of Famer.

In conclusion, while the road to achieving sports dreams is riddled with complexities and uncertainties, the journey is as valuable as the destination. It’s crucial for aspiring athletes to remain dedicated, work tirelessly on their craft, and embrace the challenges they encounter, understanding that success in sports extends beyond victories on the field—it’s about the lessons learned, the character developed, and the resilience built along the way.

According to legendary football coach, Vince Lombardi, “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.”

linda smiling<br />

Written by Linda Martindale

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