The secret to America’s success: sports in education
The secret to America’s success: sports in education

At a time when the value of intercollegiate athletics is being questioned, some wonder what to expect from America’s investment in sports. Experts asked whether resources could be better used by focusing on core academic competencies, arguing that sports could distract from learning or cause unnecessary injury. These are common arguments — but they’re wrong.

Contrary to popular belief that sports have nothing to do with academics, college sports provide transformative learning experiences. Athletes develop the discipline, perseverance, and effective communication skills that allow them to thrive in highly competitive environments, qualities that are transferable and contribute to success in business and other areas of life.

Perhaps by design, perhaps by accident, American education has evolved into a deeply irrational combination of passion, logic, and competition. This combination created the most efficient economic engine in history. Far from being an extracurricular activity, elite college sports have become key to developing leadership and teamwork, and sports are an integral part of American dominance in the complex game of global business. While debate remains about how best to allocate educational resources, there is ample evidence that college sports bring many benefits to American education.

The role of sports in promoting racial equality has also become important in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down affirmative action policies. Sports provide a platform where individuals can excel based on their ability and dedication, regardless of racial or social barriers. Sports tend to naturally promote diversity and inclusion because performance ultimately transcends class and discrimination. Sport brings all kinds of people together to share experiences. Unlike the challenge of telling the real from the fake in our new digital world, sports offer an authentic and unadorned window into real performance.

From a business standpoint, companies like sports franchises want to win. To succeed, they need more than educated people: they need motivated, adaptable, resilient employees. I believe this is why you can learn from John Donoghue at Nike, Eric Schmidt at Google, Robert Sternfels at McKinsey, Larry Ellison at Oracle, Gregg at Walmart Leading firms such as Penner and Intuit’s Sasan Gudazzi approached water polo players, including the former CEOs of The Gap and Salesforce.

In my own experience, as a father of three boys, I have found that my sons do better in class during water polo season. This may seem counterintuitive, given that water polo is known for its rigorous training regimens, often lasting more than six hours a day, which include pool sessions and extra conditioning. Surprisingly, the structured season schedule improved academic performance compared to periods with more discretionary time. When I studied music at university, I still remember arriving at music theory class at 8am after swimming 5,000 yards in the pool, with wet hair and the smell of chlorine. Maybe that’s why my fellow musicians nicknamed me “Jacques” (aka “Jock”).

In the hallowed halls of academia, we yearn for ideals. On the playing field, we experience something closer to everyday life. As fair as sport strives to be, every athlete encounters mistakes, tactical errors and moments of transcendence against all odds. These experiences are unparalleled teaching moments. What is the value of exposing students to experience athletic adversity? Sports are a reality check. It’s hard to walk away from an exercise experience without learning some basic truths. Life isn’t fair. Teamwork is critical to success. Practice and preparation are important. Perhaps most importantly, your performance is as good as the last game.

As a water polo player, I’ve known this since I was a kid, playing games where I felt like I was being held down and the referee didn’t call a foul. While I looked up at the referee and made a “no call” gesture, my opponent sped down the pool and scored on the counterattack. These experiences have prepared me for changes in business, looking backwards instead of forwards only gives your competitors an edge. In a business like sports, the saying goes, if you doze off, you lose.

This combination of work ethic, competitive zeal, and academic readiness creates corporate America’s secret sauce and, in my view, part of the reason American companies have historically outperformed most international competitors. For all our media lamentation over America’s lack of global competitiveness, America still has the highest nominal GDP in the world today, worth $23 trillion a year.

The inclusion of high-level competitive sports in the U.S. education system is also unique among countries. In Europe and Asia, elite athletes often hone their skills through professional clubs. In the United States, high-level collegiate sports have become an integral part of American education and the economy.According to statistics, the total revenue of college sports in 2019 is about 18.9 billion US dollars politician.

Money is only one aspect of this phenomenon. American education’s emphasis on physical education differs from education around the world because it recognizes that sports provide a competitive advantage beyond the field of play. Athletes must understand discipline and teamwork and demonstrate leadership in order to be successful. In fact, these same qualities also bring great benefits in other areas of life, especially in business. It’s no surprise that an institution like Harvard sponsors as many as 40 varsity sports on its campus, which not only boosts academics, but further enhances the institution’s brand and campus experience. Imagine how dreary life would be without the annual Harvard-Yale race!

American universities have played a key role in the nation’s economic success by producing people who are well-prepared not only in the classroom but also on the playing field. Without affirmative action, universities and businesses must promote talent on the basis of merit and potential, regardless of privilege, as in sports. Let’s hope that America’s integration of education and sports can serve as a beacon of greater opportunity on campus and in business, even as it continues to ignite the flames of American capitalism.

Christopher Ramsey is CEO of USA Water Polo, the sport’s national governing body dedicated to engaging the water polo community (from local leagues to the Olympics) and providing Water polo guys open doors of opportunity.

The opinions expressed in Fortune review articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and beliefs of: wealth.

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