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Lessons learned from the student athlete

One of my road warrior delights actually occurred in one of my least favorite destinations, the Chicago O’Hare airport. On a cold, windy spring evening, I rushed through the airport to get to the gate, only to find the final leg of my trip home to Roanoke, VA was delayed. As usual, the flight was delayed as a result of the crew’s tardiness from another flight. This delay was actually a blessing. In the gate area, I noticed an athletic team and their coaches awaiting the same flight. Initially, I ignored the group, focusing on my newfound technology, the iPad.

I noticed the team was interested in the NCAA basketball tournament on TV. Then my old basketball instincts sought out a few individuals to engage in some small talk. The group of athletes was the Wisconsin-Whitewater basketball team headed for the Division III final four in Salem, VA, near Roanoke. We had some great discussion on basketball and life in general. We boarded the plane, and I was fortunate to sit next to a fifth-year senior, the head coach, and a couple of other players. Basketball discussions quickly transitioned into discussion of global and U.S. economic trends when they discovered I was an ag economics professor. The hour and a half flight to Roanoke seemed like ten minutes as the discussion flowed from investment strategies, to the state of the U.S. and global economy, to federal debt. To my delight, I discovered the head coach actually teaches political science at Whitewater and was interested in my thoughts not only on economics, but also geopolitical trends, with his students actually listening. In discussions with key players, they indicated that the coach not only taught them basketball, but much about life as well.

These young people reminded me of my graduate school days at Cornell where the athletes attended class. Some actually ended up being my teaching assistants when I was on sabbatical back at Cornell years later. I am impressed by the purity of Division III sports with student athletes working on papers and projects, discussing classes, and all the other activities of the education and learning experiences with no scholarships, but just for the love of the game, knowing that the next step is not the NBA or the development leagues, but it is actually going to be real life. In the days of the “one and done” in major college sports, the big money, flying on charter planes, and huge coaches’ salaries, it was refreshing to observe true student athlete interest in other aspects of life away from the court and a coach who was also teaching classes. One thing I noticed was that the coach was also teaching value systems to all the individuals around him. I must confess, now I am a Wisconsin-Whitewater basketball fan for life!

P.S. The young man sitting next to me on the flight scored a crucial three-pointer at the end of the game as the team won the national championship that weekend. His coach jokingly said on the plane that he had gone 0 for 20 in the last four games from behind the three-point arc. I told him on the plane to focus on defense and what you do away from the ball because 95 percent of the game is played when the ball is not in your hands, which is a key to success. I indicated that if he would relax, that the three-pointers would come. It is nice to see that my coaching still works, haha! I am very proud of this basketball team and the classiness of the coach and all the individuals associated with Wisconsin-Whitewater. Keep up the good work!

TAGS: Management
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