Athletics for young people – especially football for young boys – has long been proclaimed by its supporters to be more than just physical exercise.

It provides, they say, lessons for life. It provides important and otherwise unavailable experiences in discipline, resilience, mind-body balance, grace under pressure, the experience of both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, the collective joy of teamwork and the value of picking yourself up after you’ve been knocked down.

And all this is – or can be – true. But reflection on the increasing gap that seems to be opening between the best and the worst pro football and basketball teams leads me to think that there are other lessons that athletic competitions – at least those at the highest level – can provide for other areas of endeavor: lessons less about moral character than about attitude toward work.

Much ado has been made in the arenas of education and business about “the skills gap,” about the need for more training in science, technology, engineering and math – or, adding art to the mix, STEAM skills.

This, in athletics, is akin to saying: “We don’t have a strong-armed quarterback, or a quick-footed left tackle, or a dead-eyed shooting guard.” It’s about a predetermined set of X’s and O’s, about a set of square holes for which we have a surplus of round pegs and a shortage of square pegs. The solution? Produce more square pegs, of course!

The problem is that by the time the extra square pegs arrive, the strategy of the game has changed. Smart coaches have figured out ways to make better use of round pegs, to disguise weaknesses and fool opponents into playing into their strengths.

The most valuable players today are not those with a specific set of skills – very accomplished square pegs – but those with quick perception, intuitive judgment and an ability to recognize and adapt quickly to changing situations – to “see” the field, or floor, or ice.

The most important characteristic of the successful athlete today is not physical but mental – the ability to see patterns, assess resources, make decisions and execute them confidently … and to do all this at lightning-quick speeds in environments filled with uncertainty and risk.

This same observation is increasingly applicable to today’s labor market. A student who complains that she or he followed the rules, studied hard, got a degree and now can’t find a job in her or his field is like the quarterback who spent all his time building up his arm and becoming adept at throwing a ball through a tire swinging on a rope. Yes, he did what he was told, but the world changed.

This is the message coming from the labor market today: The world is changing, and at an ever-increasing speed. The lesson here for those entering this world and, more importantly, for those claiming to prepare people to enter successfully is that the best preparation is not in the weight room but in the film room.

Success in any job depends on four things – knowledge, skills, experience and attitude. Some of these can be obtained only in the classroom and the weight room. But not all of them. Some can be obtained only on the practice field and in live, competitive experience.

The central challenge to our educational institutions is not subject but delivery. Too much attention has been paid to debates over subject matter: STEM versus liberal arts; this program versus that program, based on numbers enrolled and jobs attained; the promise of online learning versus the irreplaceable impact of face-to-face instruction; the primacy of classroom and laboratory learning versus the experience of internships and on-the-job training; the enormous expense of degree programs versus the pragmatic value of badges, certificates and vendor accreditations.

All of these debates are just more evidence of the ever-accelerating pace of change in the ever-more-closely connected worlds of learning and work. And this change highlights precisely the lesson today’s athletics has to teach us – long-term success depends less on the skills you possess today than on your expectation that you will have to change them tomorrow.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be contacted at:

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