How Sports is a Microcosm for Life, and The Story of Cris Carter

Howard Cosell, the famous sports journalist, once said, “Sports is human life in microcosm”.  It really is.  It provides an amazing opportunity for us to remove ourselves from the busyness and minutiae of life,  There is such a beauty to it.

The beauty for me is in how much we can learn if we look hard enough.  Sports is the most powerful means in which to understand adversity.  Why?  It comes down to consumption.  Let’s break sports into three consumables.

Photo Credit:  Ryan Knapp courtesy of Flickr CC

Photo Credit: Ryan Knapp courtesy of Flickr CC

Play, Watch, Coach

Let’s break sports into three consumables.

  1. Play
  2. Watch
  3. Coach

People around the world play sports.  They play soccer, and cricket, and football, and frisbee.  They compete.  They get frustrated.  They work as part of a team.  Sometimes they don’t.  They lose.  They win.

People around the world watch sports.  They watch in person, on television, on the radio, on the internet, and on their phones.  People play sports video games, and play fantasy sports.

People around the world coach.  They coach their kids, intramural teams, competitive high school sports, and in the backyard.

The audience is captive and engaged.  Passion is evident.  Competition is fierce, on the field and in the stands.  Without asking for it, we can learn and teach more lessons that we ever could in a classroom.  We just have to look for those moments of adversity, and seize them.  These moments are powerful.  Why?


Adversity Moments

In sports, we have the opportunity to experience adversity while minimizing your risk for high stakes.  Yes, you may lose a game.  You may get injured.  But you are not in Iraq.  You are not battling cancer.  Those situations are high stakes…and those battles are the most admirable and strengthening on earth.

However, if we can grow from adversity and experience it in a low stakes way, you can get safe “at bats” that lead to consistently improved response.  Better response means more quality opportunities to grow and accomplish your goals.

Sports is much more than the game being played.  It has the ability to teach lessons that are difficult to teach.  It’s ability to provide context is remarkable.

Let me provide an example.


The Story of Cris Carter

Chris Carter grew up as one of seven kids in Troy, Ohio.  His mother raised the family by herself.  Chris’ talent carried him to standout as a football wide receiver at Ohio State University, culminating in All American honors following his junior season.

But the talent and success hid underlying lessons that Cris had yet to learn.  He began to drink.  Before his senior year, he signed a contract with a professional agent.  As a result, Cris was ruled ineligible to play.  Carter would miss his last year as an amateur, an upperclassman, and as a leader on the team.

Despite the glaring character issues, he was drafted by the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, and experienced success in his first three seasons.

Photo Credit:  WEBN-TV courtesy of Flickr CC

Photo Credit: WEBN-TV courtesy of Flickr CC

The drinking gave way to marijuana.  The marijuana gave way to cocaine and ecstasy.  By 24 years old, many people believed that he was on a path towards death.  Cris wasn’t listening.

After his best season as a pro, 1989, head coach Buddy Ryan cut Cris Carter.  In September of 1990, the Minnesota Vikings claimed Carter off of waivers.

From 1990 to 2001, Cris Carter caught 1004 passes, for 12,383 yards, and 110 touchdowns. He averaged 83 receptions, 1,032 yards, and 9 touchdowns per year.  He became a member of the NFL Hall of Fame in 2008.

So, how do we square that circle?  In 1989, his drug use nearly killed his career in football. However, Chris Carter became, arguably, one of the five best wide receivers in the history of the NFL.

One can start by looking at Carter’s big moment of adversity…being cut by Buddy Ryan.

In his Hall of Fame speech in 2008, Carter made an emotional thank you to Buddy Ryan and his wife for cutting him.  He said it was the “best thing that ever happened” to him.  He was on a downward spiral with substance abuse, and if Buddy Ryan did not decide to make a drastic change with Carter, then Carter would be a significant risk to himself without ever being held accountable.


How Did He Do It?

I’ve never met Cris Carter, but I believe there are 3 reasons why Cris Carter was able to turn adversity into an advantage, rather than an excuse to give up.

  • Self Awareness

Being cut by the Eagles gave Carter the wake up call he desperately needed.  He was forced to look inward, at what he was made out of.  Carter was able to look at the potential he had for greatness, and the things standing in his way.  Was he causing the downward spiral?  Was talent not enough?  This self awareness gave way to understanding how he needed to improve, and through a growth mindset he was able to shift his attitude and begin the process of improvement.

  • A Higher Sense of Purpose

Whether you believe in God or not, religion helped Carter to focus his talent on something bigger than himself.  This led to a process of developing a work ethic and preparation that set him apart from his peers.

Later on in his career, Carter developed a passion for mentoring younger players who were struggling with distractions off the field…an attempt to give players guidance away from wasting their talent through a strong sense of purpose.  He still mentors players to this day.

  • Growth Mindset

In combining self awareness and sense of purpose with a growth mindset, achievement is a natural byproduct.  Carter decided he could change for the better.  Drugs and alcohol did not own him, HE owned his response to adversity, and he could control what happened next.

Many say it takes a village, and I agree, it does:  this type of adversity requires a network of people who want to see you improve.  They’ll do anything it takes to give you the tools to succeed.


What does this mean for you?

The next time you watch your favorite sporting event, remember that you are witnessing a microcosm for life.  Players succeed.  They fail.  They all rub up against obstacles, but how do they respond?  That is the true beauty of sports.

Did you like this piece?  If you are interested in the science and psychology behind how we can all use adversity to our advantage, click here to get three free chapters of my new book The Game of Adversity when it is released in late March 2015!


1 Comment

  1. stolz on June 3, 2015 at 7:10 pm

    Keep on writing, great job!

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