Lessons for academics from the world of athletics

Back in school I played football quite regularly. I even dreamt of one day playing it professionally (ah, the dreams of youth)! I was reminded of those days as I was recently reading and thinking about how we learn. What is interesting is that there were so many lessons that I should have taken away from my football playing days, which I didn’t. So here are three of them.

Improvement does not come overnight

Although we all know that hard work is important, we don’t look at studying the same way we look at sports. One cannot expect to practice 15 hours a day for one week and become better than someone who has been practicing one hour a day over a period of one year. When it comes to studying however, we always think studying for long extended sessions few days before the exam are sufficient. It just doesn’t work that way. Cramming is not learning.

In fact this idea is one of the ideas behind the bestselling book, “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. Clear says that “breakthrough moments are often the result of many previous actions, which build up the potential required to unleash a major change.”1

Practice individual components

Regular football training involved a number of drills. In fact, playing a game of football was usually reserved for less than half of the total time. For instance, this is the passing drill: Jog up – stop the ball – pass it on – run to the back of the line – and repeat. Another drill was to practice shooting. Each component that is part of a football game is broken down, and practiced individually. This has the advantage of knowing exactly which area to work on. Imagine if this wasn’t done. After a game is lost, the team would feel bad about themselves and resolve to practice harder. But the team doesn’t know which particular skill they are lacking in. They might have lost due to poor passing, but they’d be spending their time practicing shooting.

When it comes to studying though, we do exactly that. We do poorly on an exam and then resolve ourselves to study harder. Meanwhile our entire method of studying might have been wrong. This principle can also be applied to research. If a student is asked to write a research paper all of a sudden, the task is extremely difficult. But what are the individual components of doing research. What if the student is instead taught to find 1 research paper every day for a period of one month. The task suddenly seems so much easier. Then the student is asked to read one paper a day and summarise the key findings in a single line or two. This task is a little harder but still manageable. By the end of three months, the student would have 50 small notes from research papers. The next step is to connect them, organize them, and find the missing gaps. And the literature review is complete.

This is the premise behind the excellent book, “How to Take Smart Notes” by Sonke Ahrens. He says, “Extracting the gist of a text or an idea and giving an account in writing is for academics what daily practice on the piano is for pianists: The more often we do it and the more focused we are, the more virtuous we become.”2 (page 82)

On a related note I have recently developed a keen interest in doing research by breaking it down into small steps. I have been working this way for my own research project this semester. If you’re interested in discussing research workflows, do reach out. I’d love to find new ideas and discuss them.

There is no shortcut to hard work

The cliche is saved for the end. But it is still true. Many people often discuss about working smart and not working hard. But the bottomline remains. The one who works hard, learns. No matter how good a strategy a team has, if the other team has practiced more than them, odds are that the other team would win.

But sports also teaches that hard work can itself become exciting. And Ahrens says the same of academic work, “A good workflow can easily turn into a virtuous circle, where the positive experience motivates us to take on the next task with ease, which helps us to get better at what we are doing, which in return makes it more likely for us to enjoy the work, and so on.”3 (page 52)


  1. Atomic Habits by James Clear. Page 20
  2. How to Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens. Page 82
  3. How to Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens. Page 52

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One response to “Lessons for academics from the world of athletics”

  1. Ebenezer Rajakumar avatar
    Ebenezer Rajakumar

    Well written

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