What Varsity Lettering Can Teach Us About Business Success

The varsity letter jacket is a coveted piece of apparel. Always high in “coolness factor”, these jackets used to be the classic symbol of athletic achievement.




Today they are more popular than ever, available to all, and have become quite the fashion statement.






On eBay alone, I found nearly 22,000 jackets for sale. Despite their prevalence today, only athletes that actually played a varsity sport qualified to receive a letter in the past. Once the letter was awarded, the athlete would order the jacket, and have the letter sewn to it, so they could proudly display their achievement and loyalty to the school. So, these letters on jackets used to be rare, since they were available only to athletes that earned them through hard work and dedication to their sport. The letter jacket was not delivered by FedEx having been ordered online, but instead the letter was presented by the coach to each worthy varsity athlete at elaborate award banquets as a symbol of accomplishment and appreciation, in front of all teammates, coaches and parents.

There is a leadership lesson in this fall’s fashion statement. I should know. I have a checkered past with letter jackets.

I loved the sport of tennis, maybe because I grew up in the era of some of the greatest players of all time - Jimmy Connors, Rod Laver, Chris Evert, Stan Smith, Arthur Ashe, Bjorn Borg, and Martina Navratilova. My tennis racket of choice was the same as my idol Jimmy Connors, a Wilson T2000 – the first metal racket. My high school tennis team was a powerhouse program, often doing well in conference and state tournaments. When I tried out for the team as a sophomore, I couldn’t have been happier to not only make the team, but be placed in the #4 spot. The way the scoring works, a team’s top 4 players play in each match against the opposing team. There are five total points in each match, three for singles and two for doubles. A team’s top three players play singles matches against an opponent’s top three seeds. For doubles, players ranked one and four are paired to play first doubles, and players ranked two and three are paired for the second doubles match. So having been placed as the #4 varsity player, I played number one doubles matches with our top ranked player.

You should know that we had a fitness nut as our tennis coach. No other teams we knew had to run stadium steps to train and stay in shape throughout the season. He pushed us hard to be the fittest we could be, so we would never have to look back in regret that we lost a match due to fatigue. We never did. We had great success that season, and our doubles team rarely lost, until round two of the conference finals. I was proud of our team and felt fortunate I was able to contribute at that level.

There was genuine excitement as I escorted my parents to the sports banquet at the end of the season. We had a fantastic season, had all worked hard and accomplished a lot. Imagine my disappointment when my coach presented the letters that night to our top three ranked players, but not to me. I was noticeably upset and absolutely shocked, as were my parents. All that hard work, all that effort, but no recognition or reward whatsoever. I gathered myself and went up to coach at the end of the banquet and asked him why I did not get a letter. His response was “I have never lettered a sophomore before, and don’t intend to start now.” I was crushed. While I went on to earn letters in other sports and wear my letter jacket with pride, I never played competitive tennis for that coach again. Is there a lesson learned?

Playing competitive sports can provide valuable lessons that increase the likelihood of business success. Some lessons come from hardships overcome, and how challenges are met and conquered. A bitter disappointment suffered in high school from failure to achieve any outward recognition, provided the inner fuel and a drive needed to succeed in other sports, and off the court later in life. Ultimately, people must be rewarded and recognized for their efforts and accomplishments. Otherwise, they will leave to find a place that will. We all have setbacks and disappointments. What matters is that you get back up, dust yourself off, learn from the experience, and keep moving forward. Go for it!