10 Life Lessons I Learned From Playing Professional Basketball

Written by Holly Rilinger

I spent five years playing professional basketball, playing for teams in Germany, France, New Zealand, and finally for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. It had been a dream of mine since I was six to turn pro, which is why I felt adrift when I retired. Ironically, by tapping into the lessons I'd learned on the court, I was able to grow off the court, too.

Here are some of my favorite lessons from professional athletics that I try to bring into my business and my life. I hope you find them helpful, too.

1. When you lose your temper, you lose your game.

I was never a great sh*t talker. Someone would get in my face, talk a little trash, and the moment I retaliated, I became distracted and my game ultimately suffered. Most times it's best to just walk away. Silence is power. Choose your battles very carefully.

2. There is no such thing as "overnight success."

When I was 18 years old, I was named the #1 freshman point guard in America by USA Today. No one knew where I came from. I'll tell you where I came from: the gym, where I clocked thousands upon thousands of hours of hard work. The only reason I was an All-Star is because I put the work in when no one was cheering me on. Success is always the result of countless hours of practice.

3. Being passionate and being emotional are two very different things.

I was both a passionate and emotional player. My passion for the game is what made me an elite athlete. My emotion is what at times held me back. Passion brought me back to the gym day after day. Emotion made me drop kick a ball into the stands in Paris (HUGE MISTAKE). When I got my emotions in check on the floor, I became a much stronger player. Understanding that things WILL go wrong is a sign of maturity. Use your passion to drive you to success, get that emotion in check.

4. YOU WILL FAIL. (And that's why you will succeed.)

It's inevitable. You'll miss the winning shot, you'll get scored on, and you'll lose big games. It's how you react to your failures that matter. Do you dust yourself off, let your setbacks motivate you, and try to understand where you can make changes? Or do you dwell on them and stay where you are? Failure is an opportunity to make changes. When you understand and use your failures to improve, you begin to succeed.

5. You only need a couple "go-to" moves.

I had two "go to" moves for my entire collegiate and professional career: (1) the high cross-over and (2) a move I called "hands up." I was so damn good at these moves that I faked out my opponent EVERY time. It didn't matter how much game tape they watched, how prepared they thought they were for the move, I would score on them. In life, you don't need to be good at a million things. Find your "go to" moves and perfect them. These moves will help you win personal championships.

6. When the game is on the line, you better breathe.

Woah. I was on the free throw line at Georgetown University with no time left on the clock, down one point. I was a freshman. I had two shots. To win the game, I had to make them both. Talk about hearing your heartbeat. Talk about a million things racing through your head. I was 18 years old. Hands sweating, heart pounding, mind racing. You take that deep breath and you know that all you have to do is what you've done a thousand times before. YOU CAN DO THIS. Just breathe. (I made both of those shots by the way.)

7. Accept your role. (And if you don't like your role, change it.)

I've always been part of a team. On every team there are starters, there are players who come off the bench and there are players who rarely get in the game. When you accept your role on the team and support your teammates, you win championships. When you bitch about your role and let jealousy take over, you create POISON. Here's the thing: If you don't like your role, get your butt in the gym and get better. If you don't like your position at work, find a way to change that. We are in control of our own lives. When we work harder and are proactive about change, we will see change. Be the glue that helps your team WIN, not the poison that drags it down.


I overslept ONE TIME in my career. I will never, ever forget that dreadful day. The bus was pulling out for the NCAA tournament. We were facing Duke in the first round. The president of our University was seeing us off and wishing us luck. I was still in bed. Yes, it was a mistake ... one that I paid for the next four weeks on painful runs at 5am in all sorts of weather. Just don't be late. It's a sign of character and commitment.

9. It's all about the shoes. (Yep. I said it.)

I had a closet full of Nikes, a different pair to go with each outfit. When I'd go to basketball camp in the summer, my parents would look at me like I was crazy. Why in the world would I take seven pairs of shoes with me? Because when I stepped on that court I was making a statement about what kind of player I was. I was 5'4! I was an underdog! I walked on that court with SWAGGER! Take pride in your appearance. When we feel good, we play well.

10. Take victories on and off the court.

I loved to celebrate on that court: to throw my hands up, get the crowd on their feet, hop up and down after nailing a big three pointer or throwing some hotshot behind the back pass. It feels good to celebrate small victories. Get excited about all the victories in your life. Try throwing your hands up ... it leads to more victories. LIFE IS TO BE CELEBRATED!

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