What Playing in the NCAA Tournament Taught Me About Success

By Aaron Veldheer

With the winner of the NCAA Championship declared last week, more than 70 million Americans are delighted (or despairing) over their March Madness brackets. Using everything from coin flips to mascot battles to in-depth statistical analysis, many take great delight in trying to predict which team will go all the way to win the National Championship. I look forward to the spectacle every year.

But as exciting as the annual NCAA men’s basketball tournament is to American culture, as a former college basketball student-athlete turned NFL agent, I know that the tournament is even more important to the participants as an invaluable learning experience.

I went to college on a scholarship to play basketball, and had the good fortune of being recruited by Hillsdale. During my senior year, we won the conference championship and made it to the NCAA Division II tournament.

In a Cinderella-like turn of events, our team came together, despite injuries to many of our key players, to win the first NCAA tournament game in the history of the school. And even though we lost on a buzzer-beater to the eventual champion in the second round, we gained a far more valuable experience — one I’ve carried with me throughout my life.

One must take on big challenges, in spite of the odds, and be okay with the chance of failure. If you’re afraid to fail, you won’t take on new challenges, and you’ll never reach your full potential. Every human being will experience setbacks in life, whether it’s in the athletic arena, career or personal relationships. The key is understanding how to confront defeat by getting back up and fearlessly forging ahead.

However, in the classroom, my NCAA tournament experience was made even more valuable. At Hillsdale, education is twofold: it focuses on self-knowledge and a well-rounded understanding of the world. As students begin to figure out who they are, they’re encouraged to discover their skills and passions, rather than fitting into a societally “useful” mold.

Taken together, my basketball career and education served to broaden my world, which allowed me to actively define my place in it, rather than just playing a part. This has, in turn, enabled me to succeed in a wide variety of contexts, including law school, business school at the University of Chicago, and now helping players in the NFL and helping families and institutions manage their resources.

In an age seemingly defined by a technology-driven job market, the liberal arts, along with a team sport, are very much a part of the reason I’m where I am today. By equipping me with the tools needed to figure out my place in the world, as well as providing a framework to process and learn equally from my failures and successes, it prepared me to approach any situation, no matter how difficult, with a willingness to learn everything I could.

There have been plenty of triumphs, defeats, upsets and surprises throughout this tournament, but the drama that plays out on the basketball court is just a microcosm of the human experience. Every person experiences the joy that comes with success and the despair of defeat — sometimes within the same day! — but not everyone is equipped to use those experiences for good.

Together, the court and the classroom teach that only when the head and the heart are aligned are you truly positioned for success. That’s knowledge that shouldn’t be traded for the world.

Aaron Veldheer is an NFL agent and financial adviser for Merrill Lynch. He graduated summa cum laude from Michigan State University College of Law, obtained his master’s degree from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and graduated magna cum laude from Hillsdale College.