Lessons to Pharmacy Students, From Athletes

By Stuart Pope, 2019 PharmD Candidate

Since beginning pharmacy school, I have learned more information than I could have possibly imagined. Not surprisingly, I’ve learned extensively about medications, disease-state management, professionalism, and leadership.
But a critical question remains: how should I best prepare myself for success in pharmacy and in life?

Over the past four years, I have realized that some of my greatest lessons have come from areas outside of pharmacy. As student pharmacists (and all levels of learners), I believe we gain invaluable knowledge when we explore wildly different and unrelated fields.  So, what can we learn from athletes and how can we apply these lessons to prepare for pharmacy and life?

Lesson #1: Physical performance is a foundation
Physical performance is arguably the most important component to an athlete’s success. Without this foundation, talent, skill, and mental toughness do not mean much. As students and academics, we probably assume this relationship between physical performance and success doesn’t correlate to us—but it does. Physical exercise has been linked to a variety of benefits including cognitive performance and a general improvement in well-being.1

Moreover, I am attracted to the idea of a “corporate athlete”, a term coined by researchers investigating successful CEOs.2 In short, a corporate athlete is a person capable of sustaining high performance levels over long periods of time. One key to becoming a corporate athlete is to understand the performance pyramid (below), which depicts physical capacity as the foundation for all other capacities.2


Without a solid physical foundation, it is difficult to build and maintain other capacities needed for success. Athletes inherently know this; it is the nature of sports. By understanding this relationship, faculty can help push student pharmacists toward their peak mental capacities by first helping build their physical capacities.

Lesson #2: Practice makes perfect
As simple as the phrase appears, the meaning of it is admittedly more complex. Is the emphasis on the practice or the perfect? I’ve realized the intent of this phrase rests on the practice part and understanding this distinction is important because it teaches the benefits of practice. Practice not only helps improve tangible skills, but it also helps promote softer skills such as self-discipline, time management, and resilience. Again, athletes inherently recognize this, which is why they repeatedly practice their skill sets.

As students, we often sacrifice skill development in favor of short term benefits such as the final grade or earning the best accolades. I know this because I was consumed by these pursuits at times. In these moments, I focused on what I could control. I knew that if I executed the small steps correctly every day, I would achieve my desired goals more often than not. By living this philosophy, I also learned another important lesson about practice and achievement: the process is often times more important than the outcome. The process is rarely ever flashy or exciting, but developing an awareness of it is imperative for consistent, recurring success. Scholars have another term for this: delaying instant gratification. Specifically, research has shown that student success is better predicted by factors such as exercising self-discipline or delaying gratification rather than by IQ score.3 These results tell us that there is a formula for success, fully designed by and for you. Faculty can help student pharmacists develop an individualized plan for success by simply reiterating that practice of the process is critical if perfect is the goal.

Lesson #3: Find a coach (mentor)
In athletics, this lesson is a no-brainer. Athletes, no matter what age or level, need someone to teach them the skills and knowledge of the sport. However, it has become increasingly uncommon for young professionals to have a mentor guiding and advising them.4 This is a potentially huge problem for student pharmacists, especially in the small world of pharmacy. In addition to their expertise in an area, a mentor can help teach skills you won’t learn in a classroom that may help you navigate a competitive field. Encourage your students to find a mentor or be proactive and seek out students to mentor. They need you, Coach!

Putting the lessons together to succeed in the “game”
Finding the answers on how to best prepare for success in pharmacy and life through athletics may be a new approach to you. You may find yourself thinking, “I’m not an elite athlete.” To clarify, you don’t have to be an elite athlete to be an elite pharmacist. My hope, however, is that we begin to appreciate the lessons we can all learn from other areas and other people, including athletes that can extend to pharmacy. This list is by no means comprehensive of what we can learn, but if we start to implement and teach these lessons, I truly believe we will win more than we lose.

I would like to thank Jeff Cain, EdD, MS, for his encouragement and guidance on this article.


  1. Mandolesi, L, Polverina A, Montuori S, et al. Effects of Physical Exercise on Cognitive Functioning and Wellbeing: Biological and Psychological Benefits. Front Psychol. 2018;9:509.
  2. Loehr, J, Schwartz, T. The Making of a Corporate Athlete. Harv Bus Rev. 2001;79(1):120-8, 176.
  3. Duckworth, AL, Seligman, ME. Self-discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents. Psychol Sci. 2005;16(12):939-44.
  4. DeLong, TJ, Gabarro JJ, Lees, RJ. Why Mentoring Matters in a Hypercompetitive World. Harv Bus Rev. 2008;86(1):115-21, 138.


Stuart is a fourth-year pharmacy student at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy. Stuart is active at both the national and state levels of the American Society of Health Systems Pharmacy (ASHP) and the Kentucky Society of Health-Systems Pharmacists (KSHP), respectively. Her educational scholarship interests include student engagement and exploring new pedagogical strategies for pharmacy education. In her free time, Stuart enjoys reading, being outdoors, and exploring local restaurants and coffee shops.

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

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