Brooke Elkjer
15 Essay Tips

How to Write a Non-Cliche College Essay About Sports + Examples

What’s Covered:

 

You’ve been brainstorming essay topics for your college applications, and you think you’ve finally found the right one: an extended metaphor likening your experience on the field with overcoming personal struggles. The problem: many other students have this same thought. 

 

The purpose of a college essay is to make yourself stand out as a unique individual, but when students write about sports, they often blend in. Because of that, students are usually advised to pick a different topic.

 

That being said, it is possible to write a non-cliche college essay about sports if you put in a little extra effort. Read along to learn how to make your sports essay different from all the other sports essays.

 

What Makes a Sports Essay Cliche?

 

Sports essays are cliche when they follow a standard trajectory. Some of these trajectories include writing a story about:

 

  • An agonizing defeat
  • Forging bonds with teammates
  • Overcoming adversity
  • Overcoming an injury
  • Refusing to quit
  • Victory during a big game

 

Because sports essays have very similar themes and “lessons learned,” it can be difficult to make your story stand out. These trajectories also often focus too much on the sport or storyline, and not enough on the writer’s reflections and personality.

 

As you write your essay, try to think about what your experience says about you rather than what you learned from your experience. You are more than just one lesson you learned!

 

(Keep in mind that the sports essay is not the only college essay cliche. Learn about other essay cliches and how to fix them in our complete guide).

 

How to Make Your Sports Essay Unique

 

1. Focus on a specific moment or reflection.

 

The college essay is a way for students to humanize themselves to admissions officers. You do not feel human if you are describing yourself as just another player on the field!

 

One important way to make your essay about you (not just about sports) is by focusing on a specific moment in time and inviting the reader to join you in that moment. Explain to the reader what it would be like to be sitting in that locker room as you questioned the values of the other players on your team. Ask your reader to sit with you on the cot in the trainer’s room as your identity was stripped away from you when they said “your body can’t take this anymore.” Bring your reader to the dinner table and involve them in your family’s conversation about how sports were affecting your mental health and your treatment of those around you.

 

Intense descriptions of a specific experience will evoke emotions in your reader and allow them to connect with you and feel for you.

 

When in doubt, avoid anything that can be covered by ESPN. On ESPN, we see the games, we see the benches, we even see the locker rooms and training rooms. Take your reader somewhere different and show them something unique.

 

2. Use sports to point out broader themes in your life.

 

The main risk when writing about sports is neglecting to write about yourself. Before you get started, think about the main values that you want to express in your sports essay. Sports are simply your avenue for telling the reader what makes you unique. 

 

As a test, imagine if you were a pianist. Would you be able to talk about these same values? What if you were a writer? Or a chemist? Articulating your values is the end, and sports should simply be your means.

 

Some values that you might want to focus on:

 

  • Autonomy (you want to be able to set your mind to anything and achieve it on your own)
  • Growth (you seek improvement constantly)
  • Curiosity (you are willing to try anything once)
  • Vulnerability (you aren’t afraid to fail, as long as you give it your all)
  • Community (you value the feedback of others and need camaraderie to succeed)
  • Craft (you think that with deliberate care, anything can be perfected)
  • Responsibility (you believe that you owe something to those around you and perhaps they also owe something to you)

 

You can use the ESPN check again to make sure that you are using sports as an avenue to show your depth.

 

Things ESPN covers: how a player reacts to defeat, how injuries affect a player’s gameplay/attitude, how players who don’t normally work well together are working together on their new team.

 

Things ESPN doesn’t cover: the conversation that a player had with their mother about fear of death before going into a big surgery (value: family and connection), the ways that the intense pressure to succeed consumed a player to the point they couldn’t be there for the people in their life (value: supporting others and community), the body image issues that weigh on a player’s mind when playing their sport and how they overcame those (value: health and growth).

 

3. Turn a cliche storyline on its head.

 

There’s no getting around the fact that sports essays are often cliche. But there is a way to confront the cliche head-on. For example, lots of people write essays about the lessons they learned from an injury, victory, and so on, but fewer students explain how they are embracing those lessons. 

 

Perhaps you learned that competition is overwhelming for you and you prefer teamwork, so you switched from playing basketball to playing Dungeons & Dragons. Maybe, when your softball career ended abruptly, you had to find a new identity and that’s when you became obsessed with your flower garden and decided to pursue botany. Or maybe, you have stuck with football through it all, but your junior-year mental health struggle showed you that football should be fun and you have since started a nonprofit for local children to healthily engage with sports.

 

If your story itself is more cliche, try bringing readers to the present moment with you and show why the cliche matters and what it did for you. This requires a fair amount of creativity. Ensure you’re not parroting a frequently used topic by really thinking deeply to find your own unique spin.

 

Great Examples of College Essays About Sports

 

Example #1

 

Point.

 

Night had robbed the academy of its daytime colors, yet there was comfort in the dim lights that cast shadows of our advances against the bare studio walls. Silhouettes of roundhouse kicks, spin crescent kicks, uppercuts and the occasional butterfly kick danced while we sparred. She approached me, eyes narrowed with the trace of a smirk challenging me. “Ready spar!” Her arm began an upward trajectory targeting my shoulder, a common first move. I sidestepped — only to almost collide with another flying fist. Pivoting my right foot, I snapped my left leg, aiming my heel at her midsection. The center judge raised one finger. 

 

“POINT!”

 

There was no time to celebrate, not in the traditional sense at least. Master Pollard gave a brief command greeted with a unanimous “Yes, sir” and the thud of 20 hands dropping-down-and-giving-him-30, while the “winners” celebrated their victory with laps as usual. 

 

Three years ago, seven-thirty in the evening meant I was a warrior. It meant standing up straighter, pushing a little harder, “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am”, celebrating birthdays by breaking boards, never pointing your toes, and familiarity. Three years later, seven-thirty in the morning meant I was nervous. 

 

The room is uncomfortably large. The sprung floor soaks up the checkerboard of sunlight piercing through the colonial windows. The mirrored walls further illuminate the studio and I feel the light scrutinizing my sorry attempts at a pas de bourrée, while capturing the organic fluidity of the dancers around me. “Chassé en croix, grand battement, pique, pirouette.” I follow the graceful limbs of the woman in front of me, her legs floating ribbons, as she executes what seems to be a perfect ronds de jambes. Each movement remains a negotiation. With admirable patience, Ms. Tan casts me a sympathetic glance.   

 

“Point.”

 

There is no time to wallow in the misery that is my right foot. Taekwondo calls for dorsiflexion; pointed toes are synonymous with broken toes. My thoughts drag me into a flashback of the usual response to this painful mistake: “You might as well grab a tutu and head to the ballet studio next door.” Well, here I am Master Pollard, unfortunately still following your orders to never point my toes, but no longer feeling the satisfaction that comes with being a third degree black belt with 5 years of experience quite literally under her belt. It’s like being a white belt again — just in a leotard and ballet slippers. 

 

But the appetite for new beginnings that brought me here doesn’t falter. It is only reinforced by the classical rendition of “Dancing Queen” that floods the room and the ghost of familiarity that reassures me that this new beginning does not and will not erase the past. After years spent at the top, it’s hard to start over. But surrendering what you are only leads you to what you may become. In Taekwondo, we started each class reciting the tenets: honor, courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, courage, humility, and knowledge, and I have never felt that I embodied those traits more so than when I started ballet. 

 

The thing about change is that it eventually stops making things so different. After nine different schools, four different countries, three different continents, fluency in Tamil, Norwegian, and English, there are more blurred lines than there are clear fragments. My life has not been a tactfully executed, gold medal-worthy Taekwondo form with each movement defined, nor has it been a series of frappés performed by a prima ballerina with each extension identical and precise, but thankfully it has been like the dynamics of a spinning back kick, fluid, and like my chances of landing a pirouette, unpredictable. 

 

Why it works:

 

What’s especially powerful about this essay is that the author uses detailed imagery to convey a picture of what they’re experiencing, so much so that the reader is along for the ride. This works as a sports essay not only because of the language and sensory details, but also because the writer focuses on a specific moment in time, while at the same time exploring why Taekwondo is such an important part of their life.

 

After the emotional image is created, the student finishes their essay with valuable reflection. With the reflection, they show admissions officers that they are mature and self-aware. Self-awareness comes through with statements like “surrendering what you are only leads you to what you may become” and maturity can be seen through the student’s discussion of values “honor, courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, courage, humility, and knowledge, and I have never felt that I embodied those traits more so than when I started ballet.” These are the kinds of comments that should find their way into a sports essay!

 

 

Example #2

 

“Advanced females ages 13 to 14 please proceed to staging with your coaches at this time.” Skittering around the room, eyes wide and pleading, I frantically explained my situation to nearby coaches. The seconds ticked away in my head; every polite refusal increased my desperation.

 

Despair weighed me down. I sank to my knees as a stream of competitors, coaches, and officials flowed around me. My dojang had no coach, and the tournament rules prohibited me from competing without one.

 

Although I wanted to remain strong, doubts began to cloud my mind. I could not help wondering: what was the point of perfecting my skills if I would never even compete? The other members of my team, who had found coaches minutes earlier, attempted to comfort me, but I barely heard their words. They couldn’t understand my despair at being left on the outside, and I never wanted them to understand.

 

Since my first lesson 12 years ago, the members of my dojang have become family. I have watched them grow up, finding my own happiness in theirs. Together, we have honed our kicks, blocks, and strikes. We have pushed one another to aim higher and become better martial artists. Although my dojang had searched for a reliable coach for years, we had not found one. When we attended competitions in the past, my teammates and I had always gotten lucky and found a sympathetic coach. Now, I knew this practice was unsustainable. It would devastate me to see the other members of my dojang in my situation, unable to compete and losing hope as a result. My dojang needed a coach, and I decided it was up to me to find one. 

 

I first approached the adults in the dojang – both instructors and members’ parents. However, these attempts only reacquainted me with polite refusals. Everyone I asked told me they couldn’t devote multiple weekends per year to competitions. I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself.

 

At first, the inner workings of tournaments were a mystery to me. To prepare myself for success as a coach, I spent the next year as an official and took coaching classes on the side. I learned everything from motivational strategies to technical, behind-the-scenes components of Taekwondo competitions. Though I emerged with new knowledge and confidence in my capabilities, others did not share this faith.

 

Parents threw me disbelieving looks when they learned that their children’s coach was only a child herself. My self-confidence was my armor, deflecting their surly glances. Every armor is penetrable, however, and as the relentless barrage of doubts pounded my resilience, it began to wear down. I grew unsure of my own abilities.

 

Despite the attack, I refused to give up. When I saw the shining eyes of the youngest students preparing for their first competition, I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was. The knowledge that I could solve my dojang’s longtime problem motivated me to overcome my apprehension.

 

Now that my dojang flourishes at competitions, the attacks on me have weakened, but not ended. I may never win the approval of every parent; at times, I am still tormented by doubts, but I find solace in the fact that members of my dojang now only worry about competing to the best of their abilities.

 

Now, as I arrive at a tournament with my students, I close my eyes and remember the past. I visualize the frantic search for a coach and the chaos amongst my teammates as we compete with one another to find coaches before the staging calls for our respective divisions. I open my eyes to the exact opposite scene. Lacking a coach hurt my ability to compete, but I am proud to know that no member of my dojang will have to face that problem again.

 

Why it works:

 

In the beginning, you might think this is another cliche sports essay about overcoming adversity. But instead, it becomes a unique statement and coming-of-age tale that reads as a suspenseful narrative. 

 

The author connects their experience with martial arts to larger themes in their life but manages to do so without riffing off of tried-and-true themes. Through statements like “I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was” we learn about the students values and their desire to be there for those who depend on them. 

 

The student also brings it full circle, demonstrating their true transformation. By using the “Same, but Different” ending technique, the student places themself in the same environment that we saw in the intro, but experiences it differently due to their actions throughout the narrative. This is very compelling!

 

 

Example #3

 

“1…2…3…4 pirouettes! New record!” My friends cheered as I landed my turns. Pleased with my progress, I gazed down at my worn-out pointe shoes. The sweltering blisters, numbing ice-baths, and draining late-night practices did not seem so bad after all. Next goal: five turns.

 

For as long as I can remember, ballet, in all its finesse and glamor, had kept me driven day to day. As a child, the lithe ballerinas, donning ethereal costumes as they floated across the stage, were my motivation. While others admired Messi and Adele, I idolized Carlos Acosta, principal dancer of the Royal Ballet. 

 

As I devoted more time and energy towards my craft, I became obsessed with improving my technique. I would stretch for hours after class, forcing my leg one inch higher in an effort to mirror the Dance Magazine cover girls. I injured my feet and ruined pair after pair of pointe shoes, turning on wood, cement, and even grass to improve my balance as I spun. At competitions, the dancers with the 180-degree leg extensions, endless turns, and soaring leaps—the ones who received “Bravos!” from the roaring audience—further pushed me to refine my skills and perfect my form. I believed that, with enough determination, I would one day attain their level of perfection. Reaching the quadruple-pirouette milestone only intensified my desire to accomplish even more. 

 

My efforts seemed to have come to fruition two summers ago when I was accepted to dance with Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet at their renowned New York City summer intensive. I walked into my first session eager to learn from distinguished ballet masters and worldly dancers, already anticipating my improvement. Yet, as I danced alongside the accomplished ballerinas, I felt out of place. Despite their clean technique and professional training, they did not aim for glorious leg extensions or prodigious leaps. When they performed their turn combinations, most of them only executed two turns as I attempted four. 

 

“Dancers, double-pirouettes only.” 

 

Taken aback and confused, I wondered why our teacher expected so little from us. The other ballerinas seemed content, gracing the studio with their simple movements. 

 

As I grew closer with my Moscow roommates, I gradually learned that their training emphasized the history of the art form instead of stylistic tricks. Rather than show off their physical ability, their performances aimed to convey a story, one that embodied the rich culture of ballet and captured both the legacy of the dancers before them and their own artistry. As I observed my friends more intently in repertoire class, I felt the pain of the grief-stricken white swan from Swan Lake, the sass of the flirtatious Kitri from Don Quijote, and I gradually saw what I had overlooked before. My definition of talent had been molded by crowd-pleasing elements—whirring pirouettes, gravity-defying leaps, and mind-blowing leg extensions. This mindset slowly stripped me from the roots of my passion and my personal connection with ballet. 

 

With the Bolshoi, I learned to step back and explore the meaning behind each step and the people behind the scenes. Ballet carries history in its movements, from the societal values of the era to each choreographer’s unique flair. As I uncovered the messages behind each pirouette, kick, and jump, my appreciation for ballet grew beyond my obsession with raw athleticism and developed into a love for the art form’s emotive abilities in bridging the dancers with the audience. My journey as an artist has allowed me to see how technical execution is only the means to a greater understanding between dancer and spectator, between storyteller and listener. The elegance and complexity of ballet does not revolve around astonishing stunts but rather the evocative strength and artistry manifested in the dancer, in me. It is the combination of sentiments, history, tradition, and passion that has allowed ballet and its lessons of human connection to become my lifestyle both on and off stage.

 

 

Why it works:

 

This essay is about lessons. While the author is a dancer, this narrative isn’t really about ballet, per se — it’s about the author’s personal growth. It is purposefully reflective as the student shows a nice character arc that begins with an eager young ballerina and ends with a reflection on their past. The primary strength of this essay is the honesty and authenticity that the student approaches it with.

 

In the end, the student turns a cliche on its head as they embrace the idea of overcoming adversity and demonstrate how the adversity, in this case, was their own stereotypes about their art. It’s beautiful!

 

Essay #4

 

“Getting beat is one thing – it’s part of competing – but I want no part in losing.” Coach Rob Stark’s motto never fails to remind me of his encouragement on early-morning bus rides to track meets around the state. I’ve always appreciated the phrase, but an experience last June helped me understand its more profound, universal meaning.

 

Stark, as we affectionately call him, has coached track at my high school for 25 years. His care, dedication, and emphasis on developing good character has left an enduring impact on me and hundreds of other students. Not only did he help me discover my talent and love for running, but he also taught me the importance of commitment and discipline and to approach every endeavor with the passion and intensity that I bring to running. When I learned a neighboring high school had dedicated their track to a longtime coach, I felt that Stark deserved similar honors.

 

Our school district’s board of education indicated they would only dedicate our track to Stark if I could demonstrate that he was extraordinary. I took charge and mobilized my teammates to distribute petitions, reach out to alumni, and compile statistics on the many team and individual champions Stark had coached over the years. We received astounding support, collecting almost 3,000 signatures and pages of endorsements from across the community. With help from my teammates, I presented this evidence to the board.

 

They didn’t bite. 

 

Most members argued that dedicating the track was a low priority. Knowing that we had to act quickly to convince them of its importance, I called a team meeting where we drafted a rebuttal for the next board meeting. To my surprise, they chose me to deliver it. I was far from the best public speaker in the group, and I felt nervous about going before the unsympathetic board again. However, at that second meeting, I discovered that I enjoy articulating and arguing for something that I’m passionate about.

 

Public speaking resembles a cross country race. Walking to the starting line, you have to trust your training and quell your last minute doubts. When the gun fires, you can’t think too hard about anything; your performance has to be instinctual, natural, even relaxed. At the next board meeting, the podium was my starting line. As I walked up to it, familiar butterflies fluttered in my stomach. Instead of the track stretching out in front of me, I faced the vast audience of teachers, board members, and my teammates. I felt my adrenaline build, and reassured myself: I’ve put in the work, my argument is powerful and sound. As the board president told me to introduce myself, I heard, “runners set” in the back of my mind. She finished speaking, and Bang! The brief silence was the gunshot for me to begin. 

 

The next few minutes blurred together, but when the dust settled, I knew from the board members’ expressions and the audience’s thunderous approval that I had run quite a race. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough; the board voted down our proposal. I was disappointed, but proud of myself, my team, and our collaboration off the track. We stood up for a cause we believed in, and I overcame my worries about being a leader. Although I discovered that changing the status quo through an elected body can be a painstakingly difficult process and requires perseverance, I learned that I enjoy the challenges this effort offers. Last month, one of the school board members joked that I had become a “regular” – I now often show up to meetings to advocate for a variety of causes, including better environmental practices in cafeterias and safer equipment for athletes.

 

Just as Stark taught me, I worked passionately to achieve my goal. I may have been beaten when I appealed to the board, but I certainly didn’t lose, and that would have made Stark proud.

 

Why it works:

 

This essay uses the idea of sports to explore a more profound topic—growing through relationships. They really embrace using sports as an avenue to tell the reader about a specific experience that changed the way they approach the world. 

 

The emphasis on relationships is why this essay works well and doesn’t fall into a cliche. The narrator grows not because of their experience with track but because of their relationship with their coach, who inspired them to evolve and become a leader.

 

Where to Get Your College Essay Edited for Free, or by an Expert

 

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Brooke Elkjer
Blog Writer

Short Bio
Brooke is going into her senior year at the University of Southern California and is originally from Dallas, Texas. She is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in English and a Bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience. Brooke is the associate literary producer for the intersectional feminist production company on campus, ART/EMIS. She also is a Resident Assistant (RA) and a student worker for the Thematic Option Honors GE Program. In her free time, Brooke enjoys reading, writing, and watching Gilmore Girls.

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