What does it mean to be successful in athletics? What is the highest level of success for any sport? What does it mean to be the best? How is it achieved? Over the past 20 + years, I have been involved in multiple sports at multiple levels. I have played with or against some of the “best”. I have been told my performance in a sport is dismal, average, and elite. As a coach, I have seen athletes that are the best at their trade and a part of a team that is very successful. Does that mean they are successful? Is it considered fulfillment? The past 10 years I have studied those that are considered the “best”, whether that is as an athlete or coach, and I can say one thing with certainty, being the best, winning the most, didn’t make any of them feel successful nor did it bring fulfillment into their lives. There are many different attributes that lead to success, so I’ve broken it down to 3 that I believe can transform a poor athlete to good, a good athlete to great, a great athlete to elite.
There are few athletes that can be considered in the same category as the late Kobe Bryant in the area of determination. Yes, one of the best basketball players of all time. Yes, won several championships and MVP awards. Yes, he is 4th all-time scoring leader in NBA history. There is a story that Jay Williams likes to share. An All-American out of Duke, Jay came into the league and was determined to be one of the best. He made sure he was the first at every practice, and the last to leave. One away game in Los Angeles, Jay went in early to get shots up. He wasn’t alone. Kobe was there as well. Almost as a challenge, neither one would leave until the other would leave. As hard as Jay tried, Kobe would not only stay longer, but would practice harder, treating it as a game, not a shoot around. Jay became exhausted and had to leave. As soon as Jay stopped, Kobe shot one more and stopped and said to Jay, “I couldn’t let you out work me!” This is after he has won championships and MVP awards. That’s relentless determination driven by his competitiveness. That’s why he was successful. That is why he was and will remain elite.
There is a big difference between competitiveness and having the right mindset. I’ve known some of the most competitive people fold under pressure because they don’t have the right mindset. Multiple coaches talk about how they look for a certain mindset when recruiting. They don’t necessarily look for the most talented or the best scorer. They want a mindset conducive to success. One of the best college coaches of all time, John Wooden, would preach to his players, “Be a life-long learner”, meaning, never be satisfied. I translate that as this: no matter the situation, opponent, or teammate, there is always some way to get better, in some area. There is a way to become a better version of yourself.
The second part of mindset refers to a commonly used word in sports: CLUTCH. The player who is clutch typically isn’t lucky. In order to be clutch, that player has developed a mindset that sets him/her apart from the rest. You can see it in their face when it happens! Pick your athlete: MJ, Kobe, Lebron, Tiger, Peyton, Tom Brady, Tyson, Jeter, A Rod, Messi (funny how most CLUTCH players are known by one name). When a play is needed, they come through, and if you go back and watch the play, it’s as if their eyes are telling the story, “I know you want to stop me, but there isn’t much you can do about it!” That mentality comes from relentless practice, consistent success, and trust from their coaches and teammates (HUGE). Which leads to the last point.
Integrity has a long definition. But to me, it is doing what is needed, what is right, what is best with no one holding you accountable. Think of it this way, how many of you have been given a workout, skill building exercise, or drill to do while at home during this pandemic? I’m guessing all of you. In sports, an athlete with integrity will do the workout, but also, if they miss, they are quick to tell their coach and teammates they missed it. An athlete with integrity AND intelligence would understand that they have these shortcomings and would ask a teammate or friend to hold them accountable and make sure they do what they are supposed to.
For those that know me, I am a fierce competitor. Even as I get older, I hate to lose at anything, as a coach and as a player. However, winning is not my ultimate goal. I know that goes against the grain, but it just isn’t. In my mind, winning is, and should be, a by-product of the values practiced in any sport. IF you show me an athlete who is competitive, determined, has the right mindset, and has integrity, not only will that athlete be successful in their sport, they now have the tools to be successful in most areas of life. Do not settle for being an average athlete! Figure out what success means to you, set your mind to be fearlessly determined and with an attitude of gratitude, success will happen for you!