US National Men's Team Coach
US Team Won the Silver Medal in the 2008 Olympics
I have played, coached or watched competitive sports for most of my life. I am still intrigued by winning - and what really makes the difference between winning and losing. It is quite clear to me that most of the time this difference is very small and often immeasurable. This month, I will examine what it is that makes that difference. Certainly, to win your team needs talent. This can be a factor - If your athletes are unskilled compared to your competition than you will probably lose but this is not always the case. In my opinion, in the younger years (high school and club sports) there may be a bigger discrepancy between the skill level of the athletes when you compare one team to another. However, as you move up to higher levels of competition the skill level equals out. This may be due to a natural process of some (more unskilled dropping out or not making a team) while the better athletes in every sport tend to stay with it and continue to compete at higher levels. As athletes get more and more good coaching and training and perhaps just being involved in a sport for a longer period of time they naturally improve. In the book Outliers, ten thousand hours is said to be a level in which in takes to truly master a sport or anything else for that matter. As the talent level balances out - what are the factors that might be involved in winning or for that matter losing? In a previous article, I have written about the intangibles that make a difference - trust, respect, belief and love. When athletes have these intangibles the team is much more likely to succeed. There is no doubt about this. However, I am not convinced that this is all that plays a role in determining what side of that fine line a team finishing on.
Lately, I have been watching a fair amount of club volleyball. My eldest daughter plays on a high level club team. It has amazed me to watch her team, which is loaded with highly skilled athletes. This is a team that seems to find a way to play to the level of their opponent and often lose a game or a match that they should win. There is no way that they should be losing some of the games that they have lost. Their talent and skills are far superior in some cases. They have an excellent coach who continues to teach and encourage them. They like each other and seem to have respect, love and trust for each other. However, they continue to lose? Something is missing. Watching this has really make me think about and search for a common denominator. What other factor may be involved that leads to a team winning or losing consistently?
Over the twenty years that I coached at Pepperdine, I have had some amazingly skilled teams that performed OK, while other teams that did not have as much talent did much better than I ever thought they could. In 1997, we had the perhaps a “perfect storm” so to speak. We had very talented group of players that included present national team goalie Merrill Moses, and past national team players Jack Kocur, Alan Hermann and Jeremy Pope. We also had a supporting cast of players that had good skills but more importantly had a competitive heart. One such player on that team, Brian McAllister seemed to be the leader in “heart” area. When his name was announced prior to games, he would simply put his fist to his heart and gently pound it one or two times. He would also make this gesture to a team mate at opportune times when something good had occurred. This was not necessarily after a goal was scored but more importantly after a good play was made on defense or after someone had made a good pass to set up a team mate. He was sending a consistent message to his team mates that seemed to be saying “remember where we are playing from - the heart”.
Looking back at this team they really did have an amazing heart. What does this mean? Once again, perhaps “heart” is one of those intangibles that is hard to measure. However, we as humans can not survive without our hearts. When 0ur heart stops to beat - we will die. The “heart” is the center of everything. It clearly makes a huge difference in competition. Each and every moment or game can be looked at like a test. How badly do we want to pass the test or win? In my opinion, if we can look at competition this way and be able to push ourselves to be the best we can be - we have passed the test for the moment and we will often win the game - especially if the others on the team share in this “heart” or desire to pass the test in front of us. This Pepperdine team in 1997 found a way to survive to win in games when it seemed like we would surely lose. They never ever gave up. We won 4 games that year on last second shots. Even in the NCAA finals against USC, we lost a good lead in the game and lost all of our momentum but came back in overtime to score a big 6 on 5 goal to win the championships. The team had something special. They certainly had talent and they had respect, trust and love for each other. They also believed in each other. But above all else, they had “heart”. They were mentally tough and they made a conscious collective choice that they were going to win - they were going to pass the test no matter what it took. They found a way to win. That team lost three games that year - but with each loss they actually grew stronger and more hungry to win the next. Essentially, their heart became stronger when they lost.
Having “heart” is more than being mentally tough. At the core - it is a deep desire to show up each and every game and do the best that you can do. But this “heart” that I am talking about it even transcends this. As individuals we are limited to how far we can go on our own. No doubt, any team is better off if you have individuals with a strong competitive heart. However it is when you have an entire team with heart that unbelievable and extraordinary things happen. We can only do some much by ourselves but when we as a team collectively have “heart” it is extremely powerful.
For those with “heart” each game is a reflection of life in a way. There is a deep desire to not only be your individual best but to be the best that there is. I would say that these three factors make up the competitive heart. (1) There is an ability to fight through adversity which will surely come. Life is full of hurdles just as every game presents challenges. What happens when these challenges occur. When you are down three goals in the final period or when one of your best players is injured? Do you or your team “cave in” and give up or do you find another gear and rise to the occasion? Adversity is really just an opportunity to grow. (2) There is an ability to stay focused on the moment. Staying in the moment is huge. Whether your team is winning or losing the game does not matter. What matters is the next play. Do you have the ability to stay in the moment no matter how big the distractions might be? The great ones do. Once again, when collectively the team shares in this ability amazing things can happen. It may only take one of two players who can’t stay in the moment to bring the entire team down. What has happened already is in the past and does not really matter. The next play or the next question will determine if you are going to pass the test and win. (3) There is an ability to find a way to win. The competitive heart always has hope! Even when things really bad that hope and that belief seem to rise to the top and bring out the best in an individual or a team. There is no room for hopelessness. At the core of the matter is finding a way to pass the test that is presented in front of you. LIfe presents challenges as do games and when we can look at those challenges as opportunities to improve and grow we will more than likely grasp the moment and find a way to win. It is interesting to me that winning and losing can come down to a choice. Deep within our minds we can make that choice and this will determine how important the game or the test is? If it really does not matter than we will usually lose. However, when we make the choice to give it all we have and push ourselves and our team mates , things usually work out pretty nicely. When I have spoken to a few of the girls on my daughters volleyball team I have been told that we were tired or that it really did not matter that much. What really matters than? If you are going to play on a team why not give it your all and push yourself and your team mates to the limits. Losing is but a symptom of the greater failure which is not caring enough to give it your all. It is much more fun to enjoy the competition and see how far you can go in the game or in life.
In my opinion, there is a choice we make every time we jump in the pool, or onto a volleyball court or whatever sport it is that you play. That choice is really whether you are going to do your best - not only for yourself but for the good of the team. Are you going to help your team find a way to win when everything says that you should lose. Are you going to help your team stay focused and stay in the moment or are you going to cave in and be content with losing.
Here is what I know from my years in sport. I want to find people that have this so called “heart” to be around. To work with and to live with. I believe that we were put on this earth to do our best - to work hard and to use the skills that God gave us to perform and to “make music” whether it is in sport of something else.
I am blessed to be a part of a team now that has this “competitive heart”. Our 2012 Olympic team is a special group that has been together for many years. We have grown together and fought together. We have not won all of our games. In fact, we lost the Olympic final (Beijing 2008), however, we have learned and grown and we are understanding more and more that there is nothing we can not do if we stick together and play with heart. There are many players on this team with unbelievable heart and this is why I like our chances as we head into the London Olympic Games next month. Our test - our moment is rapidly approaching. Keep on eye on this team - they have something special. I believe that our “heart” will make the difference as we go for the gold.
As always, please feel free to email me with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a great month and enjoy your summer.
See you at the pool.
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