This past year was packed full of title games that went down to the wire. The Cavs topped the mighty Warriors after fighting back from a 3-1 game deficit against a team full of all stars. Villanova knocked off the perennial powerhouse Tar Heels with a clutch shot at the buzzer in the NCAA title game. The Cubs exorcised their demons when they climbed out of a 3-1 hole against the red hot Cleveland Indians. It felt like this batch of champions were trying to top each other. Clemson did not disappoint against Saban’s intimidating Crimson Tide defense. The icing on the cake was of course Super Bowl LI (for the 27% of Americans that were pulling for the Patriots at least). Regardless of who you were rooting for, most can agree that game provided everything a sports fan could ask for. The common theme between these teams is how hard they had to battle for victory. Every game was tight; every championship came down to 1 play, 1 miscue to determine the winner. The teams that came out on top all faced some form of adversity. The ability to focus on the next play (not the last) was the separating factor.
Down two touchdowns to the nation’s best defense, few would blame Clemson for hanging their heads and accepting defeat. It is a human reaction to feel deflated when facing a seemingly impossible challenge. However, that is what separates championships from the rest: the mental toughness to clear your head and forgot everything other than the task at hand. This sharp focus, the feeling of being truly locked in is hard to describe but easy to see. Back to the NCAA title game, Deshaun Watson never showed a hint of panic. His teammates fed off his confidence and poise and they never appeared unsure of themselves. Brady showed similar poise facing a 25 point deficit late in the 3rd quarter. Some people choose to believe that elite athletes were born fierce competitors with an ability to come through when the pressure is highest. Personally, I don’t believe people are born with a “clutch gene”. Performing in the clutch is more of a reflection of one’s work ethic than a random genetic gift. Championship habits are learned and applied over time.
The development of the skill to focus all your energy on the present begins long before game time. This trait of the elite is forged in the weight-room, on the practice field, and especially in the classroom. As a young athlete, looking at your first legitimate workout program can be like staring up Mount Everest. “The key to success is to focus our conscious mind on things we desire, not things we fear,” Brian Tracy. The only way to attack a bear of a lift is one rep at a time; there are no shortcuts. Sure, you can dog half the sprints at team conditioning and coach may not notice. But you then have no right to blame anyone else for your shortcomings on the field. If you can win a sprint, why wouldn’t you? Life is too short to conserve and save your energy.
Forgetting athletes for a second, every person has one chance to reach their full potential. Everyone may not be gifted with the abilities to achieve the same heights but everyone has a life to make the most of. “Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have twenty-four hour days,” Zig Ziglar. Those that learn from yesterday, plan for tomorrow, but focus on today achieve success and make the most of their time. Back to the world of athletics, every player in the high school and collegiate level must meet certain academic standards to remain eligible. So it’s crucial to take care of business in the classroom in order to dedicate your best effort to your sport. Lack of preparation in any area of your life can and will carry over to another. I’ve procrastinated studying for an exam, crammed all night before the test, and my focus suffered on the field/at workouts the next day. Not to mention, I probably could’ve retained more information and scored higher on the exam if I had started studying earlier. Even if I passed, my score didn’t reflect the best of my abilities. Besides, passing is average and who wants to be average?
Go into the weight-room with a purpose to dominate the lift. Attack each rep one by one . Walk into the gym knowing you’re about to be one step closer to your goals than you were yesterday. While your training, forget yesterday and tomorrow. Win every sprint if you can. If you can, win by as much as humanly possible. Elevate your teammates’ effort, don’t try to blend in or sink to their pace. If finishing 4th in the group is the best you can do, push for 3rd on the next sprint.
I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum as an athlete and a coach. As a player, I wanted to earn respect from my peers and I loved to compete. That is what drove me to push past pain and challenge my limits. Sure some teammates may resent you for lapping them in conditioning, but that’s not your concern. You are being a good teammate and a leader by giving max effort. Not everyone will understand or accept that but the important people will.
As a coach, I try to determine each player’s current ceiling as fast as possible. That way I can hold them accountable for every rep at every practice. It’s so easy to spot an exceptional athlete that is just going through the motions under their top speed. Some coast and save up to win the last sprint. These are the same guys that finish the session barely sweating, saying how easy it was. These athletes get less out of the session than the slow guys that pushed themselves to exhaustion every rep. I respect my players that I know struggle to finish what others breeze through. I know they at least have the intent to improve and I’d be willing to bet on those guys with the game on the line.
It’s easy to get caught up thinking about the future. Setting long term goals is crucial to push past your limits. However, it will be impossible to achieve your goals if you aren’t 100% locked in on the task at hand. In the famous words of Coach Bill Burniston, “WIN…What’s Important Now.” Have a plan to attack each day, but be present in all that you do.