Written by: Christopher Schwarzenegger
The great moments in sports – the moments that separate wins from losses and championships from shattered dreams – often come down to split seconds and fractions of inches. Michael Jordan’s 1989 game-winning jump shot against the Cavaliers. Odell Beckham Jr’s. one handed catch against the Dallas Cowboys. These brief moments are the culmination of hours, weeks, and years of training; training in empty stadiums, in blistering heat, in pouring rain, without cameras, without fans. What drives these athletes to push through their personal boundaries, to challenge themselves when no one is watching, to prepare themselves, so that, in the chaos of competition, under the roar of cheering fans, they can achieve greatness? To find out, I spoke with three men. These men have built their careers, not on the playing fields, but behind the scenes. Their greatest moments come on off-days and in training camps. These three men have nurtured talent, working with athletes to unlock their potential, and their greatness shines in the achievements of their proteges.
Captain Tom Chaby is a highly decorated U.S. Navy SEAL who served for over 20 years. His career focused on leadership, team effectiveness, and performance optimization for the SEAL community. He now works to inspire athletes with the skills he learned on the battlefield. Mel Tucker worked as a coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Ohio State Buckeyes, and the University of Alabama Crimson Tide. He is currently the head coach for the Michigan State University football team. Lawrence Frank coached for years at the collegiate level and eventually climbed the ranks of the NBA and served as head coach of the Detroit Pistons and the New Jersey Nets. He is now the President of Basketball Operations for the Los Angeles Clippers. In speaking to these men, all emphasized three things that were essential to success; hard work, a hunger to learn, and humility. By incorporating these concepts into a disciplined regimen, athletes prepare themselves to create those breathtaking plays that live on in sports legend.
Hard work is absolutely essential to success. As Lawrence Frank told me, “There’s no substitute for hard work…it builds habits, it builds respect amongst your peers, your teammates, your coworkers. It also builds confidence and it builds trust. A lot of times you can check the level of someone’s honesty and commitment by the quality of their efforts. It’s not people telling you they’re committed – it’s people showing you. It’s usually easy to make things go well if you’re willing to do the difficult things… hard work doesn’t guarantee you’re going to be successful, but without it, it’s really hard to get it done.” Captain Chaby told me that hard work is more important than natural talent. As he said, “It’s a blessing to not have talent. Because skill can be a burden. The guys who are the best, the ones who are just blessed with this amazing speed and strength and skill—it’s a burden for them. I never had that burden. I was always just struggling to make it. And to me, that’s a blessing. When they were beating us up in summer training—four workouts a day—I was the only one who was owning it.” Hard work may be a simple concept, but Captain Chaby quoted the great jazz pianist Thelonius Monk, “Simple ain’t easy.” Coach Tucker says that he learned the importance of hard work from his parents as a boy. As Mel told me, “They poured a lot into me. It was really a mentality of you can do whatever you want to do. Don’t put limits on yourself. But it’s going to take work. You get out what you put into it.” Tucker puts these same expectations on the players he coaches. As he put it, “I look at the passion of that player. Does a player like it, love it, or really live it? I look for players who are willing to do what other people aren’t willing to do. I look for players who are willing to do more. I’m looking for players who have intrinsic motivation, and who have a ‘Coach me, Coach’ mentality. They want to be coached, they want feedback, they want constructive criticism. They want to know how they can be better, and they’re looking for people who can help them become better.”
While hard work is essential to success, it’s not enough. All three men emphasized the need to work smart, constantly seeking ways to improve performance by improving training regimens and routines. As Coach Tucker told me, “The best players want to be coached the most. They embrace and seek out good counsel. Good coaching. People who can help them. People who can see things that they can’t see. No matter how much they make, they want to be coached. There’s not a sense of entitlement. You have to get better. You have to find the winning edge. The best that I’ve been around, they know what works for them. And whatever works for them, they continue to try to raise the bar in those areas. The best players have a high level of competence. They have success and they know why they have success and they are willing to do what it takes to continue having success.” Lawrence Frank reiterated this idea, stressing the need to build an entire organization dedicated to finding ways to improve performance. As he said, “You talk about building a team on the floor. What’s critical is having a team around the team that is really, really high performance and is high functional and embodies what you’re all about. So, I’m lucky I work with a lot of people I learn a lot from daily.” Lawrence also emphasized the importance of aligning the interests of the entire organization in order to drive teams toward peak performance. As he put it, “Usually there’s alignment from ownership to front office to coaches to players, there’s an alignment. Now, alignment doesn’t always mean perfect harmony, and I think sometimes that’s where people get it twisted. You shouldn’t have perfect harmony because then that means everyone is saying the same thing and you’re never going to…push each other to see things in different ways. But there has to be alignment. Meaning, once decisions get made, everyone needs to get behind it.” As a team moves forward, all the different stakeholders–and most especially, the players and coach staff, have to understand the importance of process. Coach Tucker says when he recruits players, he looks for “Individuals who are goal oriented but understand process and how process drives everything in terms of goals, like improving my strength, improving my explosiveness, improving my footwork, taking better notes, improving my nutrition, getting better sleep…those are the types of goals that show me that someone understands process. As opposed to a goal being, I want to be all Big 10. Or I want to catch this many passes. Or I want to get this many interceptions. Or I want to win this many games. That’s the result of all these other things along the way. Doing those things along the way, you put yourself in a position to be able to make the play, win the game.” Similarly, Captain Chaby warned me about the seductiveness of dreaming of outcomes. As Captain Chaby told me, “It’s way more fun to think about going to the national championship and winning than to think about ‘wow, I’m gonna have to do x, y and z, plus a, b and c, plus d, e and f in specific order, time after time after time, when I’m really tired, and nobody’s even gonna notice it. It’s not gonna make the ESPN highlights. And I’m gonna get no recognition. I wanna think about winning the natty and scoring a touchdown.’ The reality is, process wins.” Again, Coach Tucker stressed the importance of process in elevating performance. As he told me, “They call it an ‘it’ factor…with a relentless work ethic, but working smart, not confusing activity with achievement, working smart with a process that is sound and solid and effective – those are traits that you see with successful people, with winners.”
Not all elite athletes are blessed with humility, but the very best tend to be. Understanding who you are, what your strengths are, and more importantly, what your weaknesses are, is an important trait for anyone who wants to be great. What got you to where you are today won’t necessarily keep you there, and it most likely won’t keep you moving forward. On the flip side, just because you are not having success at the moment does not mean you need to let your past dictate your future. As Mel Tucker said, “If I’m not having success, or I’m not achieving – in any area – at the level where I know I’m capable, then I gotta change. I gotta change something. Just because I haven’t achieved or had the success or performed up to the standard that is required. That doesn’t mean that it has to go on like that. That doesn’t mean that that’s what my future is gonna be. Because I can change the behavior that will change the reality and change the truth and the outcome. But if I don’t change, then my past is totally predictive of my future.” If you become stuck in your ways that brought you your original success, you cut yourself off to the possibility of growth. To be great, you must be humble enough to know this. Lawrence Frank also emphasized the need for humility. As he stated, “You have to challenge everything you believe in because, again, you have to begin everything with I could possibly be wrong.” Similarly, Captain Chaby draws inspiration – not from his greatest victories – but one of his most painful failures. As he told me, “I tried out for a team while I was in the military, and I wasn’t the best close quarter shooter there is, and when it was my turn to perform, I was overwhelmed. I let the moment – I perceived it as threatening, and when I did that, that perception as being threatening it took my physiology. I became myopic, and that myopia hurt me. I didn’t make the team…every time I get in a situation where pressure or adversity are involved…I think of that moment. I think of it like yesterday.”
By following the concepts these men have described – hard work, a hunger to learn, and humility – great players not only develop their physical skills, they develop a mindset for success. Captain Chaby described this winning mindset. “The minute I get into it, I go neutral. I don’t go positive, I don’t go negative. Because when you go positive, you’re going positive for a reason. You’re positive about an outcome. Everything we do is to achieve an outcome, but if you focus on the outcome, that gets in the way of how you achieve the outcome. There’s a process to achieve anything in life. And if you’re focused on the outcome, that outcome can become a burden.” Putting it simply, Captain Chaby said, “Talking about winning is not gonna help you win. Talking about the outcome you’re after is not gonna help you achieve the outcome.” Coach Tucker also emphasized the importance of remaining neutral, focused on the task at hand and not the final results. As he said, “You’re constantly raising the bar and you understand the process and you stay neutral and you understand that what you do affects what happens next, then the moment does not get too big because there’s not even a need to look at the scoreboard. The focus is on doing what it takes to get my job done to the best of my ability based on the training and preparation that I put in and doing it to the best of my ability. That’s what’s required. That’s what it takes. You do those things, then the results take care of themselves. It’s gonna be what it’s gonna be.”