This is part one of a two-part article talking about the people we need in our lives to ensure we are achieving elite success. We have certain people in our lives for a reason. If you are an athlete, you may not appreciate the style or intensity of your coach in the moment. In fact, you may finish your career with your coach or trainer and not have many positive things to say about them, but over time, the realization of the constructive impact on your life will become evident.
For every coach I had in my life, through sports and my professional psychology career, each served a different role that was important in that time in my life. If I had dismissed them because their approach or message was not what I was wanting at that time, I would have limited the growth over the extended period of time. My resistance would have limited my growth.
Players and coaches must build a network of people around them who directly and indirectly make them better. You really need the five following people:
You want individuals around you who naturally engage the competitive nature of your mind and soul. That may be an intrasquad nemesis or a workout partner with whom you go toe- to-toe, but in any case, it’s someone you really have to work hard against to beat. Competitive mindsets aren’t innate, they have to be fostered, developed, and refined. The best way to do that is to work hard while competing against someone on a regular basis.
A valuable competitor is someone you can measure yourself against on a daily basis. As they raise the bar, you have to raise your level of execution, too. A great competitor is someone who relishes the opportunity to compete and who raises their own level of effort, execution, and commitment simply to beat you. When you’re in that environment, both sides benefit.
How do competitors contribute to your success?
Being in an environment in which you’re driven to compete with another forces you to break your Fishbowl and stretch your comfort zones. I see this happen first-hand with junior academies. When athletes start to become acclimated to the academy nature, the competition ramps up with every drill, intrasquad game, and round. Those who are more engaged in the competition simply pass those who can’t handle the controlled nature of the competitive environment. Competitors feed off each other to improve.
The competitive environment benefits those who are competing against one another. If you look back at the history of sport, those intense rivalries have always raised the level of performance. In the 1980s, the National Basketball Association (NBA) benefited from a competitive rivalry between Earvin “Magic” Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics. Every matchup was intensely played, with both players and their teams pushing each other to new levels. There is no doubt that both teams had their rivals in their crosshairs in every practice and offseason training program.
Competitors are healthy if they’re understood properly. In every line of work, business, and sport, an identified rival can help provide needed motivation and intensity. Where the possible struggle of having a competitor may arise is when you abandon the plan and purpose of your own preparation simply to meet the demands of that one competitor and ignore the others who want to beat you. That distraction is common among collegiate and professional teams that have letdowns after rivalry games. To avoid that, use a competitor to push you through a low spot, but maintain a focus on your overall capability and capacity to compete.
This is different than a competitor – it’s a coach or other athlete who can openly challenge your beliefs, training style, and mindsets. What I mean by “challenger” is that this is the person who can call your bullshit and to whom you have to be accountable.
A challenger is hard on you, pushing you and demanding more of you than you ever thought you were capable. A challenger is often someone who has a completely different point of view from yours. If you’re politically liberal, meeting someone who’s conservative can be beneficial – not so you have someone to yell and scream at, but so you have someone to share your individual perspectives with, which in turn will enhance the knowledge and depth of your own perspective. Our opinions in life and sport are often somewhat shallow, and only by challenging and being challenged by others do we better formulate the nature of our work.
Facing a challenger requires preparation and intense training. If you’re a coach, a challenger would be another coach who sees the game completely differently. Sitting down and having an in- depth discussion about the intricate nature of an offense when you come from completely different perspectives can be difficult. Simple answers just don’t cut it.
Several years ago, I was sitting in first class on a long transcontinental flight when a young millennial sat down next to me. He was dressed in designer blue jeans and flip-flops, and carried himself with confidence. As the plane reached cruising altitude, he started talking to me and asking me questions about what I did for a living and where I was going. I normally refrain from airplane conversations, but since we were waiting for our dinner, it was hard to avoid. I’m glad I didn’t avoid the conversation. He told me that he had started a large database company in college and had sold the company in his junior year for a significant amount of money. While still in school, he worked in Congress and spent time with some great business leaders. Eventually he became bored and decided to start a new company, which was now a major international technology firm with offices around the world.
As we talked, he was open and honest about his management style, and I still use many of the lessons I learned that day. The most important thing was the importance of having one to three challengers in your close circle.
Corporate executives often place a challenger on the company’s board to question all decisions. Problems arise, however, when the whole board becomes challengers, which can often happen when the company is struggling or the leader lacks confidence or vision. Good challengers, however, know when to provide feedback and when to challenge. Having a strong member of your team as a challenger can push you to focus on your own philosophy and to find material to support that philosophy. It’s hard to put those people in your life, but they’re critical for success.
The young businessman on the plane told me that he had a clear policy for his company and his board – a few are charged with challenging the direction of the business, while the rest are responsible for implementing the strategy to their fullest potential. Early in his career, he maintained an open e-mail address for suggestions and critiques of the company, but he ended up spending so much time responding to the e-mail suggestions from all levels of the company that he lost focus on the daily job of running the company. Those whose role is to challenge the company aren’t expected to just be contrarian, but rather, to provide solutions in areas that need improvement. He told me that when he began to identify and trust the challengers in his life, his business reached all-time profit levels.
It can be hard to have challengers in your life, but without them, it’s easy to fall back into the habits and safety of mediocrity. Educate the challengers as to why they’re in your life, and demand their honesty and valued solutions. Only then will your game improve.