It’s almost playoffs time in Major League Baseball and so in the theme of awe and how to cultivate it, a frequent topic on this blog…
In the National League, pitchers must hit when it’s their turn in the lineup. Next time you watch a pro baseball game, watch the pitcher try to hit. He almost always strikes out and looks goofy doing it; he’s a pitcher, after all. He spends all his time in the big leagues practicing pitching, not hitting.
But then think about the following. That MLB pitcher who looked utterly goofy at the plate was likely the best hitter on his little league team, the best hitter in his high school, the best hitter at his college, the best hitter in his region growing up, probably one of the most highly touted hitters of his generation. Yet, by the time he gets to the big leagues, he is one of the worst hitters on the field. He’s only in the pros because he can pitch.
It reminds you how good everyone is: truly, the very best in the world. It’s hard not to feel a sense of awe as a result, and it can be felt even if you’re a casual fan watching an otherwise meaningless baseball game.
Awe comes from being in the presence of world-class expertise. But sometimes it takes a little bit of a reminder to yourself to fully feel it. A bit of a re-frame. It does for me, anyway.
I loved Phil Jackson’s latest memoir, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, written with Hugh Delehanty. It’s full of interesting stories from his time coaching Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, amusing and at times inspiring riffs on his Zen spirituality beliefs, and smart advice on how to coach a bunch of individual talents to work together as a team.
Jackson is one of the winningest coaches ever. And probably the most spiritually inclined. I found plenty of insights on teamwork, leadership, and meditation that are broadly applicable. That said, if you aren’t interested in basketball, it’ll be a slog. There are many love letters to the triangle offense and blow-by-blows of seasons which will interest only those with an above-average interest in the game.
Here are some of the lessons and a couple direct quotes:
“After years of experimenting, I discovered that the more I tried to exert power directly, the less powerful I became. I learned to dial back my ego and distribute power as widely as possible without surrounding final authority.”
He didn’t call a time out when an opposing team went on a 6-0 run. He wanted his players to figure out a solution themselves — not bail them out.
Mix up practice routines by introducing novelty in a long season. He had the Bulls practice in silence once; another team they scrimmaged with the lights out. He broke the team into a stronger squad and a weaker squad and then didn’t call any fouls on the weaker squad during a scrimmage.
The Knicks coach, when Jackson was a player, wanted bench players to be actively engaged in the game so they were prepared mentally. He’d give them several minutes’ warning before putting them in the game so they could focus in.
Follow your breath with your mind as it moves in and out like a swinging door.
Practices for new NBA players would start with the basics, including footwork, dribbling, passing. Even at the professional level, re-visiting the basics was necessary. Most experts understand simple things deeply.
“At that time most coaches subscribed to the Knute Rockne theory of mental training. They tried to get their players revved up for the game with win-one-for-the-Gipper-style pep talks. That approach may work if you’re a linebacker. But what I discovered playing for the Knicks is that when I got too excited mentally, it had a negative effect on my ability to stay focused under pressure. So I did the opposite. Instead of charging players up, I developed a number of strategies to help them quiet their minds and build awareness so they could go into battle poised and in control.”
On road trips, he selected a book for each player to read. He assigned Michael Jordan Song of Solomon.
Jackson orchestrated a meeting between Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan during a Lakers’ trip to Chicago, with the hope that Michael could help Kobe understand the value of selfless play. After shaking hands, the first words out of Kobe’s mouth to Jordan were “You know I can kick your ass one on one.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich speaking to the press about LeBron James, after the Heat’s Game 1 loss and criticisms of LeBron not being aggressive enough:
He’s a grown man. He doesn’t need any of you to tell him anything. He knows more than all of you put together. He understands the game. If he makes a pass and you all think he should have shot it, or he shoots it and you think he should have made a pass, your opinions mean nothing to him, as they should not mean anything to him.
Wired coaches are a nice little frill of the modern-day NBA telecast, but the segment often produces a flurry of well-worn clichés and platitudes. But every once in a while a huddle sound-byte will transmit the essence of a team, its coach and its guiding principles.
“Are we having fun yet?” Gregg Popovich asked the team as they trailed by nine. He raised his voice enough to be heard over “Sweet Caroline,” but no more loudly than he needed to. “I need a little bit more dose of nasty. I’m seeing a little bit of unconfident, a little hesitation. It’s not supposed to be easy. Every round gets tougher. … Penetrate hard, good passes, shoot with confidence. I want some nasty.”
Popovich expressed himself with pure calm. This was one adult speaking to other adults, and the tone was as moderate and measured as anything we’d hear at a random office meeting. Five minutes later, the Spurs took a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“Be aggressive” is the tired urge of every coach to players. “I want some nasty” takes on a whole new freshness. It feels more actionable somehow. It actually reminds me of DFW in the way one uncommon, vivid adjective can carry an entire thought.
Two nights ago, a top high school football recruit announced live on ESPN–during the "Under Armour All American Game"–that he will go to Alabama for college. The video of him being interviewed is pretty amazing. His mother, sitting right next to him, follows up her son's announcement by declaring immediately afterwards (still on national television) that she disapproves, and that LSU is still #1.
Probably because I'm watching Friday Night Lights (I'm in Season 3 – it's awesome), the thing I thought of when watching the interview was, "What happens if this big recruit gets injured and there's no NFL jackpot? Or what happens if he goes pro and then gets injured or has a short career? Then what?"
The Atlantic had a cover piece the other month titled The Shame of College Sports. It was a well-written argument for why college athletes–who generate billions of dollars with of revenue for companies and their universities–should themselves be paid. I think they should, given the circumstances. They are hardly "student-athletes." Stripping away the veneer of the NCAA–and for that matter, the false promises of universities everywhere–is an important project. And for some reason, the commericalized "recruiting announcement" broadcast on ESPN the other night I think helped in that effort.
At a San Francisco Giants game a couple months ago, I joked to Cal Newport, who was sitting next to me, that the Newportian analysis of the game had nothing to do with bases and balls and everything to do with the years of deliberate practice that rocketed each player to the peak of their profession. Cal sees remarkable talent as the product of years of craftsmanship.
I thought about that moment at the ballpark with Cal the other week when I was listening to a commentator who, after reporting that the Houston Astros (one of the worst teams in baseball this season) beat the Giants, said that it doesn’t matter how bad the opposing team is–when you’re competing against professional athletes, it is always hard work to win. The worst player on the worst team in the major leagues is still one of the best athletes in the world. When you see a National League pitcher go to bat and hack at balls way off the plate, he looks like he’s never swung a bat before. Yet, that hitter was probably the best hitter on his high school team by far. When professional pitchers are made to look silly at the plate, it’s a reminder of how good major league pitching is. Only those who devote their professional careers to hitting stand a chance–and full-time pitchers, obviously, do not.
You don’t need to be a pro at the craft to admire it in others. In the baseball example, if you don’t know the rules of baseball you won’t appreciate the players’ talents. You need a base level of knowledge. But you can be an amateur and still be awed by the pros, if you let yourself.
Why admire excellence? First, admiring excellence is part of appreciative thinking. In a terrific, packed restaurant, admiring excellence becomes appreciating the myriad details the restauranteur has nailed to make the dining experience flawless. Purchasing a product on Amazon becomes appreciating the data analysts who processed billions of bits of data in order to optimize the shopping cart process. This appreciative, admiring mentality is also a backdoor entrance–in the house of feelings–to gratitude. “I’m grateful to be in the presence of someone who’s world class at their craft.”
Second, consciously admiring and recognizing the excellence of someone is the first step to becoming a master yourself. If the key to mastery of any skill is deconstructing what current masters did to get to where they are, then step one is knowing when you’re around professionals–and letting yourself admire them!
Nike has come out with a brilliant new video featuring LeBron James, an athlete whose personal brand and popularity plunged after the media spectacle he created when he announced his decision to join the Miami Heat. He confronts his critics by looking into the camera and asking a simple question: "What should I do?" As Grant McCracken says his in excellent analysis, Nike turns to the bedrock American value of individualism to make the point that LeBron has the right to forge his own path no matter what other people say:
What's clever about the spot is that it drives us towards an answer for this question. We end up thinking, "Well, James should do has the right to do whatever he wants to do. Fans have the right to be unhappy. But finally, we don't have the right to say where he plays or finally who he is."
And this means the ad turns, almost inaudibly, on the cry of individualism. This is one of the bedrock convictions of our culture: that the individual has the right of self-determination, of self definition. It's not for elites to tell us who we are. It's not for ethnic groups, local communities or corporations. It's not for parents. Nor for teachers. And it's not, James is pointing out, for fans.
The marketing lesson here is that you must understand the culture you're operating in. Nike very much understands American culture, ever since they made "Just do it" the company's slogan. I don't think Nike would run this sort of ad in Asia or Latin America.
How long were you out of prison before you actually felt free?
Never. Not till now, really. This is the freest I ever felt in my life. And I'm still not free. But it's an awesome feeling. I got no money. I'm not a glamour guy anymore. I got friends who've got money, so it looks like I've got money, but I don't. All the money I had, forget it. I never had anything, never had a stitch on me that felt like freedom. But to have somebody by your side, win, lose, or draw. My wife's lived with me in places I wouldn't take a shit in. I wouldn't be a prostitute in some of the places my wife and I have slept.
He also talks about his obsession to win and how this characterizes all great fighters:
Because every fighter has to have that same will, that same need, that same drive . . . to impose their will on another man.
Every fighter in the history of fighting. But none like me. And, believe me, I'm not being immodest. None like me. I studied every fighter in history, at my manager's house up in Catskill, 'cause he had all the greatest fights on film, he had every last one of them, and I watched them all, every night. They were all so vicious, man. Jake LaMotta, Henry Armstrong, Carmen Basilio. Sugar Ray—God, he was vicious. But Jack Dempsey more than anyone. All these guys let you know they wanted to murder you, and they'd take shots from you, over and over and over, get beat senseless, just so they could get theirs in. Sugar Ray maybe most of all. But Jack Dempsey? He wanted to maim you. He didn't want you dead. He wanted you to suffer. He wanted to shatter your eye socket, destroy your cheeks, your chinbone. That's what I learned from Mr. Dempsey, and I believe I learned it well.
(Speaking of crazy people and obsession with winning, in this interview Ron Artest passes along more anecdotes about Kobe Bryant's legendary drive.)
In the Details interview Tyson uses a tornado metaphor, which is apt. He has a knack for metaphors. One of his most famous quotes on fear deploys pitch perfect metaphor effortlessly:
Fear is your best friend or your worst enemy. It's like fire. If you can control it, it can cook for you; it can heat your house. If you can't control it, it will burn everything around you and destroy you. If you can control your fear, it makes you more alert, like a deer coming across the lawn.
On why he should have made more mistakes playing squash:
As a squash player, I was gifted. I had all the right things going for me. I practiced. I was very good with the racket, and I had tremendous anticipation. But I tended to play an errorless game by hitting a slice on my backhand, which took a lot of power off the ball. That wasn't a disaster, but it was definitely a weakness in my game. My opponents always used to say that on a good day they could beat me, because they could hit more spectacular shots than me. But they never did. I went for about 10 years without losing a game, except to [the great Pakistani squash player] Sharif Kahn. He made about six, seven errors a game—but he also made eight or nine winners. I would make about zero errors per game but only one or two winners. He had the edge on me about 10-4, and I regret that I was never willing to accept the risky shots and confrontations, never willing to play a more error-full game.
On making money when everyone else is scared:
When the public is most frightened, only the strong are left, and that's when the market is in the best possible hands. I call it taking out the canes. Whenever disaster strikes, the very sagacious wealthy people take their canes, and they hobble down from their stately mansions on Fifth Avenue, and they buy stocks to the extent of their bank balances, and then a week or two later, the market rises, they deposit the overplus in their accounts, invest it in blue-chip real estate, and retire back to their stately mansions. That's probably the best way of making money, to be a specialist in panics. Whenever there's panic hanging in the air, that's a great time to invest.
On the limits of directness in life:
But regrettably, duplicity is very, very important in life. The direct approach always creates tremendous obstruction and friction from the adversary, so often the indirect approach is necessary.
Here's Kathryn's different interview with Joe Posnanski about sports. Posnanski talks about the myths of "clutch hitters" and "hot hands."
Jordan was a ruthless motherfucker. Jordan was a killer. Jordan didn't care if his teammates despised him. Jordan never, ever, not in a million years, would have allowed his team to quit in the final two minutes of Thursday night's game the way LeBron did. His teammates feared him, loathed him, revered him and played accordingly. Bird had that same quality. In the second half of his career, so did Magic. Winning meant so much to those guys that their teammates almost didn't have a choice; they had to follow suit. Or else.
Partly, LeBron has never had a good coach.
To illustrate what he could have, Simmons relays this story of Pat Riley, coach of the Miami Heat, who in Game 6 of the 2006 NBA Finals, at halftime threw away the playbook and the X's and O's and took a different tack:
He screamed at his guys like a boxing trainer. You're tougher than them! YOU'RE TOUGHER THAN THEM! Don't let up! They are ready to quit! They are ready to fold! Keep attacking them! Keep getting to the rim! Keep knocking their asses down! No layups! No dunks! Stay together! YOU ARE TOUGHER THAN THEM! YOU ARE TOUGHER THAN THEM! That's what he did for the entire second half. Eventually, his players believed him.
Some years ago I watched LeBron play as a high school athlete at the Adidas Big Time tournament in Las Vegas. The gym was full of NBA scouts and media. LeBron was playing for the Oakland Soldiers (he played on two AAU teams then — the Soldiers and his Cleveland club). After watching LeBron play no defense, score almost no points, and seem oddly detached from the game, I remember telling someone there that he would go down as "severely overrated."
It remains my greatest mis-assessment of talent ever.