Of all human powers operating on the affairs of mankind, none is greater than that of competition.
– Henry Clay
Who are the best competitors in sports?
The two guys I always think about are Michael Jordan and Tom Brady. They are the two guys that I have watched the most that just seem to have a relentless approach every time they compete. But they are also two of the most talented guys to play their position in their respective sports. You can reasonably argue they are the best to ever play their sport. So how much does talent and ability have to do with competitiveness? Or how much does the way you compete enhance what we consider to be your natural talent?
Larry Bird was a great competitor in my mind. So was Joe Montana. Two more of the all-time great talents. But they probably don’t get as much credit for being competitors as they do for just being great players. Their personalities were a little bit more reserved and stoic, at least publicly. So how much credit for competing do we give to guys who have a more fiery personality? Jordan and Brady are both guys that aren’t afraid to openly show emotion and get in their teammates faces. Does that make them better competitors, or do we just give them credit for that because they show more emotion?
Tiger Woods is looked at as a great competitor. He’s also the most talented golfer to ever play the game. Is he a great competitor because he pounds his driver every now and then when he hits a bad shot? Or because he curses himself at times on national TV? He won the U.S. Open on a broken leg, a legendary performance that speaks to his competitiveness. Or does it just speak to his talent?
Is Phil Mickelson a great competitor? Phil Mickelson has much more of an open, loose, fun-loving personality. He seems to keep things in better perspective than most and is more transparent with his thoughts. But does he want to win any less than Tiger Woods? Sometimes I think we evaluate competitiveness the wrong way.
Think about the best competitors you have coached. For me, I immediately think of John Linehan. The 5-7 guard we had at Providence who is currently the all-time steals leader in NCAA history. John was a relentless competitor and not the most talented kid in the world. It was in his nature almost out of necessity. To play in the Big East at 5-7, John had to compete at an incredible level all of the time.
Donnie McGrath was a great competitor. He hated to lose, and he was always in the gym trying to get better. Similar to John, Donnie always felt like he had something to prove. He was stereotyped as a middle class white kid who wasn’t quick enough or tough enough to play at the highest level. Donnie’s competitiveness came out with how often he was alone in the gym finding a way to get better.
I coached some incredible competitors at Rhode Island College. Ethan Gaye was a walk-on guard who ended up starting on 2 straight NCAA Tournament teams for us. Ethan wasn’t the most skilled player, a 2 guard who wasn’t a natural shooter or a great ball-handler. Competing was how he made his living. Tahrike Carter was another great competitor who ended up being an All-American. But he was never the most naturally skilled or gifted player, he just brought an incredible will to win. Cam Stewart was another great competitor. Another walk-on who was a huge part of the first great teams we had at RIC, Cam was a silent assassin. He didn’t come across as the tough, chip on his shoulder type kid, but he hated to lose. And he was tough, and he had a chip on his shoulder. It was just hard to see at first. So many of our great players at RIC were great competitors, partly because at a D3 state school you naturally have something to prove.
When you think about it, we tend to put competitors into 2 categories – either the extremely talented all-time greats who show a little bit of fire, or the chip on the shoulder, something to prove guys who often have a perceived flaw to overcome. These guys are relentless for a reason, almost because they have to be. Undersized overachievers tend to be labeled as great competitors.
It’s worth thinking about what makes someone a great competitor, and how you go about finding it as a coach. How much of it is based on personality and just natural? How much of it is talent? And how much can it be developed by your culture?
There is a difference between wanting to win and competing. Everyone wants to win – it feels a lot better than losing. But competing is about so much more – how do you react when you aren’t feeling great? Do you respond when you get tired? What do you do when no one is watching? Great competitors don’t just turn it on when the game is tied and the clock is running down. They are outside in the summer working on their own. They are genuinely upset when they lose a drill in practice. They are mentally tough enough to own a loss and bounce back from it.
I believe it’s important to recruit great competitors, because some of it is natural. A lot of it is instilled before players get to the college level. You can also develop it without question by creating a competitive culture. When guys are in a competitive environment every day their natural desire to compete will emerge – even if they don’t have a great capacity to do so. You may not like what you see, but you’ll learn about how competitive a guy is in the right environment.
Talent also plays a key role. I think talent makes players more competitive, more than being competitive enhances their talent. It’s hard for someone who’s not as talented to do things at a faster pace, to continue with great energy throughout plays when they aren’t having success. Playing with great energy comes easier when you are good at it. It’s hard to be a great competitor, and greater natural ability makes it easier to compete.
Understanding where you think that competitive nature comes from is important to be able to get the most out of your players. Your approach, your culture, the environment you create needs to tap into these elements to allow guys the comfort level to compete. It’s a challenge as a coach to understand where each players competitive spirit comes from. But getting it out of them translates to getting the most out of your team.