There is a difference between competing and competitive excellence. Competing is playing hard, leaving it all on the floor. But competitive excellence is more than just competing. It’s competing at an elite level and being able to handle everything that comes along with it.

Playing hard is the minimum. If you want to be a part of a high-performing team, competing is a necessity. But there is a lot of emotion that goes along with competing. You see games all the time where one team has the competitive edge to start the game, and their opponent is playing catch-up. And they start to figure out the level they have to compete at, but emotionally they don’t really handle it well. They start to get frustrated with bad plays, they bitch at the officials, they get on their own teammates. You can see that the emotion they have to play with to reach the right compete level isn’t that comfortable for them, and they aren’t used to it. When you are chasing the compete level in a game with a desperate edge, the emotions become harder to deal with. The teams that can handle those emotions are the ones used to competing at that level all the time.

Mental toughness is a big part of competitive excellence. Jack Clark, the Rugby Coach at Cal who has won more than 25 national titles, defines mental toughness as “the ability to focus on the next most important thing.”

Think about the emotions in a highly competitive game. Every whistle, every basket, every play is charged with energy. Competitive excellence requires handling the good and the bad. If you bury a big 3 does it affect the way you run back on defense or defend the next play? How about if you miss a big 3 or turn the ball over, are you ready to get a big stop? You see it happen a lot, where the emotion of one play carries over to the next one. That’s a lack of mental toughness, and it affects your ability to compete. Competitive excellence means putting the emotion to the side, good or bad, and being prepared for the next play.

Competitive excellence puts the team before everything else. Teams that compete really hard can be tough to beat, but teams that compete for each other can be special. It’s the guy who is always in the right help side position to make up for the mistake of a teammate. It’s the guy who blocks out another guys man out of his area just to clear him off the glass. It’s the big who runs hard to the rim on every possession even though he rarely gets the ball, because that’s his job and it opens up shots and driving lanes for his teammates. They really aren’t worried about who gets the shots, who scores, or who has the ball. They are locked in on helping their team win. Great teams are connected with the way they compete. Sacrifice is a big part of competitive excellence.

Competitive excellence also involves the right perspective on failure. There is no fear of negative consequences, because teams that are competitively excellent understand that failure is part of the deal. If you are going to lay it all on the line, you have to recognize that sometimes you aren’t going to get it done. But the process, the way you competed, is what you can control, and therefore what is most important.

Jim Steen was the longtime swimming coach at Kenyon College and won close to 50 national championships, and he had a great quote he used to give to his teams:

“Find a place within yourself where success and failure don’t matter, a place where you can engage in battle without compromise.”

That quote is as good as any as far as summing up competitive excellence – the ability to engage in battle without compromise, where success and failure don’t matter.

The last thing about competitive excellence is that it’s not something you choose to do when it’s time to ball. When you watch a team out-compete another and play with a higher competitive edge, that wasn’t something they chose to do that day. It’s something they do every day. Competitive excellence is ingrained in you, it develops based on your approach. It’s something you get used to on the practice floor, day after day, with the way you commit to your teammates.

Competitive excellence isn’t a choice you can make on game day, it’s a habit you develop from the first day of practice. It’s not something you can turn on and off. It’s part of your DNA.

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