“The greatest who ever do it are always the hardest workers.”
- Rich Gannon
I’m not sure we are being honest with the way we talk about work. You hear and see quotes like the above one from Rich Gannon (who was talking about Tom Brady) all the time. We don’t really ever seem to question whether or not they are actually true when we are talking about hard work.
Babe Ruth wasn’t exactly known for his work ethic, but he’s on Mount Rushmore of the greatest baseball players of all-time. Shaquille O’Neal didn’t really blow people away with how hard he worked either. But he’s one of the top 50 basketball players ever to play. It’s just interesting to me the way we glorify hard work, and we immediately associate the best players with having this incredible work ethic. I just don’t think that’s accurate.
“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”
I’m sure you’ve seen that one on a high school wall somewhere or at least on instagram or twitter. That flows nicely and fits well on a poster of some track athlete dripping with sweat. But is it true?
I coached some great teams at Rhode Island College that won championships that were really talented but didn’t necessarily work that hard. They relied a lot on their talent and suffered some bad losses along the way because of their lack of a consistent work ethic. In the end, however, they were talented enough to pull it together and win a championship. I also coached some teams at the University of Maine that worked extremely hard and were fully committed, yet only won a handful of games. Ultimately due to transfers and injuries, we just didn’t have good enough talent on the floor to win games.
If I gave you a choice to coach the hardest working team in the league or the most talented team in the league, which one are you choosing? I’m taking the most talented team, and I suspect most coaches who are interested in winning, would do the same.
Look, I’m not saying work ethic isn’t important. It absolutely is, and it’s generally something within your control. I’ve made a career in college athletics out of work ethic, because I knew as a junior in high school I wasn’t good enough. So this isn’t to crush work ethic as a non-factor. It’s extremely important. But I’m not sure we need to glorify it the way we do.
You don’t (or at least you shouldn’t) tell your team that the five hardest-workers are going to start. That’s because they won’t. I’ve coached some incredible kids who worked their asses off every day who just weren’t talented enough to play very much. A great work ethic alone isn’t enough, and I’m not sure we should glorify it like it’s the most important thing.
We tell kids at a young age all the time that if they are willing to work hard they can be whatever they want in life. Well that isn’t really true. With all due respect to Malcolm Gladwell (and I’m a big Gladwell fan), I could have taken ground balls for 10,000 hours when I was in Little League but I still don’t think I was ever playing shortstop for the Yankees.
When I go recruiting, the first thing I am looking for in a player is natural ability. Do I want him to have a great work ethic? Of course I do. But the natural ability to play at this level and help us win is what’s most important. We all want our best players to be our hardest workers. But that isn’t always the case.
Talent matters. That’s okay. It’s important to recognize that. We always want to instill the value of a great work ethic as well, but there’s no need to misrepresent it. We run the risk of being disingenuous if we do.