Pat Riley had a great line once about one of the best feelings for a coach. He said it was when you ran into a former player 10 years down the line, someone that you were hard on and maybe didn’t always see eye-to-eye with, and you gave each other a big hug. And you understand that all of the difficult stuff that happened between you was all part of the relentless pursuit of excellence.
Watching “The Last Dance” one ESPN, one of my main takeaways is that Michael Jordan might be the greatest competitor I have ever seen (Tom Brady? Kobe?). He is relentless in his pursuit of excellence, to the point where it can be a negative (when asked about gambling, he says he’s “addicted to competition”). His competitive drive, even with all of the success he was having, might be unmatched by any great athlete anywhere.
One thing that gets lost with great competitors is the importance of the rest of the team. Great competitors can be hard to play with. They can be over-the-top at times, and they can make things very uncomfortable. Even if you have a team and a culture that is built on competition. Part of being a great competitor is challenging your teammates to get to a place where they’ve never been. To make them uncomfortable, to drive them to be great.
I think of the best competitors I have ever coached. Competition was always a core value of our teams, and we defined ourselves by how we competed. But the best competitors were still hard to deal with. They constantly challenged myself and their teammates in different ways, and it wasn’t always positive. Trust me, I’ll take an elite competitor on my team any day of the week, and I’ll deal with the issues that arise. But the truth is, great competitors aren’t always easy to deal with.
That is where everyone else comes in. I think it’s important that you have discussions as a team about how you are going to connect, interact and communicate with one another. There has to be an understanding that at times it will get intense and uncomfortable. What we do in the athletic arena is intense. It isn’t always team meetings and post-practice discussions. There is an intensity to it that is going to effect the way we deliver the message, and therefore the way we respond to it. So we need to connect on how we are going to interact, with an understanding that it won’t always be positive and certainly won’t always be comfortable.
The best teammates are connected and understand where the rest of their teammates are coming from. It is that understanding that really becomes the fuel for elite teams. There are going to be laid back guys who don’t get all fired up every day, and there are going to be intense competitors who can’t help themselves from getting after it. As a group, you have to recognize this and create and accept an atmosphere where your team can thrive. An elite competitor adds so much value to your team, but can also create some difficult situations.
MJ’s ability to be an elite competitor relied on two factors – one, his own greatness, and the second, his teammates. Obviously he had all the credibility he needed as the best player in the league, maybe of all-time. He could say or do what he wanted, and his teammates had to accept it. But a big factor to me was there willingness to accept the way he was as a driving force behind what made their team great, even if it meant putting up with some tough behavior (was it Will Perdue that he punched, or was it Steve Kerr? Or both?). I’m sure those guys had some brutal days being teammates with MJ, but they got to a point where they realized it was all worth it.
Elite competitors are essential on high-performing teams, but their teammates play a big role in allowing that competitiveness to happen. Elite competitors really rely on the rest of the team, and MJ had a group of great teammates that allowed him to be himself.
And like Pat Riley said, I’m sure these days when he sees his teammates they give each other a hug and get past all of the hard stuff, understanding that it was all in the pursuit of excellence.