By Stedman Graham - Chapter Excerpt
His full name is Vincent Lamar Carter, but he goes by various nicknames: Vinsanity, InVINCEible, Air Canada, Elevator Man, and others. People who have seen Carter play basketball strive to come up with superlative nicknames to match the skills of the six-foot-six swingman, who was the fifth pick in the 1998 NBA draft. Carter led the North Carolina Tar Heels to an 83–22 record and two Final Fours in his three years there and now stars for the Toronto Raptors in the NBA.
Carter has lived up to his nicknames. For a few career highlights, see the box below.
Points per game, career: 24.1
Points per game, play-offs: 25.7
Career high, game: 51 points
Rebounds per game, career: 5.5
Rebounds per game, play-offs: 6.4
Assists per game, career: 3.7
Assists per game, play-offs: 5.0
Carter was the overwhelming choice for Rookie of the Year for the 1998–99 season, receiving 96 percent of the votes. He represented the United States at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, leading the team in scoring at 14.8 points per game and helping the United States win the gold medal.
As Carter's statistics show, he is far from one-dimensional in his game. The same goes for his life outside of basketball. He established the Embassy of Hope Foundation to support children's causes, initiated "Vince's Hoop Group," a program that recognizes students' achievements at a school in Toronto, and was named a Goodwill Ambassador by Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
The Embassy of Hope generates hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for Toronto children's charities. Carter says he decided to establish the Embassy of Hope Foundation to help make a difference by encouraging young people to believe in their dreams.
Carter followed his own dream to NBA stardom, but not at the neglect of his college education. Though he left North Carolina after his junior year to join the NBA, he returned to North Carolina to finish college and earn his bachelor's degree.
He returned to school in part because he knew the eyes of lots of schoolkids were on him. He is used to showing young athletes how to move with the ball; he does that every game he plays in the NBA. By returning to college to earn his bachelor's degree, he showed young players how to move without the ball as well.
DON'T JUST TALK A GREAT GAME . . .
You can learn to move without the ball, just as Vince Carter did. You can also learn to move with the ball. But it will take more than dreaming about success.
This world is filled with dreamers. Don't get me wrong, dreaming is an essential part of success. But the problem with most people is they don't get beyond the dreaming. What separates successful people from the crowd is they use their dreams to fuel their actions.
They don't just dare to dream; they dare to act.
It costs you nothing to sit around and daydream about how great life would be if you were an NBA superstar, or if you were the next great running back in the NFL, or if you took the pro tennis circuit by storm and made Serena and Venus Williams yesterday's news.
But it costs you plenty to act upon any of those dreams. It costs you hours and seasons and years of hard work. It costs you time and money and energy. It costs you hobbies and time vegging out and time just hanging with your friends.
It costs you your very dream itself, because it forces you to either achieve it or give it up, to pursue it or call it quits. No longer can you hide behind statements like "Well, I could have done this or achieved that if I'd really tried," or "I should've done it this way; then I'd have been a superstar," or "I would've been great if only the breaks hadn't gone against me."
Could have, should have, would have.
They get you nowhere.
True superstars don't have time for could have, should have, would have.
They have no time for excuses, for whining, for complaining. They're too focused on doing all they can to be the best they can be in their sport.
That's what this chapter is about. You won't become a superstar, necessarily, by following the steps in this chapter. But you will take great strides toward realizing your full potential in sports.
That's all you can expect of yourself: to reach your full potential. That much is in your control. Whether you become a superstar is not in your control, because that involves stacking your abilities and performance level against others, and you can't control how good other athletes are.
So focus on reaching your full potential and let the chips fall where they may. Just as studies have shown that we use only a small percent of our brain capacity, I think it's also true that most of us don't come near to reaching our full athletic potential. If you come close to reaching yours, then you will make significant improvements in your game and get more enjoyment and mileage out of your athletic career.
What does it take to excel in sports? I think you have to do the following:
- Know your talent.
- Understand yourself and your role on the team.
- Form a vision for yourself and set goals to make that vision happen.
- Work hard in practice and in training.
- Have a positive attitude.
- Communicate and relate appropriately with coaches and teammates.
- Be confident in your abilities.
- Be durable and strong in overcoming setbacks.
- Be hungry for growth and improvement.
- Be smart.
Let's explore each point. As you read, consider where you stand and how you might improve in each area.
Know Your Talent
There are three mistakes to avoid here:
- You overestimate your talent.
- You underestimate your talent.
- You don't know your strengths and weaknesses as an athlete.
Players who overestimate their talent often coast, partly because they think they're so good they don't need to work hard. They also tend to be selfish, because they think they can "turn it on" and "rescue" their team whenever the game's on the line. They like recognition and attention and do what they can to earn it. These players often are talented, but not nearly as talented as they think. They end up hurting their teams because of their selfish play and their lackadaisical attitudes, and they don't reach their full potential, because they don't realize they have to work to do so.
Players who underestimate their talent hurt their teams in a different way: they don't contribute in ways that they can. They hold back because they're not confident in their abilities. They make it easy for the defenders to guard them because they don't know the talent they have and don't know how to use it. They don't reach their full potential either, just as a driver who drives with one foot on the brake will never reach full speed. These players are their own worst enemy.
Many players don't really know their own strengths and weaknesses. It's difficult to reach your full potential if you aren't aware of what you bring to the game, of how you can help your team, of what you need to work on to improve.
Many players who have excelled in the pros have done so by specializing. In the NBA there are defensive specialists such as Dikembe Mutombo, who isn't a big scorer but who consistently shuts down opposing centers. There are rebounding specialists such as Detroit's Ben Wallace and Golden State's Danny Fortson. There are scoring specialists such as Detroit's Corliss Williamson and Dallas's Nick Van Exel, who come off the bench to provide offensive spark. In baseball there are left-handed relief pitchers who make careers out of pitching to one or two left-handed hitters every other game. There are pinch-hitting specialists and defensive replacements, guys who are swift and graceful and superb fielders but who can't hit well.
The point is this: all those players know their talent, know what they can do for their team, and they hone their skills and provide what their team needs. They get everything out of their talent — and that's all their coaches and managers can ask.
Are there more talented all-around players than the ones I mentioned?
Absolutely. And they're sitting at home, watching these players perform on TV, because the ones still performing are experts at knowing their value to a team and how to get the most out of their talent.
As you consider your talents, think about what has worked for you in the past, about the areas or skills you are most confident in, where you feel most capable. Think about some of your greatest athletic achievements and how you achieved them.
Charles Barkley: Know Your Talents Expand Beyond Sports
Charles Barkley is a former NBA star who is not shy with his opinions. Perhaps surprising to those who followed his career, Barkley is not high on sports, at least not in the way so many African-American teens get it in their heads, that if they can't make it as a professional athlete, then they can't make it at all. Such sentiment infuriates Barkley.
No matter what color you are, your value as a person and your potential in life expand far beyond sports. Remember that.
Understand Yourself and Your Role on the Team
Kerry Ligtenberg pitched for baseball's Atlanta Braves in the late 1990s and the early part of this decade. For a few seasons he was asked to be their closer — the pitcher who came in and shut the door at the end of the game, saving the game for his team. He performed in this role quite effectively.
Then John Smoltz took over the closing role for the Braves, and Ligtenberg was moved to setup man. He was asked to hold the score, to pitch an inning or so in the late innings and hand the ball off to Smoltz with the lead intact as Smoltz performed the more glamorous role of closing the game. Ligtenberg was an exceptional setup man. Though his role changed, he understood what he was being asked to do and went out and did his job, helping his team win. Though he rarely received the headlines, he was one of the key reasons that the Braves were so successful in the 1990s and in the early part of this decade.
If I were a basketball coach and I were asked if I wanted a group of talented prima donnas or a group of moderately skilled players who worked hard and understood the team concept and their roles on the team, I'd say you keep the prima donnas and give me the moderately skilled role-players. In fact, I'd say let's schedule the team of prima donnas and show them what a team sport is all about.
Coaches love players who understand their roles, because that understanding —and the fulfillment of those roles — helps the team accomplish its goals. To stay with basketball for a moment, there are team leaders and go-to guys; there are defensive and rebounding specialists; there are three-point shooters and playmakers; there are guys who are in there to take a charge and dive for loose balls and do the things that don't show up in the box score; there are even free-throw shooting specialists who are in at the end of close games to handle the ball and preserve the lead at the foul line.
There are roles for athletes in every sport. When you understand your strengths and weaknesses and how you fit into the team plan, you can focus on fulfilling your role. Yours might be a starring role or a supporting role; that doesn't matter. What does matter is that you understand the role and focus all your attention on fulfilling it.
Talk to your coach if you are at all unclear about your role. Ask also about ways to excel in this role. Your coach is in the best position to help you know what to work on to improve your abilities in your role.
Form a Vision for Yourself and Set Goals to Make that Vision Happen
Dan Gable was first a wrestler, and later a coach, with great vision. He set his goals very high and then he went out and, guided by his vision, achieved his goals. As a wrestler, he suffered only one loss (in his final NCAA match of his career), and he won a gold medal in the Olympics. As a coach, Gable guided his Iowa Hawkeyes to 15 NCAA team championships, coaching 45 individual NCAA champions and 152 All-Americans along the way.
Great athletes have clear visions. They know where they want to go and how they plan to get there. That vision is invaluable as they go through the work and the pain, the challenges and the setbacks, the ups and downs of a long season or career. That vision is their one constant, the one thing that remains unchanged. And that vision can often make the difference between achieving significant goals and falling short.
To form a vision, you have to know your strengths and capabilities. You have to know yourself, your dreams and desires, and how hard you're willing to work. You have to have courage and constantly ask yourself what is possible. And you have to be willing to challenge yourself day in and day out.
Your vision is your ultimate destination, what you're aiming for. As your talents grow, as you gain more experience and understanding about yourself, your vision can grow.
Your goals, on the other hand, are the checkpoints along the way to realizing your vision. If your vision at sixteen is to be a future Olympic 100-meter champion, certainly a few of your goals would be to win your conference 100 meters, probably to win the state championship, to earn a track scholarship to a major track school, and to improve your personal best each year.
Your goals let you know how you're doing in your attempt to realize your vision. Make sure your goals are realistic and challenging. If they're too challenging and unrealistic — if the sixteen-year-old track star determines he's going to win Olympic gold when he's sixteen — then the goals are pointless and don't help the athlete. If the goal is too easy —i f the track star simply wants to beat his competition in his area, and he's already proven he's far superior to them — that doesn't help the athlete either. Put your goals out there, but set goals that can be realistically achieved through consistent hard work, focus, and steady improvement.
Form your vision for yourself as an athlete around the skills you have. Where do you most excel, and why? Don't be afraid to take a cold, hard look at yourself—and don't be afraid to dream. Ground your vision in your own reality of who you are and what you have accomplished so far, and then imagine how you can expand that reality based on your own talents and desires. Dare to dream, then dare to act upon that dream.
Paul Wylie formed a vision for himself as an athlete, and in acting out that vision he won a silver medal in the 1992 Winter Olympics in figure skating. For many years he was one of the world's best skaters, and his abilities took him all over the world, from competition to competition.
When he retired in 1998, he formed another vision for himself—unlike so many athletes who don't prepare themselves for life after sports. Wylie enrolled in Harvard Business School and is now a marketing executive for the Walt Disney Company. He skates now for recreation, content in his transition to life after sports.
Work Hard in Practice and in Training
Walter Payton, the Hall of Fame running back for the Chicago Bears, was not the biggest running back around, or the fastest. He was simply the best.
Talent? Yes, Walter had talent. But so did a lot of other running backs. What set Walter apart was his determination to be the best, his unbridled passion for the game, and his willingness to work hard. Very hard.
Payton had a hill near his home, a hill with a very steep grade. He would routinely work out on it, chugging up it as hard as he could, then sprinting down it to run up it again. And again. And again.
Teammates and other professional athletes would try to keep up with Payton on his hill. No one could. Many lost their lunch trying to do so. Walter just kept going, driven to be the best, whipping his body into shape so he could not only withstand the punishment doled out by much larger defenders but also dole some of his own out on them. Once a coach caught him doing 525-pound dead lifts on a pulled hamstring. Another time he ran for 125 yards in a game—on a broken toe. Walter wasn't afraid of a little pain, and he knew the meaning of work.
You can be talented and have a vision for yourself, but that won't matter much if you're not willing to work hard. Many gifted athletes are far superior to their competition in middle school and junior high, and some of these athletes fall into bad habits, thinking everything will come easy to them throughout their athletic careers.
One of the keys to turning that potential loose is consistent hard work, as defined by 100 percent effort in all practices. The time to coast is when you are a grandparent showing your grandkids your press clippings from yesteryear. The time to devote full effort, if you want to reach your potential, is now.
That means off-season as well as in season. You can't expect to excel if you lose your fitness in the off-season. Great athletes don't turn it on and off when they want to. They keep it turned on. They keep in shape and they keep focused and mentally sharp year-round.
Part of working hard, then, is mental preparation. You of course need to work hard physically, but the superior athletes are just as sharp in the mental aspects of the game as they are in the physical aspects. That means you're on top of game strategy, you know the ins and outs of the game, and you have prepared yourself mentally to perform to the best of your ability. So many athletes have great physical skills but are weak in their mental approach. They don't know how to take advantage of their physical abilities. They freeze; they see themselves through the eyes of the fans or the coach; they hold a debate with themselves on every move they might make—and by the time they make up their minds, the chance to make the move is gone.
True champions are strong both mentally and physically, and that mental and physical preparation is ongoing hard work.
Working hard doesn't mean you're sprinting at all times in practice. It means you're fully tuned in and giving the appropriate effort. It means you're focused on improving every day, and you approach each practice with that in mind. When you bring that focus to your practices, you'll be motivated to work hard.
Have a Positive Attitude
We've all heard of the superstars in pro sports who are described by teammates as "cancers" in the clubhouse or locker room. Some superstars want special treatment from their coaches and the team; they are self-absorbed and care only about their individual statistics and getting lots of media attention. Their egos are too big to fit into the clubhouse or locker room.
Not all superstars have this attitude, of course. In fact, most have very good attitudes, positive and focused on helping their teams win. You have to have your head in every game and every practice; you have to be willing to go the extra mile. You can't shrink in fear of a strong opponent; you have to believe in the strategy your coach has devised and be completely focused on doing your part to make that strategy work.
With a positive attitude, your mind is filled with possibilities and visions of individual improvement and team accomplishment. You are fueled by desire and determination, and you shut out fear and doubt.
With a positive attitude, you are far more likely to reach your full athletic potential. I can guarantee you that the majority of key players on any championship team possess at least one thing in common: a positive attitude. Such an attitude creates a winning environment.
Don't waste time pointing fingers at teammates or coaches for holding you back. One of the biggest things to hold a player back is a negative attitude. Focus on what you can do to improve your own skills and to help your team reach its goals. Check yourself when you begin to make negative statements (either internally or out loud). Change "You should have . . ." or "You didn't . . ." statements into "I can . . ." or "I will . . ." statements.
Communicate and Relate Appropriately with Coaches and Teammates
Players with positive attitudes typically communicate well with teammates and coaches. Communicating with and relating well to teammates and coaches is important to your own development as a player, because a tense environment where there's constant friction between players or between yourself and your coach makes it difficult to focus on improving and getting the most out of your abilities.
Most people think communication is all about talking; while your ability to express yourself is certainly important, equally important is your ability to listen. If you think you "know" what a teammate or coach is going to say before he or she begins to speak, chances are you're not going to hear that person. Your teammates — and your coaches — deserve your respect, and that means you hear them out. In the case of coaches, that means you not only hear them out but you follow their directions. You can always respectfully discuss, after practice or a game, the directions or strategy, with respect being the key issue here.
Good communication also involves how well you communicate with teammates during games. The best teams are like well-oiled machines, with players almost instinctively knowing how teammates are going to act. Much of this game communication is verbal, but more of it is nonverbal—through body language, facial expression, and subtle movements.
Keep the air cleared; be forthright in your comments. Don't hold thoughts and feelings in if you feel strongly about them — but don't try to force your feelings on other people either. Show respect to coaches and teammates as you communicate your feelings and concerns. Understand that other people are going to have other feelings — and in the case of coaches, you have to not only respect their feelings but follow their directions, too. If you and a teammate can't peacefully clear the air by yourselves, take it to your coach.
Be Confident in Your Abilities
Confidence comes from knowing what you can do. It comes from believing that you can do it again, because you've done it in the past. Confident athletes see themselves succeeding before the game occurs or before the big play happens. Because of past success, and because they see themselves succeeding in the present, they want the play to come to them. Such desire, when coupled with ability and confidence, is nearly unstoppable.
Confident players aren't afraid to lose or to fail, though they don't envision themselves doing so. Confident athletes know there's a tomorrow and they'll get another chance. A loss or a setback fuels their desire to perform in the clutch, and to succeed, all the more.
Coaches love confident players. One of the greatest frustrations a coach can have is a player who is talented but not confident. A moderately talented player with confidence is often more valuable to his or her team than a very talented player with no confidence.
Understand that confidence does not equate with big ego, trash talk, or ball hog. In my experience, players who talk trash aren't very confident of their skills, so they make up for it by talking a big game. Good players just go out and play and let their games talk for themselves. They also step up and perform within the team context.
Visualize your success before it happens. See, in your mind's eye, the proper execution of the key skills you need to perform. See yourself executing in clutch situations. Keep external distractions and negative thoughts out. And keep the game in perspective: the world will keep on going whether you win or lose, whether you execute well or not.
Be Durable and Strong in Overcoming Setbacks
I mentioned Walter Payton a few pages back. Walter was an extremely durable football player. He carried the ball 3,838 times, more than any running back in NFL history. He missed one game in thirteen years, an incredible feat in a brutal sport in which injury is commonplace—especially among running backs, who take a beating not only week in and week out but practice in and practice out.
As an athlete, you need to be durable both physically and mentally. As you know, there are plenty of highs and lows in most seasons. You go on a five-game winning streak and you think you'll never be beaten again. You lose three in a row and you privately wonder if you'll ever win again. You encounter personal setbacks as well: injuries, or not playing up to expectations, or being benched in midseason.
The mark of true champions is how they respond to personal and team setbacks. Champions don't lose heart; they don't give in; they toughen themselves and focus on improving their skills and their performance. They look forward, not behind. They live in the pre-_sent, not the past. They know the tide can turn, things can go their way again. They know the season is long and that true champions outlast the season.
This durability and strength is like a sprinter sprinting past the finish line, not slowing down ten meters in front of it. Seasons pre-_sent numerous challenges both for individual athletes and for teams; those players and teams who can respond best to those challenges—throughout the entire season—emerge, if not on top in the standings, at least knowing they got the most out of their abilities.
Gertrude Ederle: A True Champion Who Wouldn't Give Up or Give In
On November 30, 2003, the world lost a ninety-eight-year-old hero whose historic swim across the English Channel in 1926 was equated by the mayor of New York City, James J. Walker, to the feat of Moses parting the Red Sea. This may sound like hyperbole, but at that time, it was unthinkable that a woman could accomplish this. Over one hundred men had attempted the swim before her, only five made it to shore, and Ederle shattered all their times by over two hours. She also accomplished this in the face of brutal weather conditions, including rain, icy waters, cross winds, and heavy swells.
The unfriendly waters were filled with poisonous jellyfish, giant freighters, floating debris, and an occasional shark. She actually had to swim thirty-five miles rather than the twenty-one mile distance because of these torrential conditions. Seventy-five years after making history, Ederle told the Associated Press, "People said women couldn't swim the Channel but I proved they could." Her record stood for twenty-four years for men and thirty-five years for women.
Ederle was never afraid of a challenge and never afraid to fail. She believed in her own abilities, despite the fact that few took her seriously and she was often mocked by other swimmers and by sportswriters. Even after winning three Olympic medals in Paris in 1924—with a knee injury—and setting twenty-nine national and international records by age nineteen, few believed she would be up to the challenge of crossing the Channel. Gertrude Ederle spent a lifetime proving others wrong, just as I was motivated by Mr. T. A.'s low expectations of me. She said, "When somebody tells me I cannot do something, that's when I do it." Her example inspired both women and men to set high goals for themselves, to focus on success, and to move beyond setbacks. During the 1920s, more than sixty thousand women said they were inspired by Ederle to earn American Red Cross swimming certificates.
At the young age of eight, Ederle's physical and mental drive kicked in after nearly drowning in a pond near her grandmother's house. After she was rescued from the water, she vowed to overcome her fear and learn to swim. We all have fears that can hold us back, some real and some imagined. It's true that sometimes facing them head-on is the best way to overcome them. You've heard the saying, "No risk, no reward." That's not the same as doing something risky just to be part of the crowd or just to test fate. The reward can come in many forms, but do it for yourself, to help you grow as an individual. I call it getting out of your comfort zone and stepping into your outer limits, and I'll talk more about that later.
With risk can come failure, but realize it's just a temporary setback and you can start again with a clean slate. Ederle did. Her first attempt to cross the Channel was a huge disappointment. Just seven miles from victory at the English shore, her coach pulled her out of the water claiming Ederle couldn't continue, despite her protests. The act of touching the swimmer disqualified her immediately. Ederle knew in her heart she could have made it and resolved to attempt the swim again and succeed.
Since a bout with the measles at age five, Ederle had poor hearing, and it worsened considerably after swimming the harsh Channel waters twice. She could not continue swimming professionally, but she continued her passion by teaching swimming to deaf children at the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York. She also became a vaudeville performer, a speaker, a consultant to a dress manufacturer, and she starred in a movie about her life.
She was named by Sports Illustrated, Sports Illustrated for Women, and CNN/SI as one of the fifty greatest female athletes of the last century.
Train your mind to face setbacks as challenges you can defeat. Just as the toughest opponents bring out the best in you, setbacks and challenges should do likewise. The next time you face a setback or challenge, plan specific steps you will take to overcome it.
Be Hungry for Growth and Improvement
Many athletes who have reached the top in professional sports say it's harder to repeat a championship season than it is to put together such a season in the first place. Part of the difficulty in repeating, of course, is the fierce competition for the title, but another factor might be that some of the athletes on the championship team aren't quite as hungry to repeat. After all, they've achieved their primary goal.
To get the most out of your abilities, you've got to always be hungry. Your hunger is both for team accomplishments and for individual improvement. When I think of hunger, I think of passion. There are lots of good players out there. Aside from skills, what sets the great players apart from the good? It's their passion and hunger, their willingness to pay the price it takes to become great.
Even the very best professionals can always get better: no one's perfect. And the very best professionals realize that there are tons of talented players eager to take their place—which is what will happen if the best athletes begin to coast a bit, lose the edge off their appetites.
Hunger is what kept Michael Jordan coming back to lead the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships. Hunger is what keeps Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks pitching at his best at thirty-nine years of age. Hunger is what drives Barry Bonds out of bed at 6:00 AM in the off-season to start his daily conditioning regimen....
Copyright © 2004 by S. Graham & Associates. All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.