Want to Reach the Top? Don't Get This Backwards

Last Updated Sep 14, 2011 2:39 PM EDT

During the pro football labor dispute, player access to team facilities and personnel was cut off. Players still needed to stay in shape and improve their skills, so where training was concerned most were forced to get creative.

How creative? I lost a bet (don't ask) and found myself on a high school football field on a cool spring day feeding footballs through a passing machine.

The winner of the bet is a receiver. During the off-season he catches hundreds of passes each day. That day he worked on what he calls "hands" skills. He didn't run pass routes but focused solely on making catches under a variety of scenarios.

We started with him facing the machine. Then he stood partly sideways. Then fully sideways. Then he faced away from me and twisted back and I aimed at his head, then his waist, then his legs. Then we repeated the sequence while he stood on one leg. Then on his knees. Then with one eye covered. Then we set up soccer free kick dummies so he could simulate picking up passes in traffic. Then he caught balls with one hand, first standing, then on one knee, then lying on the ground.

And that was just during the first hour. He worked from lots of other positions for another hour, sometimes while another person pulled or pushed him or grabbed his arms. The pace was only limited by how quickly the three teenagers helping could cycle balls to me.

After he gave each kid a signed jersey as a thank you and we were packing up to go to the gym, one of the boys said, "I bet you get really bored doing that every day."

"Oh yeah..." he replied.

The boy said, "Man, I could never do that." Then he paused and said, "Well, I could if I played in the NFL like you do."

"You've got that (stuff) backwards," he said. "I don't work hard because I play on Sundays. I play on Sundays because I work hard."

Most of us fall into the same trap, thinking, "If I was in (the position I dream of) then I would work really hard too." But of course that approach is backwards: You only get a shot at the position you dream of by working hard and doing what others aren't willing to do. Average effort yields average skills -- and average results.

What about you? If you're currently a mid-level employee, how much effort would you put in if instead you were the CEO? Or if you own a small business, how driven and focused would you be if you owned a $10 million company? How hard would you work if you were, say, Richard Branson?

Most people would work harder than they currently are because the effort would seem worthwhile.

That's the problem with effort. Effort -- especially incredible effort -- rarely pays off in the short term. The key is to turn the equation around: If you would work incredibly hard if you magically found yourself in your dream position, start working that hard now. Without incredible effort there is never incredible payoff.

Want to "play on Sundays?" Start by catching a lot of balls. I can't promise you will ever reach the NFL of your field. But I can promise that if you don't... you never will.

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Photo courtesy flickr user SD Dirk, CC 2.0
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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.