Today I’m talking about the competitive edge. This is a topic I’m really excited to discuss because to say I’m competitive would be a giant understatement. When I was 8 years old I got my first, and only, yellow card in competition while playing in a little rec league soccer game. I was so focused on winning that I was willing to do whatever it took, so when coach said “go get the ball” I did. And I did it without regard to anyone or anything that dared get in my way. I was elbowing and kicking my way through the amoeba of kids that were moving along the soccer field in order to get the ball. And I would like to note that I did get the ball and I did score. And then I promptly got yelled at and carded because I had left a path of crying girls doubled over in pain because I had just elbowed them all in the stomach. So you could say I exhibited signs of competitiveness quite early. But luckily, that little 8-year-old version of me grew up and has since learned that you don’t have to beat people up to be successful in competition. And so I’d like to talk to you about what I’ve learned along the way.
Over the past couple of weeks while thinking about this topic, I would ask myself questions like, “what is the competitive edge?” “What does it mean to have edge in competition?” And “what does it mean to be competitive?”
And I found my answer in the example of the man who raised that little 8-year-old who got a yellow card, so I’m going to tell you a little bit about him.
My dad is one of the most competitive people I’ve ever encountered but he’s also the friendliest and there’s a lot to be learned from his winning attitude and example. He loves competing in just about anything but one of his favorites is racquetball. He’s been playing for years and I’m beginning to think that the world will end before he loses a game of racquetball. If I had a nickel for every wide-eyed victim that has come sulking out of the racquetball court after losing to my dad 15-1 or 15-0 I could retire very early! And let me be clear, the people he competes against are generally very experienced and talented players. But when my dad steps into that court, the way he acts and the way he thinks, promises victory. From the very first serve he vows to himself that he will out work, out smart, and out hustle you. And he believes that he can, so he does. All the while grinning from ear to ear and chuckling every time he gets a point because he LOVES competition and he genuinely enjoys working hard and getting better every day.
He also loves basketball. He was a great player in his younger days and is still an extremely skilled shooter. I don’t say this lightly when I say he could probably take on any professional basketball player in a free-throw shooting contest. And win! So let me tell you why I think this. He shoots hundreds of baskets a day. He’ll go workout at 5 am and while he’s there he’ll shoot at least 100 free throws. Then he’ll do the same at lunch time. Then again right before or right after dinner. And as he’s shooting all these free-throws he still focuses on the tiniest of details in order to continue improving his shot. At 53 years old he no longer competes in any game of real consequence. He doesn’t have teammates that he’s loyal to. And he doesn’t have a coach breathing down his neck, pushing him to get better. And yet he still remains acutely focused on the little things that will make him better. He’s still hyper critical of how he lines up to the basket, how much power he derives from his legs, and especially of his follow through. 53 years old and he’s still willing to put in the time, the work, and the focus in order to improve. And let me tell you it pays off. He came home one day and said to me with disgust in his voice “I made 374 free throws IN A ROW today…. I was so irritated.” So you can imagine, I looked at him like he was crazy and said something like “dad, that’s amazing!” And he goes, “No… I just knew I could 500”.
When I think of this, I think, now there’s a man with COMPETITIVE EDGE!”
There are 5 things I want to draw from his example that I think make up competitive edge:
1) Love/passion for the sport and competition
2) The way you act and the way you think = overall attitude
3) Willingness to work hard – must work hardER than everyone else
4) Attention to detail – “when I think of the consequences of little things, I tend to think there are no little things”
5) Willingness to never stop learning – being coachable
I hope you noticed in those 5 things that having an edge in competition does not have to mean being the biggest, the strongest, the fastest, or the most talented. I’m not going to tell that these don’t help, they certainly do. But they alone are not enough. If the biggest and the strongest aren’t willing to work the hardest, eventually the ones who do work the hardest will come out on top because they are the ones improving everyday.
So how can we develop a competitive edge? In answering that I want to focus on the third aspect of competitive edge I listed, willingness to work harder than everyone else. How can you be the hardest worker?
My first answer to that question is learning to control the things you CAN control! You cannot control the opponent – how big they are, how fast they are, or how strong they are. You cannot control your coaches, your playing time, or even your teammates. But you CAN control yourself. You CAN control those 5 things I listed! When I was a senior in high school I attended a senior showcase for volleyball at a university in Montana in hopes of making some connections with college coaches. This was an intimidating experience for me. On my high school team I was one of the better players and I was confident in my skills and leadership. But here, among dozens of other girls who were the best on their team as well, I was simply average. Not only was everybody else the best from their team, they all seemed to be taller and stronger than me. It was easy for me to compare myself to others and become quickly overwhelmed. However, I resolved to focus on the things I could control which were hustle, effort, and coachability. I may have been one of the smaller, weaker ones there but I was determined to be the hardest worker. During one of the games a teammate of mine shanked a pass behind the team bench and into the bleachers. A smarter person with more regard for their body would have just let it go. But I had promised myself to out hustle everyone so I went after that ball with everything I had. I tripped over the chairs and landed somewhere in the bleachers but I had gotten the ball up and playable for one of my teammates. As I started to return to the court to continue playing, one of the college coaches there who also happened to be my ‘coach’ for that particular match, noticed that blood was beginning to soak through my shirt. I had scraped my side and stomach pretty bad. I simply requested some bandaids and then ran back onto the court, determined to keep playing. Within minutes of that match ending I had a scholarship offer. I wasn’t the biggest, the fastest, or the strongest, but I had made it clear that I was willing to work harder than anyone else there.
To be the hardest worker, you must set goals for yourself everyday in practice and in games in order to give yourself direction. Ask yourself, what can you do today that will set you apart from everyone else, and set your goals accordingly. As the coach of a division 3 program now, I ask our girls often to set goals for themselves so that their actions are driven with purpose and their progress is measurable.
Another thing that is necessary in order to be the hardest worker is, to develop your mind. This can happen in practice as you learn from coaches and from experiences but it can also happen outside of practice by studying positive sports psychology, or practicing visualization, or studying other great athletes and their methods of success. Napoleon Hill, a famous author and very successful businessman once said, “Truly, thoughts are things.” This means that, thoughts, if powerful enough, can turn into tangible things. Thoughts drive our actions and our actions shape who we become and what we accomplish. Therefore, our thoughts can control our destiny so we must learn how to control them and use them for good. I tell my girls to “think the right way.” And what I mean by that is, think in a way that ensures growth and success. I.E. if one of my girls steps back to the service line and thinks to herself “ oh crap, I’m not a very good server, I hope I can get it in” she’s significantly more likely to miss and eventually become a consistently bad server. But the opposite is also true. If she says to herself, “Oh heck yeah, I got this, I’m a good server” Her actions will follow suit making her more likely to make the serve at hand and become a consistently good server over time.
You must also, be willing to make mistakes because without mistakes there is no learning, and without learning there is no growth and if you’re not growing, you’re not working hard enough. I actually have a poem I like to share that I think exemplifies this better than I can explain. It is called, ‘The man in the arena’ by Teddy Roosevelt.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again because there is no effort with error and shortcoming. But who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
One last thing to wrap it up, I want to share one of my favorite (and slightly gruesome) analogies that I love sharing with my teams. If you’re ever at a game that I’m coaching you might hear my team cheer, “twist the knife”. Now what that means is this: Let’s say somebody, we’ll use Pennywise the evil clown as an example, is attacking you and all you have to defend yourself is a knife. Are you just going to poke him and hope he leaves you alone? Are you going to pop his balloon and hope he backs off? NO!!! I should hope not. You’re going to stab him right in the gut and you’re going to TWIST IT! And you’re going to keep twisting and twisting and twisting until there is no fight left in you. Until you have given everything you have. We can apply this to athletics and competition because in order to have a true edge in competition you must give everything you have! You should compete like it’s the last time every time, like your life is on the line. You should compete with your whole soul, so at the end of the day you can rest easy knowing you did everything you could and you’re better because of it.
So just as a quick recap, remember that developing a competitive edge is completely within reach and in your control:
-Love the game
-Develop your mind
-Focus on the little things
-Be coachable – willing to learn
-Work harder than everyone else.
And NEVER STOP TWISTING!