I was never a first stringer when it came to team sports. I was great at things like archery and running, but when it came to teams, I was a benchwarmer.
Today I want to share a story about the one time when I was a basketball god and what that experience taught me.
But, first, a little background.
I played a fair amount of basketball as a teen. In fact, I made the varsity team for my little private school. Really, all that meant was I hustled hard enough in tryouts to avoid getting cut. But, I was never a starter. I always got playing time in each game and I usually scored a basket or two. But if we were down to the wire and needed a clutch play, no one—and I mean no one—was passing me the ball.
I laugh when I think about it now. Sure, it was hard as a young guy to know you weren’t one of the best players. At the same time, I didn’t consider it an injustice. I worked really hard in practice and on the court focused on the things I knew I was good at; mainly rebounds and defense. Did I wish I was better? Yes. At the same time, I was glad to be part of the team.
Regardless, no girls were running up to me at the end of the game and the team wasn’t ever going to lift me up on their shoulders to carry me off in victory after I drained a buzzer-beater.
That is until I moved to South Africa.
For those that don’t know, my wife, Lydia, is South African. We got married in her home country, but moved back to the US and started a family. After a few years in the US we decided to make a go of it in South Africa. We sold off our garage-sale furniture, packed up our meager belongings, and me, Lydia, and our two boys (toddler and a new born) boarded a flight to Johannesburg.
Within a few days of arriving we’d moved in with Lydia’s parents in a city called Bloemfontein (Afrikaans for “Fountain of Flowers”). We immediately began the process of doing all the things that you need to do when starting over from scratch.
The timing could not have been better. South Africans were suddenly gaga about American sports, especially basketball.
The country had been ruled for generations by the minority white population. In fact, black and coloured people hadn’t been allowed to vote. (“Coloured” is a legit people group in SA and a neutral term, if you’re wondering.) When white rule ended in the general election of 1994—when Nelson Mandela became president—the newly enfranchised black and coloured people wanted to put the old regime behind them. Thus, they were on the hunt for new cultural connections: music, movies, art, sports.
Out went rugby and cricket for young people and in came basketball.
Not long after arriving I got invited to a weekend basketball tournament. Basketball was suddenly hot and practically no one knew how to play it. I think this tournament was an attempt to get more people to try it out, but the details escape me.
I crushed it.
I carried my team to win after win. It was ridiculous. No one could stop me and my team looked to me for leadership on the court. I was like a god striding amongst mere men and whatever I willed, came to pass. In those moments I understood what Michael Jordan must have felt like during his prime in the late ‘80s. It was awesome.
It didn’t hurt that my young, pretty wife was on the sidelines watching me slay, either.
But this isn’t just a cool story about a fond memory. I gained a few insights that translate into the here and now.
First, I realized that I was actually a good player. It wasn’t just that everyone else was terrible. There were a lot of talented athletes on the court that weekend. However, I was the only one who could hit jump shots, sink layups, dribble really well, bounce pass, stuff a shooter, turn over a play, and, of course, rebound. And, I was able to do all that stuff with skill and authority. The difference was I had a gained a lot more confidence since my high school days.
Second, I realized that I had benefited from a great coach in high school. Dave was a young college player and he was an animal. He ran and drilled us so hard that he turned us into machines. Our zone and man-to-man defenses were immaculate. Our offensive plays were potent. And, we could run any opponent into the ground because Dave had made certain we had unreasonable levels of endurance. Dave was hard on us, demanded everything from us, but in return had given us each a gift.
Third, I was playing with excellent teammates in high school and they made me better. I always focused on how mediocre I thought I was as a player, but didn’t realize until later that I was surrounded by great players. Being part of this team and playing with guys that were more talented and more skilled than me made me a better player than I would have been on my own.
Fourth, and this one is obvious, it is all about context. In the US I was okay. No shame in that. But, plunk me at the bottom of Africa and I ran circles around my competition.
This all applies to more than sports. If you want to succeed in business, get better at a hobby, or go deeper into a vocation consider the following.
- You’re probably better than you think you are, especially if you tend to hold yourself to unreasonable standards. So, give yourself a little credit.
- Try to learn from the best, especially those who will push you. Find coaches, mentors, and leaders that have demonstrated expertise and success. Coaches and mentors come in all forms: bosses, parents, teachers. For instance, don’t just take a job for the money—consider what you might gain from the person you’ll be working under.
- Practice and play with the best whenever you can. Being the smartest guy in the room or the top player on the field won’t help you, especially in your early years. Join a team with players better than you. It may not feel good to be lower on the totem poll, but that discomfort will motivate you to grow. And, the great thing is you can learn a lot from your teammates, coworkers, or cohort—maybe even surpass them someday.
- And, finally, be smart about with whom, and in what places, you compete. I am not saying that you should always compete against lesser opponents. That said, be smart about it. For instance, when I’m launching a marketing campaign for a client that’s under gunned, I don’t go after their biggest competitor. I’ll look for easy wins at first so that we can build up some success and momentum. I’ll keep leveling up as we get better so that eventually we’re ready to face off in the main ring. You can do the same in many areas of your life.
You don’t have to move to a strange continent to operate like a demigod. You just have to get a few things right: recognize you’re probably better than you realize, get great coaching, join excellent teams, and choose your battles wisely.
I’ll see you on the court.