Pulitzer Prize finalist and sportswriter Sally Jenkins has observed and written about hundreds of elite athletes and coaches during her more than three decades as a feature writer and columnist for The Washington Post. She’s covered Olympic Games, Super Bowls and college basketball Final Four tournaments. In this enjoyable and astute study, Jenkins reveals the qualities and characteristics that define greatness, offering insights that are applicable to leaders in all fields. She finds that natural ability is only a small part of the formula that enables top performers and their coaches to attain the highest levels of excellence.
- Top athletes and coaches’ success derives from seven factors.
- “Conditioning” – Athletic high achievers make a habit of pushing their physical limits.
- “Practice” – Eliminate errors and prepare for the most unlikely possibilities.
- “Discipline” – Coaches must encourage good choices, not command them.
- “Candor” – Accountability is the core of successful leadership.
- “Culture” – Organizations with supportive environments prosper.
- “Failure” – Setbacks are priceless learning opportunities.
- “Intention” – Conscientious leaders attract loyal followers.
Top athletes and coaches’ success derives from seven factors.
Top performers leave little to chance. Regardless of their physical gifts or mental acuity, winning athletes and coaches share certain qualities – among them, a commitment to thorough preparation and perseverance in the face of failure. The best athletes and coaches incorporate seven crucial elements in their routine. They are:
“Conditioning” – Athletic high achievers make a habit of pushing their physical limits.
American swimmer Michael Phelps rarely took a day off in two decades of training. Whether it was a Sunday, his birthday or Christmas, Phelps swam lap after lap in his unyielding pursuit of excellence. Phelps’ tireless work ethic elevated him above his competition.
Swimmer Mark Spitz set a record by winning seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Games. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Phelps set out to win an unprecedented eight gold medals. To achieve his goal, Phelps would have to race 17 times in nine days, counting elimination heats and finals. It was a Herculean task, considering the grueling nature of swimming and the elite competitors racing against him.
“The Beijing attempt would put an almost-inconceivable strain on Phelps’s body – but it would also challenge his mind.”
Phelps’s training regimen kept his mind strong despite extreme fatigue. Many years before, legendary coach Bob Bowman recognized Phelps’s Olympic potential. Bowman explained to Phelps that conditioning is the key to greatness. Thousands of practice laps had perfected Phelps’s strokes, so he didn’t need to think about them. He knew his form would hold up in the final exhausting meters of a race because he had conditioned himself to swim at top speed on automatic pilot.
Physical exertion affects your thinking because the brain requires energy. Many people mistakenly believe that sedentary jobs don’t take a toll on the body, but your brain consumes calories even when you are not physically active. Thinking uses up roughly a fifth of your body’s fuel supply.
Disney’s chairman Bob Iger, who is in his 70s, adheres to a rigorous daily routine to help him handle the physical and psychological demands of his job. He wakes at 4:15 a.m. for 45 grueling minutes on a “cardio machine that mimics rock climbing.” He often lifts weights, takes 25-mile bike rides, and walks three or four miles in the evening.
A neuroscientist posited that chess grand masters experience the same physiological demands as long-distance runners. The strategic thinking that world championship chess players deploy demands exceptional stamina and energy. Elite players can drop up to 10 pounds during a tournament and may expend roughly 6,000 calories a day while sitting at a table. Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, the world’s top-ranking chess player, participates in intense physical workouts and competitive sports to train for chess tournaments.
Dana Cavalea, former head of performance for the New York Yankees, trains executives who recognize that mental and physical soundness promote optimal decision-making. Poor diet, lack of sleep and excess stimulation from electronic devices compromise your performance.
“Practice” – Eliminate errors and prepare for the most unlikely possibilities.
The 2006 Indianapolis Colts couldn’t understand why coach Tony Dungy insisted that quarterback Peyton Manning and center Jeff Saturday practice with a soaking wet football every couple of weeks. The Colts played in a domed stadium, protected from the elements. Nevertheless, Manning and Saturday diligently practiced their “wet ball” exchanges at game speed.
“Conditioning is about broad development of capacities, whereas practice is about refinement of skills through diagnosis and rehearsal.”
The Colts reached the Super Bowl that season. The game was played in Miami in February – South Florida’s dry season. Yet on game day, Manning saw a torrential downpour from his hotel window. He knew all those wet ball practices would give his team an edge. He and Jeff Saturday handled their exchanges perfectly. Their opposing quarterback, Rex Grossman of the Chicago Bears, fumbled two snapped balls. The Colts won the championship, 29-17.
National Football League Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh, who led the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl titles in the 1980s, tried to account for every possible scenario he might face in a game. The New England Patriots, under coach Bill Belichick, won six Super Bowls from 2001 to 2019. Their practices were relentlessly repetitive, designed to produce flawless execution, which Belichick regarded as crucial to success.
“Your practice must have a purpose, a sure understanding of what the point of it is. Second, it should have measurable results.”
Practice helps eliminate guesswork. For example, every NASA space shuttle commander practices landing at least 1,000 times. Pilots can execute landings regardless of fatigue, the weather or other surprises because the process has become instinctive. They can make split-second decisions automatically because they have repeatedly rehearsed every potential scenario.
“Discipline” – Coaches must encourage good choices, not command them.
Veteran National Basketball League coach Doc Rivers doesn’t like seeing his players check their stats on their mobile devices in the locker room at halftime. Though he considers such behavior distracting and counterproductive, he knows that banning it would likely generate resistance and resentment.
Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr dealt with the same issue. Like Rivers, he decided that today’s players would not respond well to a cell phone ban.
“It’s just as important to understand what discipline is not. Discipline is not petty militaristic enforcement.”
Discipline is a challenging character trait to instill. When former Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia tried ruling with an iron fist, he alienated his players. The team fired him during his third season. Coaching through intimidation demonstrates a lack of self-discipline and destroys a coach’s credibility. The most successful coaches understand that establishing too many rules dilutes the effect of the few critical ones.
Former Yankees shortstop and captain Derek Jeter grasped the concept of self-discipline. Regardless of what town he was playing in, Jeter was always in bed two hours after his games ended. Self-discipline and consistency helped spur his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Candor” – Accountability is the core of successful leadership.
Steve Young failed to understand the importance of accountability when he first took over as starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers in 1991. The future Hall of Famer was quick to blame his teammates for his mistakes instead of taking responsibility. The team finished 10-6, a far cry from the standard of excellence it had established in winning four Super Bowls under quarterback Joe Montana.
To regain his teammates’ confidence, Young took a different approach in 1992. He accepted responsibility for blunders – even when a mistake wasn’t his fault. This approach prompted other players to scrutinize their performance and develop personal accountability. Young won the league’s Most Valuable Player award that season and eventually led his team to three Super Bowls.
“The only way to success is to say, ‘I screwed up, and I will fix it. Now I want you to come with me’.” (quarterback Steve Young)
Successful leaders, on the field or in the boardroom, avoid blaming others; they find solutions. Finger-pointing puts people on the defensive and discourages candid dialogue. Good leaders focus on two-way communication and create alliances.
“Culture” – Organizations with supportive environments prosper.
All coaches and business leaders are familiar with the term “culture,” but not everyone understands its meaning or how to shape it. According to the Harvard Business Review, culture perplexes many executives who want to build dynamic organizations. For example, basketball star Steve Kerr won NBA championships while playing for coaches Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, two of the best mentors in league history. When Kerr became head coach of the Warriors in 2014, he could draw from their example in creating his own culture.
“What can be said with firm certainty is that it’s (culture) about creating a healthy base atmosphere that nourishes success.”
Taking the advice of his agent, Kerr spent a couple of days observing coach Pete Carroll and the 2014 Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. Their intense, energetic practice sessions impressed Kerr. But Kerr was dumbfounded when Carroll explained that play design and strategy paled in importance compared to environmental and workplace dynamics. Carroll suggested that Kerr ponder and write down the values, principles and standards he would not compromise. To set the right example and build the right culture, Kerr understood he had to live his values consistently.
Commitment anchors strong, enduring cultures. How an organization conducts business and treats its employees must be consistent with its mission statement.
“Failure” – Setbacks are priceless learning opportunities.
Fear of failure cripples decision-makers. Fear of potential consequences causes anguish and can stop an organization in its tracks. Like elite athletes, business leaders must move beyond their failures without losing confidence.
Management scientist Paul C. Nutt says organizational decisions fail 50% of the time. Those who regard failures as learning opportunities typically bounce back. However, “failure mode” can become an enduring state of mind for those who deny reality or shift blame.
“Leaders who expect every decision to be a winner will wind up with teams that tend to freeze in the clutch.”
During the 1990s, Firestone radial tires on Ford SUVs came apart on the road, causing drivers to lose control and sometimes flip their vehicles. Firestone and Ford executives wouldn’t admit that the tires or the vehicles had design problems and insisted recalls were too expensive. More than 1,000 accidents later, the US Congress convened hearings that ultimately cost the companies billions.
Mistakes become part of your record, but you can learn to live with them. Reflect on your decisions. Consider the circumstances and elements that led to your choices. Did you have honorable intentions and conduct yourself professionally? If you responded properly, admitted your mistakes and evaluated all contributing factors, then you can use the experience to help you move forward.
“Intention” – Conscientious leaders attract loyal followers.
When Super Bowl winning quarterback Tom Brady arrived in Tampa after being traded to the Buccaneers from the New England Patriots, he gathered a few receivers and headed to a high school practice field to work on routes with his new teammates. He got together with his offensive colleagues so they could help him learn and understand the Buccaneers’ playbook.
“If you don’t care about the people you work with, you’re hosed. And you better get out of that leadership role.” (quarterback Tom Brady)
Brady always believed in setting an example, particularly if he expected to gain the trust and respect of his teammates. Intention is crucial in evaluating a leader’s integrity and credibility.
About the Author
Pulitzer Prize finalist Sally Jenkins, is a Washington Post columnist and the first woman inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame.
Table of Contents
The “right” call: decisions under pressure
Conditioning: the body
Practice: the mind
Discipline: the framework
Candor: the language of leadership
Culture: the environment
Failure: the teacher
Intention: the motive
Epilogue: the heart of greatness
The book is a collection of stories and lessons from some of the most successful coaches and athletes in various sports, such as football, basketball, swimming, tennis, and more. The author, Sally Jenkins, is a sportswriter and columnist for The Washington Post, who has covered many of these sports icons for decades. She draws on her personal interviews and observations, as well as scientific research and studies, to reveal the principles and habits that enable them to achieve excellence and overcome challenges.
The book is divided into seven chapters, each focusing on one of the principles that Jenkins identifies as essential for high performance: conditioning, practice, discipline, candor, culture, resilience, and intention. In each chapter, she explains the meaning and importance of the principle, and illustrates it with examples from different sports and situations. She also provides practical tips and exercises for applying the principle to one’s own life and work.
The seven principles are:
- Conditioning: The importance of physical and mental preparation for any challenge, and how to develop habits and routines that enhance performance and well-being.
- Practice: The value of deliberate and focused practice, and how to use feedback, repetition, and simulation to improve one’s skills and confidence.
- Discipline: The power of self-control and self-regulation, and how to overcome distractions, temptations, and impulses that can derail one’s goals.
- Candor: The necessity of honesty and transparency, and how to communicate effectively, constructively, and respectfully with others.
- Culture: The influence of the environment and the people around us, and how to create a positive and supportive culture that fosters excellence and collaboration.
- Resilience: The ability to bounce back from adversity and failure, and how to learn from mistakes, cope with stress, and embrace challenges.
- Intention: The clarity of purpose and direction, and how to set realistic and meaningful goals, plan ahead, and execute with focus and determination.
Some of the stories and lessons that Jenkins shares in the book are:
- How Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, uses conditioning to prepare his team for any scenario and situation, and how he adapts his strategy according to the circumstances1.
- How Peyton Manning, the former quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts and the Denver Broncos, used practice to master his craft and become one of the greatest players in NFL history2.
- How Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, used discipline to overcome his personal struggles and achieve his goals in swimming3.
- How Pat Summitt, the legendary coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team, used candor to communicate effectively with her players and staff, and how she faced her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease with honesty and courage4.
- How Gregg Popovich, the coach of the San Antonio Spurs, created a culture of excellence and diversity in his team, and how he fostered a sense of trust and respect among his players5.
- How Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, two of the greatest tennis players of all time, used resilience to overcome their rivalry and become lifelong friends.
- How Steph Curry, the star player of the Golden State Warriors, used intention to transform his game and become one of the best shooters in NBA history.
The book is an inspiring and informative read that offers valuable insights and advice on how to improve one’s mindset and performance in any field or endeavor. The author writes in a clear and engaging style that makes the book easy to follow and understand. She uses anecdotes and analogies that illustrate her points effectively and make them relatable. She also provides exercises and questions that help the reader apply the concepts and strategies to their own situations.
The book is based on the author’s extensive experience and research in the field of sports journalism and psychology. She draws on scientific evidence and studies that support her claims and recommendations. She also cites sources and references that allow the reader to explore further if they wish.
The book is suitable for anyone who wants to learn from some of the best coaches and athletes in the world, and how they achieved their success. It can help anyone who faces challenges or difficulties in their personal or professional life, or who wants to achieve higher levels of success and happiness. It can also benefit anyone who wants to improve their leadership skills or influence others positively.
The book is not without its limitations or criticisms. Some readers may find some of the examples or stories too specific or irrelevant to their own situations. Some readers may also disagree with some of the author’s views or opinions on certain topics or issues. Some readers may also question the validity or applicability of some of the tools or techniques that the author suggests.
Overall, the book is a useful and insightful resource that can help anyone develop a more effective mindset that can enhance their life quality and outcomes. It is a book that can motivate change and growth in anyone who reads it.