Balancing Competitiveness and Letting Go


Michael Jordan’s competitiveness is legendary. There was the time when at one of Jordan’s basketball camps, OJ Mayo, who was then 17, told a 42-year-old Jordan that he couldn’t guard him. Jordan stopped the camp, sent everyone to bed, and told the young kid, “You may be the best HS player, but I’m the best player in the world. From this point on, it’s a lesson.”

This continued. As owner of the Charlotte Bobcats and now in his 50s, Jordan would take on players half his age in scrimmages. It even occurred at home. His son, Marcus, relayed a story on TODAY when he was playing one-on-one against his dad as a freshman in high school, and “the game got so competitive to the point of like I literally had to go call my mom because I was like, Dad’s picking on me.”

Off the court, it was the same. During golf matches, Jordan would wager thousands on the outcome, upping the ante, and trash-talking the entire round. The same occurred in friendly games of cards, quarters, and more. If there was a winner, Jordan was going all out to be that person. As his college teammate James Worthy put it, “It could be Game 6 or Game 7 of the Finals or it could be a backgammon game in the dorm room. If he lost, they were the same to him. He was extremely upset….He hated to lose.”

Jordan’s inability to turn it off shines through decades later. From Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech to his airing of grievances about old teammates in the documentary The Last Dance, Jordan holds onto those grudges years later. As his former teammate, Horace Grant noted when asked about Jordan’s statements on him during the documentary, I’m telling you, it was only a grudge. And I think he proved that during this so-called documentary. When if you say something about him, he’s going to cut you off, he’s going to try to destroy your character.”

Making everything personal clearly worked while Jordan was playing—he was the best ever—but now it kind of gives off the appearance of a bitter old man who is still trying to measure up, still trying to compete decades later, while nearly everyone else has moved on.

Few of us are Michael Jordan. For most of us, copying Jordan and making everything personal would put us in a place of playing out of fear and avoidance. But perhaps there’s something more to learn from Jordan, instead of dismissing him as an extreme outlier.

Jordan won six championships, but his first didn’t come until year seven of his career. He was a bonafide star, winning rookie of the year, winning league MVP in his third year, and leading the league in scoring multiple times. But he didn’t start his streak of championships until coach Phil Jackson took over. Kobe Bryant is widely regarded as the heir to Jordan’s competitiveness. He took a similar mentality to the game. Bryant played under six coaches in his twenty-year career. He won five NBA championships, all under Phil Jackson. Of course, the prime of his career was with Jackson, so I’m not attributing it all to Jackson’s mystique. But it’s an interesting insight that the two players widely regarded as the most competitive in NBA history were coached by a man known, perhaps more than anything else, as a zen master.

Jackson got that rep for his penchant for bringing ideas from Buddhism into the game of basketball. Before mindfulness became mainstream, Jackson had his 1990s Bulls teams practice meditation before games. Jackson experimented with practices in complete silence or in the dark. He preached staying in the moment and learning how to let go. In an environment that pushed brashness, bravado, and control, Jackson taught about the downfall of the ego and attachment. It’s why Jackson asked one of his star players, Shaquille O’Neil, to read the book Siddhartha and to turn in a written report. Jackson felt Shaq was too materialistic and needed a dose of perspective on selflessness and what actually mattered.

Even his coaching style reflected this shift towards Eastern thought, Jackson wrote in his book Eleven Rings. “After years of experimenting, I discovered that the more I tried to exert power directly, the less powerful I became. I learned to dial back my ego and distribute power as widely as possible without surrendering final authority.” Or as he concluded in the same book, “The most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jackson had success with hyper-competitive athletes like Jordan, or later, Bryant. He did this not by converting them into some sort of zen master, but by gently and subtly pulling them toward letting go, just enough so that their hyper-competitiveness didn’t lead to their, and their team’s, downfalls. They found the balance that worked for them.

Kobe Bryant also gushed about the lessons learned from his mindfulness teacher, George Mumford, “George helped me to understand the art of mindfulness, to be neither distracted not focused, rigid nor flexible, passive nor aggressive…I learned to just be.”

Kobe’s just being may look different than what that means for you and me. But the point holds: when we are really strong in one direction, it’s often helpful to try to sharpen the other end of the sword, even if only just a bit.


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