What The Best Can Teach Us About Winning

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Noah Lyles is the reigning 100m world champion. This gives him the title of fastest man in the world. Recently, at the Olympic Trials, before getting into his block, Lyles pulled out something from his jersey to flash at the camera. They were Yu-gi-oh cards. If you’re like me and have only the faintest idea of what those are, they are Pokémon cards, a game filled with mythical creatures that you go to battle with.

Whereas many of his competitors adopt a stern, almost menacing approach, where they look ready to go to war for real (not with cards), Lyles looks like he’s having a blast. This isn’t by accident. After claiming victory at the trials, he said: “Usually I don’t feel the pressure because I’m just having fun. All I’ve gotta do is be me. I constantly tell kids, be yourself. If people see me as being corny, shoot, I’m corny. Guess what? I’m winning while being corny.”

Meanwhile, around the same time and across the country, coach Paul Maurice was trying to claim his own title with his team, the NHL’s Florida Panthers. They were on the brink of winning the Stanley Cup. They needed to win one game, as they were ahead of the Edmonton Oilers 3-0 in the series. Then it all started to fall apart. They lost three games in a row, and suddenly found themselves mere inches away from an unprecedented collapse: it would be the choke job of the century.

Yet even as they were giving up their three game lead, Maurice ​said​, “What you want is your team to look a certain way. We have an identity… we play with freedom.” When asked how winning the Stanley cup will change his life, he replied, “I hope it doesn’t. I hope l’m learning to live my life well enough that the trophy doesn’t define how I treat people.”

The Florida Panthers went on to win game seven under gobs of pressure in the championship. Often, when it comes to sport, we hype up the alpha competitor: the person with the fierce, win at all costs approach that is more rip your head off than anything else. For some people, that can work. But far too often, we try to mimic and adopt that approach when it might not fit who we are.

The more I’m around elite performers, the more I think we all should strive for what Lyles and Maurice both get at with their respective attitudes. You’ve got to do whatever puts you in a place where you are free to perform. And often, as Brad has said before, that comes from being yourself and going all the way. When we do that, we are more likely to approach instead of avoid challenges, to have our emotions expand our competitive world instead of narrow it and constrict us. For some, that might be playing out of joy. For others, they might need a bit of anger or aggression. But more than anything, it’s about toeing the line in a way that is aligned with who you are and what you value.

When we try to mimic someone else, it causes us to default towards tightness and protection. That’s because we are protecting a facade. And when we are in protect mode, we play not to lose, to not be exposed or embarrassed, instead of playing to win. Performing under pressure is often about lightening the load. To do that requires being comfortable with who you are and pursuing success in a way that aligns with your unique temperament, motivational drivers, and values.

For some, such as Michael Jordan, that might mean finding fuel in anger. But for others, it might mean pulling out some Yu-Gi-Oh cards before running faster than all but a handful of humans in history.

Steve

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