I was 16.
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We were playing in the Spring Tournament at Finley, my local Rec center. I had finally built my game up to be looked to as a respected player who would actually be on the local team and — hey!!! — I was even playing in the games.
Our team was good, but not very tall. Me and a kid named Bruce were the “big men,” all ~6’2” each of us. Bruce had a big man’s game: he didn’t shoot from the outside and rarely dribbled. I knew my future would be on the perimeter, but I was still versatile enough to make the most of being needed and being on the court, even playing “down low.” And I was our team’s best outside shooter; our coach ran actual plays designed for me to get shots.
On defense, I had built a reputation as a shot blocker. And given that no one else ever blocked anything, I only had to block maybe one shot a game to maintain my status. Where I grew up, basketball spectators reacted to (in order):
- Solid shooting
- Blocked shots
One kid I guarded, I had already swatted one of his shots earlier in the game (and basked in the dopamine rush from the “ooohhs!!“ coming from the crowd). He was still doggedly trying to post me up and call for the ball though, and I was hoping he got it. I positioned myself behind him defensively, hoping his “open” status was rewarded with a pass from a teammate.
One of my coaches yelled out to me to not play behind the kid — get in front of him so he cannot receive a pass. In the midst of game action, I responded to the coach.
“He can’t shoot over me!”
After the game, which we won, the coach tried explaining to me why I should have “fronted” the opposing player on defense: don’t let them get the ball down close to the basket, and they have fewer chances to score.
I tried explaining to him, in all my teenage knowledge, why my strategy was best: the more often this hapless kid got the ball, more of his shots I’d block — and the more we would get the ball right back on offense. My strategy is full-proof, coach!!!
He quickly agreed with me, then checkmated me with one question.
“Could you play defense that way against someone who can actually play?”
The point he then explained was about habits. Yes, I could play this fundamentally incorrect defense against some fat kid who couldn’t run or jump — but if I took those same habits into a game against someone with real basketball skills, I’d be getting scored on all game long.
There’s a bigger point that my coach didn’t make that day, but I’ve learned along the way. In competition, it’s not just what you do, it’s who you do against.
The University of Central Florida football team recently completed an undefeated season, but were left out of the College Football Playoff Series (basically the Final Four of football). The CFS is a subjective, vote-based ranking system that ranked undefeated UCF #10 in the nation, while literally every other team in the Top 25 has/had at least one loss.
Then you look at the schedules.
All those other teams, specifically the top four teams who were granted the chance to play for the championship, played against much tougher competition all year. The teams they beat and/or lost to also played against the other top-ranked teams. Auburn, ranked #7 before losing to UCF in a bowl game, had three losses. Undefeated UCF didn’t face any team from the Top 10 all season. But UCF feels they were robbed of a shot at a championship.
In the article I posted yesterday about playing ball overseas, I shared how my NCAA D3 background worked against me in the eyes of pro scouts. No matter how great I was at the D3 level, who did I play against to achieve my stats? How many future pros had I faced in building my resume?
I once had an agent in Germany bring me to practice with a German league team. In that practice we did a one-On-one drill where you started at half court and got 5 dribbles to try and score. Thing was, the gym floor was dusty as hell, impossible to get good traction on. But I knew I was being judged, so I old-man-gamed my way to scoring every time with slow, basic moves that yet and still resulted in points.
That evening at dinner, the agent told me that though I’d scored every time in the drill, he was not impressed with my performance. An American, he reasoned, should score points more easily than I had.
It wasn’t just what I did, but how I did it.
For you, athlete or not, it’s not just saying you achieved X. It’s what you had to go through, around and over to achieve X that makes you a champion.
You can build your confidence with victories over lesser challenges or (relatively) weak opponents. But until you do it when, where, in front of, and/or against someone who or something that matters, you have only empty calories.