It’s all about not wanting to be the “other guy” — the guy who doesn’t do his job.
What makes the very best athletes the very best at what they do? Sure, natural ability, gifts, the right coach at the right time — all of that is important, crucial even.
But grafted on to that talent must be a competitive drive, a zeal to be the best at what you do. Without it, you’re the kid who everybody remembers from Little League but little else, the high school football star who still lives off his long-forgotten glory at the 10th, 20th, and 30th class reunion.
What follows below are five of the greatest sporting legends talking about that spirit of competition. Some consider it simply one of their gifts — they were born competitive. But all seem to have a pride in simply doing their job. They want to be the best, but they don’t want to be the “other guy,” the guy who doesn’t do his job, as Mark Wahlberg famously noted in the classic film, “The Departed.”
One of the greatest basketball players in the history of the game has often said he’s driven by the legacy of perhaps the greatest basketball player in the history of the game: Michael Jordan.
In August, he revealed his thinking on the subject in a lengthy piece in Sports Illustrated.
“My motivation,” James said, “is this ghost I’m chasing. The ghost played in Chicago.
“Why do I feel like I’m about to go into therapy?” he continued. “My career is totally different than Michael Jordan’s,” he says. “What I’ve gone through is totally different than what he went through. What he did was unbelievable, and I watched it unfold. I looked up to him so much. I think it’s cool to put myself in position to be one of those great players, but if I can ever put myself in position to be the greatest player, that would be something extraordinary.”
In other interviews over the years, he has also talked about the duty he felt toward his teammates.
“I hate letting my teammates down,” he said. “I know I’m not going to make every shot. Sometimes I try to make the right play, and if it results in a loss, I feel awful. I don’t feel awful because I have to answer questions about it. I feel awful in that locker room because I could have done something more to help my teammates win.”
Serena Williams didn’t have to go far to find a competitor worthy of her talents, her “ghost.” She grew up with her: sister Venus Williams.
That, along with the strong tutelage of her father, tennis coach Richard Williams, instilled a sense of never giving up, and never blaming others for whatever plight you may find yourself in.
“Luck has nothing to do with it, because I have spent many, many hours, countless hours, on the court working for my one moment in time, not knowing when it would come,” Williams has told interviewers.
“When I’m down, I talk to myself a lot. I look crazy because I’m constantly having an argument with myself,” she says.
“With a defeat, when you lose, you get up, you make it better, you try again,” she continues. “That’s what I do in life, when I get down, when I get sick, I don’t want to just stop. I keep going and I try to do more. Everyone always says never give up but you really have to take that to heart and really do never definitely give up. Keep trying
“I think in life you should work on yourself until the day you die.”
One of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of professional football had the good fortune to be playing for one of the greatest coaches in the history of professional football: New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick. But Tom Brady would have been great wherever he landed, most observers agree.
What drives Brady? Sometimes, it’s simply just doing his job.
One of the most accomplished players in the history of baseball, Derek Jeter is known for being quiet off the field. But in the clubhouse, he was a leader, always inspiring his teammates to do better. He has been selected as an All-Star 14 times. In 2000, he became the first player to be named the All-Star Game and World Series MVP in the same season.
“I think there’s something wrong with me – I like to win in everything I do, regardless of what it is,” he’s told interviewers. “You want to race down the street, I want to beat you. If we’re playing checkers, I want to win. You beat me, it’s going to bother me. I just enjoy competition.
“You tell me you want to race down the street, I’m going to try to beat you. My grandmother asks me to race down the street, I’m going to try to beat her. And I’ll probably enjoy it. Competitive to a fault, sometimes.”
But he realizes the immense responsibility that comes with that.
“When I was younger, I was always taught not to make excuses,” he has stressed to interviewers. “There may be people who have more talent than you, but there’s no excuse for anyone to work harder than you do – and I believe that,” he says. You’re a person a lot longer before and after you’re a professional athlete. People always say to me, ‘Your image is this, your image is that.’ Your image isn’t your character. Character is what you are as a person. That’s what I worry about.”
What more can be said about the Golden Bear? The recent collapse of Tiger Woods, whose meteoric rise prompted many predictions that he would eclipse many of Jack Nicklaus’ records on the course, merely underscored how hard it is to keep a career of greatness going.
Along with six Masters victories, Nicklaus has won five PGA Championships, four U.S. Open titles and three British Opens for a record 18 major championships. Nicklaus also won six Australian Open titles and was named PGA Player of the Year five times.
What was Nicklaus’ secret for longevity?
“I played competitive golf all my life,” he explains. “Then all of a sudden, when I quit playing the game, I’ve got all this spare time and this energy. And certainly I wasn’t ready to pack up my bags and go sit in front of the television with a shawl on.”
Building and designing golf courses, just like the game, comes down to wanting to be the best at what you do.
“See, as much as I love the game, golf was my vehicle to competition. And I love to compete.
“Confidence is the most important single factor in this game, and no matter how great your natural talent, there is only one way to obtain and sustain it: work,” he says. “I don’t believe in luck. Not in golf, anyway. There are good bounces and bad bounces, sure, but the ball is round and so is the hole. If you find yourself in a position where you hope for luck to pull you through, you’re in serious trouble.
“I’d rather be two strokes ahead going into the last day than two strokes behind. Having said that, it’s probably easier to win coming from behind,” he’s told interviewers. “There is no fear in chasing. There is fear in being chased,” he says. “Success depends almost entirely on how effectively you learn to manage the game’s two ultimate adversaries: the course and yourself.”