I first read What they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School in my mid-teens. Mark McCormack founded IMG and essentially created the modern world of marketable, and therefore rich, sports stars (and thereby agents).1
Rereading it recently, I’m surprised by how much of it I remember as useful lessons or part of my mental furniture, even if I’d often forgotten the source.
The epilogue is the best thing on sports psychology I’ve ever read:
I have long been fascinated, both professionally and psychologically, by what makes a champion. By this I mean the true champions, the legends, the upper one per cent who consistently dominate their opponents, perform at their highest level at the most crucial times, and, in the long term, distance themselves from the neargreats and the also-rans.
Certainly skills and a supreme confidence in these skills and a supreme confidence in these skills are a part of it, but they are not the determining factors. Most athletes, by the time they reach the professional level, are already blessed with an abundance of both.
The champion’s true edge exists solely in the mind, and over the years I have observed three attitudinal charactersitcs which are common to every superstar I have ever know…
The first is the champions’ profound sense of dissatisfication with their own accomplishments. They use any success, any victory, as a spur to greater ambition. Any goal this is attained immediately becomes the next step towards a greater, more ‘unreachable’ one.
The second is an ability to peak their perfomances, to get themselves up for major tournaments and events. No one can operate consistently at his or her highest level. Yet the legends of any sports era aways seem to perform their best when the stakes are the greatest…
Finally, it is their ability to put their opponents away. This is referred to as ‘the killer instinct’, but that tells you more about the result than what is going on mentally.
In the champion’s mind he is never ahead. He distorts reality to serve his competative purpose. He is always coming from behind, even when the score indicates he is destroying his opponent. He never believes he is performing as well as he actually is.
I became acutely aware of this a number of years ago when I was in Osaka, Japan with Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, who were in an exhibition match. As they made the turn, I ventured out from the clubhouse to join them on the ninth green. Arnold was lining up a ten-foot putt for a birdie, and Gary, who had finished the hole, had walked over and was standing next to me with his arms folded. Though it was only an exhibition, these two champions were going head-to-head, and I could feel their intensity.
Arnold sank his putt, and Gary, shaking his head, turned to me and said, ‘He’s been doing that all day. I can’t buy a putt, and once he gets it on the green it’s in the hold.’
I found this remark a bit curious, because in reality Arnold’s birdie had brough them dead even. As Arnold walked towards me on his way to the tenth tee, I could see he too was upset. ‘Well, what do you know,’ he said, ‘I finally made a putt.’ Then, motioning ahead to Gary, he added ‘… and *that* little son-of-a-bitch can’t miss one.’
- This may or may not have been a good thing in the long run, but so it goes. ↩