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The Methods of Champions

Sweating the details leads to greatness, sports biographer says

Pull up the socks. Taut. No wrinkles, no stretch marks. Sneakers on. Laces tight, tongue out, bows not too long.

Welcome to opening practice at John Wooden’s gym. Legendary hoops coach at UCLA. Winner of seven consecutive NCAA national championships and 10 over a 12-year stretch. National coach of the year six times. Mentor and guide of luminaries Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Bill Walton, Sidney Wicks, Richard Washington, Gail Goodrich and countless others.

Socks and shoes? Surely, this must be a Foot Locker commercial.

For sports biographer Don Yaeger, it’s another learning lesson about leadership and finding greatness in the subtleties of life.

Yaeger’s journey of unlocking the secrets of greatness has taken him from the best of athletes, such as Michael Jordan and Walter Payton, to unsung heroes Warrick Dunn and Michael Oher. After countless biographies, Yaeger has most recently penned “Greatness: The 16 Characteristics of True Champions.”

The list is culled from penetrating the lives and mentalities of sports figures. Even more than the stories is Yaeger’s innate curiosity, one that can easily apply to a retailer or vendor who wonders why some do better than others, which intangibles propel one from good to great. Yes, it’s about talent, but there is always something deeper.

For Michael Jordan, it was his sophomore year in high school. He was the last one cut in tryouts, losing his spot to a player who was 6-foot-7—a full 8 inches north of the still-growing Jordan. His mother sought to console him, citing the stature of the person who beat him out. But Jordan rejected solace: “We could spend the rest of our life coming up with an excuse for finishing second.”

For Jordan, arguably the game’s greatest player and competitor, the taste of defeat was far more bitter than the sweetness of victory. And that, for Yaeger is lesson No. 1 in the 16 attributes toward greatness: “It’s personal: They hate to lose more than they love to win.”

Yaeger’s list is divided into four categories:

How They Think

  • It’s Personal: They hate to lose more than they love to win.
  • Rubbing Elbows: They understand the value of association.
  • Believe: They have faith in a higher power.
  • Contagious Enthusiasm: They are positive thinkers. They are enthusiastic … and that enthusiasm rubs off.

How They Prepare

  • Hope for the Best, But … : They prepare for all possibilities before they step on the field.
  • What Off-Season? They are always working toward the next game. The goal is what’s ahead, and there’s always something ahead.
  • Visualize Victory: They see victory before the game begins.
  • Inner Fire: They use adversity as fuel.

How They Work

  • Ice in Their Veins: They are thoughtful risk-takers and don’t fear making a mistake.
  • When All Else Fails: They know how—and when—to adjust their game plan.
  • The Ultimate Teammate: They will assume whatever rule is necessary for the team to win.
  • Not Just About the Benjamins: They don’t play just for the money.

How They Live

  • Do Unto Others: They know character is defined by how they treat those who cannot help them.
  • When No One Is Watching: They are comfortable in the mirror. They live their life with integrity.
  • When Everyone Is Watching: They embrace the idea of being a role model.
  • Records Are Made to Be Broken: They know their legacy isn’t what they did on the field. They are well rounded.

Or, as Michael Jordan said to Yaeger, “A loss doesn’t become failure until you make an excuse.” --Mitch Morrison


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