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Lessons Learned from the Greatest Team of All Time

Thank you for your interest in our series Lessons Learned from a Lifetime of Coaching — In Basketball and in Business. If you would like to start from the beginning, links to the other sections are as follows:

For those here for the first time: each key point will be introduced with an illustration from the entertainment world.

Keys to Success, Part 4: Go For It

Greatest 3rd Grade Girls Team of All Time – 2009 to 2021

Is it crazy to claim any team is the greatest of all time? Sure. But consider this: the odds of a high school senior getting a Division I athletic scholarship is around 1%. That makes the odds of a 3rd grader getting one infinitesimal — injuries, lack of ability, loss of interest, bad coaching… many reasons it could derail. But six of these twelve girls got D1 scholarships, and the other six earned thirty-four high school varsity letters. They were talented, athletic, motivated, and smart. But the real catalyst for their success? They knew how to go for it.

  1. There’s NO Room for Fear, so Don’t be a Wuss

“What the hell are you looking at? Who do you think you are?”

Seabiscuit is a 2003 movie about a 1930’s horse of the same name. Trainer Tom Smith was hired to find a winner. He was standing by the track early one morning when Seabiscuit emerged from the fog. He was a small horse with nagging injuries and no resume, but Smith immediately knew he was a champion. The narrator said the first time Smith saw him that “the horse looked right through him, as if to say ‘What the hell are you looking at? Who do you think you are?’”

There’s no room for fear in sports. Fear makes you hesitate. The thing that differentiates winners from losers is that split second when they have to decide whether to take the game-winning shot. That moment’s hesitation worrying about “what if I miss?” produces a loss to the decisive and confident player. These girls feared nothing; Seabiscuit’s look was in their eye all the time. They always knew they were going to win, and other teams knew it too. They weren’t cocky or big trash talkers- if you have to tell someone how tough you are then you aren’t really that tough. It was because they had talent and had worked their butts off to develop it- they earned their confidence.

There’s no room for fear in the workplace either. I recall a project team that was extremely talented, but not nearly as successful as they should have been. Some members were constantly throwing up stop signs, worried that someone would disagree with them or challenge their assumptions or… or… or… Incredibly frustrating, and reminded me of a sitcom quote. An employee refused to give the boss his opinion. When asked why, he said he was afraid that

“You won’t like my idea and it makes you hate me. Then you fire me and I have to move back in with my parents. And they’ll be ashamed of me. And everyone back home will find out and laugh at me until my face melts off.”

While that was fiction, I see similar attitudes in many companies- people paralyzed with fear of making mistakes, making decisions, or trying new things. If you are a leader, is that the culture you want? Who would you rather be around, in business or your personal life- confident, can-do people, or folks that need to keep asking for permission until someone says no?

And if you tend to cling to irrational fears… those girls are incredibly successful juniors in college now- in two years they’ll be coming after you.

  1. Keep your Eyes on the Prize

“Is this going to affect the price of beer?”

Cheers is a sitcom that ran from 1982-1993. A mainstay character was lovable lug Norm Peterson. Norm loved beer, to say the least. In one episode, multiple upsetting events occurred. Each one had the bar patrons in an uproar. Norm would listen to the outrage a few moments and then cut it off, asking “Wait just a minute… is this going to affect the price of beer?” When the bar owner said no, Norm responded “Then what do we care?” Perfect answer from the guy that knew to focus on what was really important!

You have to maintain laser focus if you want to achieve ambitious goals. The national champs won every tournament they played. Even when playing against older girls, shorthanded, on little rest, in poorly lit gyms- nothing distracted them. Remarkable, as a single slip up in tournament play can kill your chances.

Unfortunately, many people/companies often get sidetracked in pursuit of their goals. There are two common ways to get distracted by the inconsequential:

  1. Obsessing about past history that you can’t change. Practically every season a girl would get called for a foul, then come to the bench saying “coach, I didn’t do it.” My response was always the same: “Yes, you did. Know how I know?” They always answered correctly: “because the referee said so.” And that was that; we moved on, and I never had to have that conversation with the same girl twice. I’ve seen athletes (and co-workers, and friends, and…) get so worked up about past events it affects their performance going forward. Learn from it, let it go and move on.
  2. Turning minor issues into major ones. People often overreact to issues that really don’t make any difference in the grand scheme of things- it wastes a lot of time. A university where I taught almost changed their entire curriculum based on an offhand comment by one student. It was an extreme overreaction; they incorrectly assumed that since one person thought so then everyone must feel the same way. Happens all the time.

Norm had it right. Many companies would be better off asking their version of “is this going to affect the price of beer?” It’s a great litmus test of whether the issue at hand really should be considered high priority, and keeps you focused on the things that really matter.

On a personal level, I often see people get upset over “huge” problems. A useful question for that situation: “Is this something that’s going to affect your life a year from now?” If not, then might as well go ahead and start getting over it now. It’s a much healthier way to go through life, and ensures your time and attention is spent on more important issues.

  1. Give it Everything You’ve Got… and Then Sleep Well at Night

“Being perfect is not about winning. Being perfect is about knowing that you did everything you could. There wasn’t one more thing you could’ve done.”

Friday Night Lights is a 2004 movie based on the true story of a football season at Odessa Permian high school. Coach Gary Gaines constantly spoke to his team about “being perfect”. At the state championship their backs were against the wall, and he said “Being perfect is not about what’s on that scoreboard out there. It’s not about winning.” He went on to explain that being perfect was knowing in your heart that you’d done everything you could do to win. If you do that and lose anyway, then you can do so with a clear conscience.

I often told our players to practice free throws in their spare time. They always asked how many they should shoot, but we never gave them a set number. We advised them to shoot enough so that they’d feel confident they’d make the shot with the game on the line. If they did that and missed anyway, we could live with it. But if they walked to the line worried, nervous, or unprepared, then that was a different story.

Since the 3rd graders never lost, I’ll use the 8th grade championship team to illustrate this point. We were in the national semifinals and the score was tied with under a minute to go. One of our girls went up to shoot a 3-pointer, which ordinarily would have terrified me. But the shooter had been getting ready to take that shot for six years. She’d spent countless hours in the gym knocking down 3 after 3 after 3. She made it and we won the game (else I wouldn’t be telling this story), but if she’d missed then we wouldn’t have walked away thinking about “what ifs”.

This is a great metaphor for business and for life in general. Find something you love and put everything you’ve got into success. Early in my career I was part of a team charged with implementing company-wide process improvement. I travelled all over the world teaching classes, facilitating projects, discussing barriers with leaders- whatever it took to accelerate progress. I ate, drank, and slept it. In some locations we were very successful, and in some locations we weren’t. I obsessed about the losses because it’s my nature, but if the reasons for them were not foreseeable or preventable then it was a lot easier to learn to live with.

You aren’t going to win every time- that’s life. But don’t ever fail because you didn’t do everything you could do to drive success.

Conclusion / Credits

I hope that you have enjoyed the series. I owe all the lessons learned to our amazing players, coaches, and families. Special thanks to my family. My wife put up with my coaching obsession, and my daughters were part of many of the teams. And a special shout out to our son Dawson. He died as an infant, which inspired me to get into coaching in the first place. He wasn’t here for a long time, but he definitely left his mark.

I’ll close by having a couple of iconic characters summarize my hopes for you.

“Seize the day- make your life extraordinary.”

“May the odds be ever in your favor.”

Links to the other sections of our Lessons Learned series are:

Also, check out other blogs from Ralph.

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