“There are no winners here. The point of Aikido is to train and focus on the process of getting better.”
It took me about five years to learn this lesson from my friend, Brian, who helped me with my training. It was a hard concept for me to grasp. The sports I had formerly played were based upon a performance score that would determine the winners and the losers.
With Aikido, I trained religiously for years, going every day, hardly ever missing a practice. I realized that the only way to get good at the art was through consistency. It was doubly hard for me because there were very few tests, and very little feedback.
I sucked at the sport for years! It was only through grit and perseverance that I finally attained a high level of mastery by focusing on one thing: trying to get better every day. By the time I tested for my black belt, it wasn’t really a test at all. I had been doing Aikido so long – with so much consistency – that the results took care of themselves.
While I didn’t learn this invaluable lesson until I was in my mid-thirties, I am able to pass this knowledge and training on to my kids. Three of my daughters now play competitive soccer and they train every day. Come rain or shine… they put their time in on the ball to improve.
Understanding mastery takes a long time and so I rarely get mad at the outcome of their games. As long as the effort is there, and they are learning, I know that eventually they will reach their potential. My goal for them is not to be the best soccer player in the world but rather the best soccer player that they can possibly be.
Rick Barry, the former basketball player for the Golden State Warriors, used to shoot the ball underhanded at the free throw line. He was mocked his entire career for shooting in this manner. His method was seen as too feminine and dainty for the rough and tumble world of the N.B.A. Yet, Barry became a Hall of Fame player and retired with the highest free throw percentage ever! When he retired, he acknowledged that he was not the best basketball player ever but shooting free throws in this manner helped him become the best basketball player that he could ever be. For him, that was enough.
Contrast that with his peer, Wilt Chamberlain, who was considered the best basketball player of his generation. Chamberlain was a terrible free throw shooter. Even after being coached by Rick Barry and using his technique to improve his shoot, Chamberlain always reverted back to shooting overhand with the same disastrous results. The reason? He did not want to be seen as shooting in a sissy manner. When asked about Chamberlain, Rick Barry said “Although he was a better basketball player than me, Wilt was never the best basketball player he could have been, and for that he will have to live with that gnawing feeling that he came up short.” ( The insights from the Rick Barry story come from this podcast by Malcolm Gladwell)
Youth sports today are indescribably competitive and getting more so for younger and younger children all the time. The need to win is so great by parents that the events become tortuous. Just a few weeks ago, I witnessed an indoor soccer game where the parents came close to blows over the fouls the kids were committing. The behavior of the parents was truly sickening. Mind you, the players were eight year old girls! It was sickening to be a witness to such twisted values.
On other occasions, I have had parents tell me that my daughters were not good enough or lacked certain skills. It seems most parents have forgotten that kids make mistakes and, in order to get better, they need to make these mistakes. While its never easy, or desirable, to have other parents criticize my kids, for me its more important that they develop the core discipline that they will then be able to replicate in other areas…on and off the field.
In the seminal book, The Inner Game of Tennis, by Timothy Gallwey , Tim walked away from his professional tennis career…get this… to focus on becoming a tennis player. He stopped playing competitive tennis and just focused on becoming a better player. What he realized was that his need to win short-circuited his ability to actually win. Seeing everything through the lens of “winning” or “losing points” actually impeded his growth as a tennis player.
Once he jettisoned his need to win and focused instead on the outcome of his shots, adjusting accordingly without judgement, his tennis game took off. He became a much better player. He came to realize that by solely focusing on winning you actually lose more.
Gallwey’s book on peak performance is considered required reading for many professional sports teams. The Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks actually make all players read his book to improve performance.
Bill Walsh, the legendary coach of the San Francisco 49ers, was another coach who believed winning was secondary to the process. Walsh, who guided his team to four Super Bowl wins, was almost fired after his first two seasons because of his record: 8 wins / 24 losses. In his book, he tells the story of how, in the beginning of his career, it got so bad that one of his assistant coaches complained to the owner that Walsh did not care about winning because he never talked to the team about it. But Walsh did care about winning. He knew the results were secondary. Before you can win, you have to do things in the right manner that eventually leads to winning. The foundation has to be built first before you can pile up the wins. The wins are a result of the foundation. It doesn’t work in reverse.
For example, I am fluent in Spanish. However, every day I practice to improve my fluency. There are no guarantees in life, but doings things in the “right way” while staying committed to the process has greatly increases my chances of success in life. In my personal journey thus far, having experienced the highs and lows of life, it is the process that has repeatedly saved me.
Everyone’s process is different; but, for me, getting better every day in every way is the core of my daily practice.