Champions Don't Expect Things to Come Easy
Each and every year, I enjoy the heck out of spring time sports. I enjoy the Super Bowl, but my favorite sporting events each year are the NCAA tournament and the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Usually, I'm cheering for UConn to win the NCAA tournament in both the men's and women's bracket. This year, the men had a disappointing season, but the tournament is offering up a rare spectacle - potential "all time great" teams in both the men's and women's bracket. The Kentucky men's team is going for a 40-0 historical season, which they'll get if they win the title. To do so they'll need to get through Wisconsin and the winner of the Duke/Michigan State game. The UConn women's team, although suffering a loss early in the season at the hands of rival Stanford, have rolled through the competition with an average margin of victory of 40+ points. I have never seen a team as impressive as this UConn squad. "All time great" teams come around maybe once a decade (if you exclude UConn's women, who have been "all time great" for about a decade straight now), so to watch 2 in one year is a gift for any sports fan.
With both Kentucky & UConn playing in their Elite 8 games this past week (UConn played tonight), I noticed something about their games that translates into the business world. Both teams have been on top all year. Both have been dominant to the point where everyone just expects them to win without any challenge. But both teams were challenged this week more than they have been in recent memory. Kentucky was pushed to overtime twice this season, but never on a stage so big as the NCAA tournament. Notre Dame took them down to the wire on Saturday and nearly pulled off a tremendous upset. Tonight, although not indicated in the box score, UConn was in trouble early, with the Dayton Flyers putting on one of the best shooting performances I've ever seen in the first half of their game - UConn, hands down the best team in the country, played a pretty good half of basketball, and found themselves on the wrong side of the scoreboard at halftime.
Nearly each and every year in nearly every sport, there's a hands down favorite - a #1 playoff seed that looked unstoppable in the regular season, only to be eliminated via upset come playoff time. Seemingly invincible players and teams crumble and disappear into the history books as just another 'coulda shoulda woulda' story. So what has prevented Kentucky & UConn from joining that club? They were each hit in the mouth, they took the punch, and they kept moving forward.
Notre Dame was up on Kentucky by 5 points with 5 minutes left. Kentucky hit some HUGE (and difficult) shots and nailed free throws to eventually take the lead in the final minute and pull out the win. One missed free throw, or one missed shot under pressure, and the season would have been over, and their "all-time great" chances would have crumbled. Dayton was up by a couple of points early (unfamiliar territory for the UConn women's team), but UConn remained consistent with their game, made their free throws, played smart, and in the end Dayton's hot shooting cooled down and UConn was able to dominate down the stretch.
Both teams could have succumbed to pressure. Either could have let a challenge overcome them - but winners don't do that. Winners welcome pressure. They thrive when challenged. They don't panic, or change their gameplan. They've prepared. They know what they need to do, and they do it. They're confident in their abilities, and they know that they've already done what is required to win in practice. They respect their competition, and work every day to get to be able to beat them.
Is it really much different than our business?
We face pressures, deadlines, and challenges daily. Some people burn out, fall down, and don't get back up because the burden is too heavy. Others thrive, learn from mistakes, make sure they don't happen again, and look forward to deadlines so they can push their performance to it's highest level. Some people get lazy when things are good - they go on for months without being challenged (tonight marked the first time since 2011 that UConn trailed at halftime in the tournament), become complacent, and are then shell-shocked when a challenge pops up. Others know that they can't get lazy. There's always a way to be better, always something to learn. Winners in both sports, business, and life know that there's no such thing as perfection - but they also know there's nothing wrong with trying to get as close to it as possible.
In many ways, sports resemble life. For that reason, it's not difficult to be inspired by watching these 2 college programs chase history in the tournament, and I was glad to see each team challenged this week and rise to the challenge in front of them. Dayton was an underdog - they shocked both Kentucky & Louisville's women's teams already in the tournament. UConn could have easily fallen the same way, but that's not what winners do. The kids at Kentucky have what must feel like the weight of the world on their shoulders. It didn't matter in the last minute of their game, as they played like champions often do, and got the job done.
When the going gets tough, it's important to realize - in sports, in business, and in life - there's nothing to celebrate in everything always coming easy. The harder the struggle, the greater the glory.
I look forward to seeing a glorious celebration for the Kentucky men and UConn women after 2 more hard fought games each.