by LEO JOURARD –
“What are champions made of?”
The greatest athletes of all time seem to possess a supernatural quality that exceeds our ordinary understanding of the limits to the human body. There is a magical energy about their performances that evokes awe and wonder. At times, they leave us sprawled over the sofa, mystified, with our jaws dropped and questioning: Are they really human? To chalk it up to either nature or nurture – or some combination of the two – would be too easy. To unravel this mystery, there is no better starting point than the wisdom of Albert Einstein: “A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks it should be.”
My rumination on the essence of sport and athleticism began in the fall of 2018. It was a turbulent period in my life. Against all better judgment and the jeers of my peers and family friends, I decided, at the ripe age of 23, to pursue a career in professional tennis. Funnily enough, my love for tennis and learning was hardly at the forefront of this goal. Not for a moment did I contemplate the value of the learning process or try to grasp the importance of what it means to be an athlete. Knowing what I know now, it is about pushing your comfort zone, inspiring others, being curious and stretching the limits of your imagination. Well, isn’t that what it should be about?
You probably wouldn’t be reading this if my own desire to go pro sprang from this way of thinking. I was too busy looking for shortcuts to fast-track my progress instead of rejoicing in the process itself. My mind was cluttered with old, self-sabotaging narratives. I need to be the best, I would tell myself. Why bother play if I don’t make the tour? This inner dialogue reflected not so much a dream as a desperate plea for acceptance and love. My childhood self was doing all the talking, leaving no space for me to listen.
As long as I can remember I was playing one sport or another. Whether that was basketball, ping-pong, hockey, soccer, or tennis. You name it, I was playing it. And if I wasn’t already, I was hell-bent on doing whatever it took to not just learn it, but also to master it. However, baseball had and will always have a special place in my heart. My dad introduced me when I was seven. From the technical to the theoretical, he taught me everything there was to know about the game. He inspired me to pursue life with a sense of integrity, passion and purpose. But it was always more than that. Baseball became a way of life.
Over time, my love for baseball grew fierce. I dreamed of one day playing shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Every time I stepped on a baseball field, I felt alive, like there was an electricity coursing through every cell in my body. This made the dream seem only more real.
The vision paid off. After five years of hard work, I was playing at the height of my career. I played as starting shortstop and captain on one of the best teams in the country. Was I ever loving it! I was at peace with myself; the world was at my fingertips. The fairy tale picture was complete. But even at the best of times, the clash between an adolescent ego and unlucky circumstances can spell misfortune. It was through my blind pursuit of greatness that I developed the belief that nothing bad could ever happen to me on the field. It was like I had a superpower. Not only could I fly, I was invincible too.
Life, as it so often does, took an unexpected turn. In a tournament late into the season, I suffered a head-on collision with an outfielder. In a matter of seconds, everything changed. The baseball field was no longer my safe haven. When I was on the field, the alarm bells were constantly ringing. The sound of a ball smacking the inside pocket of a glove made my heart jump. I froze at incoming ground balls and pop flies. I flinched at hearing the crack of a bat hitting a baseball. In matches, I prayed for the ball not to come my way. I was stuck in a state of hyper-vigilance, terrified of making a mistake or getting hurt. It was as if I was a stranger living in my own home. My love for baseball was sapped dry. I couldn’t escape the irony of seeing my dreams shatter while I lived paralyzed in a dream-like state.
The following year, with the wind in my sails no longer blowing, I quit baseball and left my love of sports in the dust. I wandered aimlessly through high school and university in a drug-induced haze, until I was snared by the beautiful world of tennis. But this time around, the learning process was hardly the same. My desire for excellence stemmed from a deep-seated need for perfection and the right to regain my self-worth. Failure was not an option. In practice, I obsessed over every mistake. I struggled to stay present in tournaments. I pushed through injuries. I saw the window to make the dream come true closing fast before me.
Six months into my training, something clicked while I was reading The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. His approach to learning helped me find my way back to the road I stumbled from a decade earlier. My relationship to baseball and sports was put into perspective. The learning process, as Waitzkin suggests, is akin to an act of self-sacrifice. First, you must quiet the mind, let go of the ego and start fresh with a beginner’s mind. Then you must commit unwaveringly – without a fixed timeline – to reaching the summit of mastery.
The learning process is a journey. And like a “good traveler,” says the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, the student “is not intent upon arriving.” One needs to stay patient and soak in every moment as one strives to achieve mastery over one’s craft and also over oneself.
There is a fine line between the technical and the psychological areas of performance. To perform at your best, you must be the best person you can be. Whether that be on the court, in the office, or in a business meeting, there’s no escaping yourself, as much as you may want to believe otherwise. It is no wonder the learning process is different for everyone. It will trigger an inner battle that’s unique to your own personality. However, parts of the learning process are the same for everyone. In every case, your will is tested. How much you persevere is a measure of your love and dedication to your craft. The learning process, says Waitzkin, is about “love, pain and passion and the motivation to overcome.”
One of evolution’s greatest gifts is human will. For elite athletes who dominate the upper echelons of their sport, it is the most lethal weapon. Mohammed Ali, the king of heavy-weight boxing, echoed this sentiment: “Champions aren’t made in gyms. They are made from something deep inside them: A desire, a dream, a vision…They have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.” Michael Jordan is a testament to the will’s transcendental power. We’ve all heard his story. He went from being a run-of-the-mill basketball player, cut from his high-school team, to laying claim to title of one of the best athletes ever. We can’t forget about Rafael Nadal either. His entire career was plagued by phantom injuries that left doctors puzzled and doubtful of full recoveries. Still, he managed to claw his way back from countless, grueling setbacks to rack up the most French Open titles of any player in the open era. The list goes on.
At the heart of learning is maintaining a positive outlook towards failure and obstacles without losing sight of oneself. This is what Carol Dweck, Stanford University psychologist and author of Mindset Matters, calls a “growth mindset,” an ideology that sees failures as opportunities for growth and learning. Sports champions exemplify it. They thrive on – even welcome – adversity and use it to stoke their fire. But they take it one step further. Listening to their own inner voice, they reject other’s beliefs about what’s possible. In the heat of a high-stakes battle – on or off the court – with the odds stacked against them, true champions can extract something from deep within themselves and find a way where seemingly there was no way to be found. The words of a nine-year-old Denis Shapovalov – the Canadian who nine years later went on to beat former tennis world number one, Rafael Nadal – reflects this trait: “I’ve learned that if I search deep within myself and play till the very end, there is always a way to win.”
There is a pattern here that raises all sorts of questions: Is greatness a choice? Is it a mindset? Are you born with it? Everyone will have different answers. But none are wrong. That’s the whole point. Who’s to say what is possible for you? There’s no way of knowing for sure until you make the decision to start carving out, as writer Paulo Coelho puts it, your own, “personal legend.” Whether you set sail today or tomorrow, there’s no need for haste. Try thinking like one of these champions and who knows, maybe even you will catch a whiff of greatness.