Greatness and Drive

Posted on in Todd Talks by Todd Johnson

I watched a program over the weekend that attempted to analyze what made the greatest athletes so great. It was very interesting to hear the athletes talk about what they felt set them apart from their peers.

From the outside, we tend to think that the Great Ones are so great because they were pushed hard, worked on their craft exclusively from a young age, had access to trainers and superior equipment, or maybe just had greatness in their genes. But according to the G.O.A.T.s (Greatest of All Time), none of this is accurate.

The athletes highlighted in this program (Jerry Rice, Wayne Gretzky, and Pelé) all cited their drive and intense desire to win as what has set them apart. And the arguments they made are compelling. Today, across the sports world, and most assuredly the business world as well, there are people poring over stats and reems of data points looking for the next Great One. An example of this that I am familiar with is the NFL Combine. This event, held every year between the college and NFL seasons, is where all the draft hopefuls run through drill after drill and even complete written exams and interviews. Scouts and executives from every team use these tactics to try and find the next player who will transcend all their predecessors and, in the process, make the people that chose them look smart.

The problem with this data-driven approach is that there are factors that cannot be picked up on during drills or interviews. Jerry Rice, for example, was never considered fast, especially for a wide receiver. He knew that, but he said he had “football speed,” which really meant that since he knew there were players who were faster than he was, he had to run perfect routes. He famously ran great routes and created separation from much faster players. Wayne Gretzky said during this program that friends would call and ask if he wanted to go to a movie or something, and he would often tell them no. Why? Because he wanted to shoot pucks in his backyard for hours. No one made him do that. He simply enjoyed it and wanted to do it. He said he didn’t have the fastest shot and couldn’t skate the fastest, but he had the most accurate shot. He also said he created his own research into where pucks traveled during games. As a kid, he would sit in front of his family’s TV with a piece of paper while watching hockey. Without looking down at the paper, he would trace the path of the puck for the entire game to see if he could spot opportunities where others didn’t see them. Indeed, he found them. Often.

Another thing these G.O.A.T athletes attributed to their success was contrary to what most people assume. It’s been said that if you want to master a sport, you need to have a singular focus. You focus solely on that sport. But these players disagreed. They played as many sports as they could. Gretzky said that once hockey season was over, his gear went into the basement, and he was playing the next sport. Rice didn’t even play football until his junior year of high school. The players said this helped them improvise and be more creative. Pelé grew up very poor and played soccer with stuffed socks or balled-up newspapers. As a teen, he started playing against adults in indoor leagues that played on a smaller pitch than the traditional outdoor game. Pelé credits this with forcing him to play faster and make quicker decisions.

I think the lesson to be learned is that we shouldn’t pigeonhole anyone or let anyone determine our success based on sets of data or prototypical measurements. The most important factors in our greatness are drive and effort. Become an expert in your field, and you, too, can become a G.O.A.T.