What Really Drives Winning

By Greg Kahler

You have to fight just as hard to seek perspective as you do to win a championship. Society either shapes or distorts what you value.

It starts when you’re young. When you make a basket, what happens? People applaud. When you win, people praise. When you lose, people express disappointment. What’s happening? A value system is taking form. You’re learning what society values.

If you come from a household where your parents/loved ones are emotionally attached to your performance, they’re mirroring what society values—and you’re taking shape from them on what’s important. In that case, it aligns with society, and you chase it relentlessly, because that’s all you know. 

If you come from a household where your parents/loved ones are trying to shape you AGAINST what society values, you feel in constant conflict. Because every time you step foot outside your door, you see something different. You want to believe In these values, but every where you look you’re left with confusion.

If someone’s approval of you is important to you, you become what they value, you sacrifice what’s really important to be successful. When you do that, you’re labeled as committed, driven, or someone who possesses the right mindset. You start to derive your confidence from that. You learn what it takes to be great. You take that information and you run with it. And you work and you work because that’s what the system rewards. 

You direct your drive at what the system rewards. WINNING! You have been consumed by what it gives you. And the important people and things in your life take a backseat. So what happens? You win...People applaud...People praise...And you feel the love. 

But what goes unnoticed is you have to continue this result of winning and performing well. So you work harder and harder to outdo your last performance. And each time you do so, that praise turns into expectation. Eventually, you set the bar so high, you don’t know if you can reach it. 

And then you don’t.

People express disappointment. You become confused. It’s like they’ve forgotten everything else you’ve done. So you start working harder and harder just to appease them. It starts to seem like whatever you do is never enough. And eventually you realize this is how you’re living life. That’s when the internal conflict begins. You begin to ask yourself, “is it worth it?” Then the love of the game doesn’t exist anymore.

So the question must be asked... What drives winning in today’s game? Athletes today are seduced by so much attention and notoriety. The standout players on teams today are slowly beginning to play the game for the wrong reasons. 

When the standout player reaches their junior and senior year, everyone knows who they are. Everyone in the town knows who they are, college coaches, opposing teams, basketball advocates around the state know who they are as well. Their name is in the spotlight. 

The fact is that facing rejection and enduring failure is a healthy development of athletes. You learn and you grow. But these players— the standout players in the spotlight, have a very unique development. They were more than likely very well known by the time they were 14/15 years old. 

How can you develop normally when every coach plays you, everyone loves you, and everyone tells you how wonderful you are. Honestly, that only minimizes your weaknesses. And if something goes wrong, you play bad or lose a game, someone else is usually blamed for you. These players are deprived of the opportunity to fail, they aren’t held accountable and they don’t learn important life lessons.

We complain that every kid gets a trophy for coming in last, but in reality, as coaches/parents/trainers/friends, we’re responsible for allowing these athletes to get away with this stuff. We don’t hold them accountable. And we need to start doing so. 

So what drives winning?

I had the privilege to speak with a championship level coach out of Ohio. A little background to his coaching resume. He’s won 4 state championships. For the past couple summers he’s worked at the Steph Curry Under-Armor-Select- Camp.

So when asked “What Drives Winning” he answered with,

“Winning has became primarily subjective rather than objective. What I mean by this is, players today are playing for their stat line not their team. It’s about how many likes they can get. It used to be more objective where players weren’t influenced by the outside world. It was just them and a ball. Players today are absorbed with themselves and not with their teams.”

The joy of the game used to come from putting on your jersey and your identity came from being a part of your team. Now we have 8th graders announcing where they plan on attending high school. Basketball is becoming more of an individual sport than it is a team sport. 

No longer do we see kids in the driveway re-enacting a game winning shot. Counting down to themselves 3, 2, 1, shot goes up, GAME WINNER. Where did that disappear to? Instead, players are tweeting how good they are, playing endless amounts of Fortnite, and not doing what’s necessary to set themselves apart. Basketball, for what it used to be, is now gone.

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Let’s flash back to when the game existed without social media. A player could play poorly or play great and they’d have to wait to read the paper the next morning. Today a player knows what people are saying about them moments after the final buzzer sounds. Instead of looking to the ones closest to them for guidance, players are wanting to know what everyone else is saying on Social media. It’s becoming habitual to instantly check what’s going on in the outside world. There’s no reflection time being put in on their performance.

“I scored 42 points tonight. Did I get any more followers?” 

“I wonder if I post a pic of me dunking how many likes I’ll get?”

What people don’t realize is there’s a concept of team destruction going on due to this transition of individualism. If you’re around a team today—there are headphones on, they’re isolated and their heads are down. There’s no team bond that’s being formulated.

NBA point guard legend Isaiah Thomas once said, “Championships are won on the bus.”

Wow, I don’t know about you but that hit me hard!

Before the social media surge, athletes actually had to interact with each other and build a strong bond. Today’s players are distracted with Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat. I encourage any coach out there to take away phones on team trips and dinners. You’ll gradually start to see an increase in team chemistry.

Social media has given athletes free range to showcase their ability to connect, engage, and portray their best self. It almost feels like what you see on social media is something from a fairy tale and everything is perfect. People post their best self and want people to see and think, “wow” “amazing” “look at what they are doing!”

The truth is we have all succumbed to the social media hype and have posted or reposted our best self. Student-athletes are being exposed to a variety of viewers and are arguably the most notable ones to be followed and judged on social media platforms. 

Young athletes, I’d say are most susceptible to be caught up in how people view them and have a sense of identity loss. Most athletes want to score the most, make the flashiest play, have the best haircut, coolest shoes or whatever it may be to get recognition or more likes on their instagram post. 

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For example, it is crazy how things have changed in just 4-5 short years. Every offer a high schooler receives now from a collegiate sports program is on Twitter and why? Is it to let everyone know they got offered? To get retweets and favorites? Twitter feeds are jam packed with “Blessed to receive an offer from _____”. The truth is in the dirt, see for yourself.

That’s all from the same player by the way. And there was plenty more to go through. 

Has competition levels decreased in sports? My answer is yes and no. I think competition levels for physicality and skill are increasing a lot because more and more athletes are getting opportunities to improve their athleticism and skill level through AAU, camps, trainers and more. 

Now, let’s talk about the mental state of things. Athletes are becoming less competitive mentally because of the buddy-buddy system. The buddy-buddy system defined is interacting, hanging out and playing with others from opposing schools to a point that it affects the competitive juices that should be flowing when one trains, practices and competes. I think it is absolutely great that kids are able to play on summer teams and expose themselves to collegiate coaches and better their games. The difficult situations are when you see or hear beef on Twitter or instagram between players and then they play during the school season and it is a total letdown because comfort sinks in. Comfort of allowing their ‘fake tough’ comments to get exposed.

Scrutiny is certainly an aspect that young athletes are under. They are afraid to fail, afraid to get out of their comfort zone and afraid to be in the spotlight. 

You might be thinking, what are the athletes saying about this “identity loss?” I ended up talking to some players to figure out just what’s going on in their heads. 

A little background on the player interviewed. This player stepped into the role of “go to player” on their team this season. Here’s how it went.

Do you feel your identity was into performing and your end result?

Absolutely! You hold a burden to perform every game and not let your teammates and loved ones down.

Do you see that the results are out of your control?

Yes! There are going to be nights where it isn’t your night and shots just don’t fall.

Can you see how you allowed something that was out of your control to affect the way you feel about yourself as a person?

Definitely! I found myself only focused on pleasing everyone around me. It really started to eat at me. I found myself drifting away from who I was.

Who led South Dakota High School basketball in scoring 3 years ago?

To be honest, I have no clue.

Behind closed doors, athletes can be themselves. They enjoy the authenticity. They enjoy being real. I remember a quote a former coach of mine once told me, “what matters is what’s real, what’s real is all that matters.” I feel fortunate that I could be part of such an authentic conversation with an athlete searching for answers.

You may be wondering why I asked who the leading scorer in South Dakota was? Remember the athletes response. He didn’t know. Because, stats get forgotten. Highlights get lost, and the player isn’t the focal point in the community anymore. 

PERSON>PLAYER

People forget stats. They remember who you were as a person. They remember your character and attitude. I keep realizing the large impact attitude can have on life. It’s honestly one of the biggest factors that you can control. It’s more important than circumstances, than failure, than success, than how people think of you. The remarkable thing is we are in control everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace. We can’t change the past, how people will act, what happens everyday. But we can believe that life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it. Character triumphs everything.

That being said I had two more questions left to ask,

What did you struggle with most?

My biggest struggle was dealing with expectations. I set my standards so high that’s it’s not ok to fail, but it should be. I haven’t came to accept that yet. I’ve had a lot of success in basketball. So how do I match or exceed that so I don’t let people down? So many people from family, friends, coaches, and teammates all expect something from me. They want success. When I’m not succeeding they want no part in it. If I don’t maintain my play, if I make a mistake, everyone is watching. Judging. It feels like they’re waiting for me to fail. I feel that pressure. I’m scared to fail. I’m scared to fail for my family, for my coaches, for my teammates. But more importantly, I’m scared to fail for myself.

How do you want to be remembered?

I want to be remembered by the thing I did outside of the game. The hard work I put in, the blood, sweat, and tears. I want to be remembered as someone who left it all out there! I want to be remembered for my character on and off the court! I want the next generation of players in my school to take away things I’ve done and apply it to themselves. Play the game like it’s your last and leave everything out there. If I could leave them with one piece of advice I’d tell them to stay true to themselves. But into the team, not what’s happening in the surrounding environment. Pursue your dreams and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t accomplish those dreams.”

You as a person triumphs you as a player. What do you want to be remembered for? Honestly answer that. Players, please don’t conform to what the environment around you wants you to be. Don’t let it diminish your glory. In a world that seeks to keep you down, build yourself up. 

Be humble. Be hungry. Greatness awaits.