Student Athlete Column: Does Winning Have To Be Unforgiving?

Speer looks at an athletes mentality. (Courtesy of Fordham Athletics)

Speer looks at an athlete’s mentality. (Courtesy of Fordham Athletics)

Recently, the father of one of my teammates gave us the book, “Winning: The Unforgiving Race to Greatness” by Tim S. Grover. The book opens with anecdotes about “the greats,” namely Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. Personally, as a LeBron James fan, I have always respected these two competitors, but prefer the personability and unselfishness of my G.O.A.T. I know I’m starting off pretty political here, but just stick with me. 

Grover was, without prior experience, Jordan’s trainer, physically and mentally, pushing him to create a workout regimen that required him to exercise even on game days. This old-school approach that led to “Last Dance”-level greatness has been preached, repudiated, respected and rebutted. James, on the other hand, has been hailed for both his work ethic and ability to prioritize recovery. These two different mindsets leave me, both a fan and an athlete, at a crossroads. The decision between a hardcore, selfish and relentless approach and one that intertwines more understanding, rest and prioritization of ones family.

I feel like the first approach got me here and is what was discussed during my freshman year. I walked on to a great team, one that had won six championships in a row, had some of the toughest people I had ever met and had a softball-over-everything mindset. I worked hard throughout high school, balancing being a captain of the volleyball, basketball and softball teams, working, being the leader of numerous clubs and trying to keep my academics at an excellent standard – all while being a high school student. This same mentality lasted with me throughout my freshman year of college, yet it was unsustainable. 

After my sophomore year ended in being sent home because of COVID-19, I learned about spirituality, the “hippie” stuff that has helped me cope with years of stress. I still meditate every day, and my biggest lesson was to rest. Strength coaches (Coach Josh, are you reading this?) preach about the importance of sleep in recovery, and I have noticed a dramatic increase in my weight room numbers as well as output on the field since making sure I sleep enough, decrease stress levels and increase my ability to be present. 

This is where the crossroads stay crossed.

The same father that gave me this book on winning and my sister, who has not played competitive sports in years, talked to me about the amazing gifts we athletes get because of committing to a sport in college. We achieve (get ready for this) what Buddhist monks seek for entire lifetimes: presence. Some may call it being in the zone, being locked in or being in the here and now, and it is just that: being. 

It is in the high-pressure moments, the long practices and the difficult days in the weight room that we achieve things we didn’t know we could. It’s having no expectations, but also having no doubt. It’s being like Bryant, in that killer mindset, yet also possessing the same level of understanding that pushed him to support his daughter in her big WNBA hooping dreams.

It’s being there in the moment, and knowing that those around you are all seeking the same thing as main characters in their own stories on the road to greatness, whatever that may be. 

I opened this piece discussing the book we were all gifted. Symbolically, it is a beautiful present for 18 girls from all walks of life, each with a shared goal, uniforms that unite us and memories of hard work, play, fun, sweat, tears and dreams that have gotten us to where we are, halfway through a redemption season with sails set on the odyssey of victory that will bring us to a ring ceremony in the fall. I also discussed three great basketball players, all of whom I like and respect for different reasons. I wondered, can you have the Mamba mentality, the Be-Like-Mike attitude and also be the figure in the community like James truly is?

I say yes. I’ve learned how to rest, how to balance hard work with enjoyment and lock into the moment, without doubt or fear. 

Winning is awesome, and is something I will never forget and always want, in any aspect. However, I definitely do not think it has to be completely unforgiving.