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Champions Aren't Born. They're Built.
Kobe Bryant was the ultimate competitor. His mindset was so impressive it got its own nickname: the Mamba mentality. He was the kind of athlete many of us wish our kids could be. He was tough. Committed. Fearless. Clutch. And while that may be what we want, for most of us raising and developing young athletes today, that’s a far cry from what we’ve got. When we look at our kids, we don’t see the ultimate competitor. We see fear or laziness or embarrassment. We see weakness. Based on what we see, it may be hard to envision our kids ever having what Kobe had.
That’s why my favorite Kobe Bryant story is one from his childhood. He tells it at the 2:20 mark of this insightful interview. When he was 11 years old, Kobe spent the summer playing in Philadelphia’s Sonny Hill Future League, a breeding ground for high-level basketball. You’re probably picturing little Kobe dominating the league, hitting his patented game-winners and sneering ruthlessly as the other kids begged for mercy. But that’s not what happened. In fact, Kobe played the whole summer and scored – ready for it? – exactly zero points. Not a single made basket. Not a free throw. Not a lucky shot. Not a breakaway layup. He says himself, "I was terrible." His dad found him after the last game of that summer in tears, embarrassed by his performance.
Now that’s an image of Kobe that many of us raising young athletes can relate to! That’s the experience so many of our kids have as they grow up in sports, one filled with disappointment and doubt. I love that story because it reminds me of a simple truth that’s so critical to helping my own kids reach their potential, and yet one that’s so easy for me to forget. The truth is, champions aren’t born. They’re built. Despite the unhealthy narrative we construct in our minds – one that often fools us into believing that some people were born with a champion’s mindset, and our kids just weren’t one of them – even Kobe Bryant was crumbling to pieces as a kid. It validates that our kids aren’t broken or backwards. They’re kids! They’re not supposed to have it all figured out yet, and despite our occasional lapses in memory, we didn’t either.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was Kobe Bryant’s “Mamba Mentality,” and neither will your child’s winning mindset. There's a process that every champion has to go through - a process of failing, of learning, of struggling, and then gradually of improving and eventually succeeding - both physically and mentally. If we have a genuine interest in helping our kids reach their potential, then we have to accept the reality of what it takes. We have to recognize that who they are today doesn’t have to be who they remain, and we have to accept the important role we play in their development process.
That’s the other part I love about that Kobe story. His dad, long-time pro basketball player and Philadelphia playground legend Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, had plenty of reasons to be disappointed after his son’s scoreless summer. And seeing his boy crying could have left him feeling embarrassed or even angry. Instead, though, Kobe said his dad simply looked him in the eyes and told him, “I don’t care if you score 60 points or zero points. I will love you no matter what.” Kobe pointed to his father’s words in that moment as a turning point in his athletic career. “That is the most important thing you can say to a child,” Kobe said. It was a seminal moment in the construction of his Mamba mentality.
There are some important reminders and some valuable lessons we can take from Kobe Bryant’s scoreless summer. We need to remember that our kids aren’t supposed to have it all together yet, and that developing the attitude and mindset of an elite performer takes time – even for the Kobe Bryants of the world. We need to remember that the hard stuff our kids go through can be a catalyst for their growth and development, if we recognize the opportunity it provides and use it the right way. We need to remember that our support and encouragement - especially in the midst of their failures and struggles - is so important to helping our kids reach their potential. And we need to remember that, in the end, champions aren’t born. They’re built.
Keep Pounding the Rock
One of the biggest challenges we face in our pursuit of success is embracing the process that winning requires. It's tough to maintain your discipline, your commitment, and your resolve when your work isn't producing results. In this world enamored with instant gratification - where we’ve been conditioned to expect everything we want to come quickly and conveniently - winning usually requires us to wait for what we want. Our only option is to put our head down and just keep hammering away.
The 19th century social reformer Jacob Riis offers us some encouragement in his famous passage known as “The Stonecutter’s Credo.” It speaks to the power of the process, and the importance of the work that’s in front of us today - even if it isn’t always evident.
I don’t know about you, but when I envision that stonecutter, I don’t see someone lightly chipping away with a chisel. Chink. Chink. Chink. No. I see someone straining and struggling, leveraging all his bodyweight to hoist a heavy sledgehammer onto his back, then up and over his head, and then down onto that stone with all the force he can muster.
That’s a powerful image that highlights the kind of effort it takes for any of us to create a breakthrough in any important area of life. It speaks to the discipline, the commitment, and the resolve required to keep giving our very best, over and over again, even if we don’t know when that big break is coming. It speaks to the compounding effect of our work over time, and the power of the process if we choose to embrace it.
It’s possible that today is the day that rock you’ve been pounding on has finally split open, and you’ve finally broken through and gotten what you’ve been working and waiting for. If so, congratulations! More likely, though, you’re not there yet. Chances are you’re here today as someone who’s facing the challenge of another day at work, hammering away on that rock still waiting to split.
If that's the case, you may also find yourself asking the questions that the process regularly challenges each of us to answer. Is the work I’m doing today really worth it? Is it even making a difference? Does today really matter? When our progress isn’t obvious - when it doesn’t come to us quickly and conveniently, like we’ve been conditioned to expect - the voice of our inner loser is amplified. That voice encourages us to walk away, to give up, and to justify that what we want just isn’t meant to be.
That’s why the ability to listen for and respond to the voice of your inner champion is so important. The voice of your inner champion clarifies the mindset it takes to embrace that process. It’s the same mindset the stonecutter has embraced. No, I can’t see the progress, but I know it’s being made. Yes, the work I’m doing today is worth it. Yes, it is making a difference, and yes, it does matter. The process will test your discipline, your commitment, and your resolve. It exists in order to validate that you are in fact someone worthy of winning in this important area of life. Your inner loser wants you to walk away, but your inner champion is prepared and ready to pass that test again today.
In this world enamored with instant gratification, I want to encourage you to be more like the stonecutter. Embrace the process it takes to get what you want. Give your very best, even if you don’t know when your big break is coming. And keep compounding your effort day after day, including here on this day. Put your head down and just keep hammering away.