When Talent Gets Us into Trouble

“A lot of players get in trouble when they win off talent consistently. Then, you just kind of assume (as a coach), other people can do that, and that’s not always the case. It’s harder for guys who were physically talented to make the adjustment to coaching.  
Jim Leonhard, Defensive Backs Coach, University of Wisconsin – former NFL Player and UW Walk-on football player                                                                                                         

My daughter once asked my husband if he fell in love with me because I was such a good cook. As my name would suggest, I make a pretty mean pasta sauce but I’m also known for my family’s Turkey dressing, chocolate chip cookies, guacamole, chili, and chicken soup. Though he benefits from my kitchen expertise, he looked at her without blinking and said, “No, because she played golf and liked sports.”

I laughed but knew there was more than a kernel of truth in what he said. Long before the days of parent (over) involvement in kid’s athletics, I signed myself up for after school sports in the third grade at the local elementary school. I played softball, basketball and volleyball through junior high and softball into high school. At eight, I was one of the tallest in my class but by the time middle school rolled around I ended up being one of the shortest. Having the moves of a center doesn’t help much when you become the size of a point guard. Sports – both as a participant and a spectator – have been a part of my life for a long time.

So, spending a number of years in Wisconsin, it’s no surprise that we follow the University of Wisconsin athletics and when reading a story about Jim Leonhard’s return to UW Football, the above quote caught my attention. UW Football in recent years has developed a reputation as “walk-on U”.  A “walk-on” is someone who tries out and makes the team without a scholarship (which are actually the majority of ALL college athletes.) Like other former UW football players, JJ Watt, Mark Tauscher, Joe Panos – Jim Leonhard was a UW Football walk-on and one of the top talents to come out of the program in the last 20 years. Not only was he a successful walk-on at the collegiate level, to add to his mythology, he was also an undrafted NFL rookie.  He then completed 10 seasons in the NFL (twice the average tenure of an NFL player.) So, having him return to UW Football to coach his position has been a great asset to the program and fun to watch his progression.

Jim went onto to say, “”They (more talented athletes) could cover up a lot of mistakes (when they played) by being better than the guy across from them, whereas that wasn’t necessarily the way that I won.”

In a sense, he knew that working harder and growing his knowledge of the game were the only ways he could compensate for his lack of natural physical assets. While Jim is only 5’ 8” tall, he also could dunk a basketball so he did have physical talent and gifts. But going against the best players at the elite level, Jim had to create what Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychology professor calls “a growth mindset” to compensate for his perceived physical deficits (height, speed, agility.)

What is a “growth mindset”? In this article, the author beautifully describes the difference between Dweck’s two mindsets: 

A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.”

Looking back, I realize I was most always the last kid to NOT be cut from the team (yes, in those days, not everyone made the team.) I wasn’t the most physically talented kid but loved athletic competition and being part of a team. My guess that it was my attitude and willingness to show up fully to practice and support the team that made me the coach’s last choice. While I did play sometimes, sitting on the bench I also learned another skill – how to “see” like a coach. Understanding how talent and strategy work together to create great game plans is a skill that continues to help me in my life and career.

Interestingly, I often describe this skill as a “gift” or a “talent” – but it really was a learning that I developed in response to NOT being a super-talented athlete. Without this ability and the willingness to try new things and not be good at it (or even be embarrassed by not being good at it), I’m not quite sure I would have been willing to apply for some of the jobs I have excelled at since. Or even start my own business, write a book or develop new products.

The great thing about having a growth mindset is that we can make the decision to have one at any time in our lives.

Recently, I heard a very successful entrepreneur give thanks for the specific day (9 years ago) she made the decision “to be willing to suck.” By any account of her accomplishments at that point in her life, she was exceptionally brilliant and talented. However, at the time she was also wildly unhappy at her job, her marriage and her life. This is a woman whose business is now over 10 times the size it was three years ago and will double again next year – profitably. By adopting a growth mindset and showing up, she has achieved even more than she thought was possible. Like Jim Leonhard, she’s chosen to be go beyond her natural talents to improve her life and her business. Even if sometimes it is uncomfortable, embarrassing or risky.

Going into 2017, I have decided to up my game and choose three new things over the year to enhance my growth mindset. The requirements are as follows:

  • Something I haven’t tried or mastered yet
  • Willingness to suck or be embarrassed
  • Make a specific time commitment at trying this new thing

Will you join me?