#1. WINNING makes you different, and different scares people #1. WINNING MAKES YOU DIFFERENT, AND DIFFERENT SCARES PEOPLE
When I was training Michael, we set up a schedule that had him training on game days. This was unheard of at the time, and I heard about that from everyone. Work out on game days? You’ll screw up his shot! He’ll be fatigued! He’ll be less athletic!
Working out makes you less athletic?
We saw it differently.
Think about it. He played three to four games a week, plus travel days, plus practice, plus rest days. When was he supposed to train?
No one really had an answer for that, because daily workouts were not the norm in the NBA at that time, nor were they a high priority. Very few players were on a regular training regimen, especially during the season, and none brought in someone from outside the organization to train them. MJ was the first, when he hired me.
Remember, he brought me in specifically to add muscle and power to his body, because he knew it would help him get past the bigger, stronger players who were physically beating him on the court. As his game elevated, so did the physical intensity he faced from every opponent, and he realized that to get to the next level and win, he had to do something different. The Bulls had a conditioning program for their players, but he wanted—and needed—more.
He was my first professional athlete: The world’s greatest basketball player was working with a trainer who had never trained a pro. Improbable? Yes. Crazy? Maybe. But crazy—combined with the willingness to take a chance—is the secret weapon of Winning, and we both had an impressive arsenal of crazy.
If you think like everyone else, if you act like everyone else, if you follow the same protocols and traditions and habits like everyone else, guess what: You’ll be like everyone else.
Everyone wanted to be like Mike.
Mike did not want to be like anyone else.
Which led us to training on game days.
If our goal was to continuously add muscle and make him stronger—as well as minimize injuries and preserve his longevity—it would have been counterproductive to ignore his training every time he had a game. Believe me, I studied and researched and tested him and looked at every possible variable that could impact his performance. We kept every game day consistent—trained the same muscles, did the same kind of workout, accounted for every component that might affect his shot and his endurance, eliminated as many of those variables as we could, so his body became prepared to play under the same conditions, regardless of the game schedule. It became such a part of his routine that when we didn’t work out, he’d feel the difference and comment, “Something doesn’t feel right.”
Bottom line, it worked for him, and obviously the results spoke so clearly that I never had to respond to everyone who said it wouldn’t work at all.
It was never about being different for the sake of being different, or generating publicity, or trying to look clever and progressive.
It was about understanding the difference between knowing how to think, and being told what to think.
Winners engage their minds and experiences to create new levels of greatness. I’m not just talking about athletes here, I’m talking about innovators and groundbreakers in business, entertainment, science, technology, education, medicine, parenting… every walk of life. Bill Gates personally checking every line of code for the first five years of Microsoft’s existence. Jeff Bezos shipping books out of his garage. Sara Blakely cutting the feet off her pantyhose. Elon Musk gazing up at Mars. They weren’t afraid to think originally, they weren’t worried about what others would think about their “crazy” ideas. That whole BS about thinking outside the box is just that: BS. Winners don’t see the box. They see possibilities. They use their own decisions, successes, and failures as a springboard to elevate their thinking and results.
Every great creation and invention started with people who knew how to think and didn’t allow themselves to be told what to think. If you want to get to the elite level, this is what sets you apart. If you follow the textbook exactly, if you always do it the “normal” way, you can be very good at what you do. But what happens when there’s a glitch or an unforeseeable issue that the textbook didn’t cover? How do you manage when nothing is “normal”? People love to talk about “pivoting” in hard times—making a fast shift in a different direction—but you have to pivot and move toward something, you can’t keep changing direction just to change direction. And unless you know how to think for yourself, you’re just going to keep pivoting back and forth, this way and that way, waiting for someone to save you. Waiting to be told what to think.
If I gave you a piece of paper with a thousand dots, and told you to connect them, how would you attack that challenge? Would you form a picture of something recognizable? Would you create random shapes and designs? Would it look like a crazy doodle? Would you just tear it up?
Those dots are your map of the race to greatness. You can go in a straight line, you can chart your own course, you can wander aimlessly. You can ask others how to get where you’re going. You can quit.
For me, those dots are about watching how a winner moves, and figuring out how I can make him move better. I know how everyone else sees him, can I see him differently? Can I take him in another direction? Can I make him fly? That’s the artwork I see in those dots, the result of everything I’ve learned from others and elevated with my own knowledge. I know there’s already a picture out there telling me what to do. I don’t want that. I want to create my own.
Winning watches to see if you’re confident and bold enough to believe that “different” isn’t wrong. It’s the difference between lighting your own fire and waiting for someone to light it for you. To me, curiosity is the spark that lights that fire. I have a habit of staring at people, not to be rude, but to study and learn about them. I know it can make others uncomfortable, which is not my intention, but I believe it makes me good at what I do; I’d rather observe someone closely than rely on what I’m told.
Are you asking questions? Do you allow your mind to wander into new possibilities and scenarios, no matter how far-fetched and unattainable they might seem, like you did when you were a kid? Kids understand curiosity. They see something interesting and they have to play with it, eat it, throw it… they can’t leave it alone. For a few minutes, it’s the greatest thing they’ve ever known, until an adult comes along and takes it away. They’ll ask question after question after question… until the adult can’t take it anymore and tells them to stop asking so many questions.
That was MJ and me in the beginning of our relationship. There was so much I wanted to know, so much I knew I could learn from him. I’d ask about everything, until he finally said, “Man, you ask so many questions.” I kept on asking. I already knew what I was supposed to think about him, and I knew what everyone else thought about him. I needed to know more than that.
Kobe did the same thing with him; he’d call or text Michael in the middle of the night asking how he played against a certain guy, how he handled a situation, what he thought about this or that. And Michael would always answer his questions, and help him learn. That’s a major trait of the greats, by the way: They want to pass along their knowledge, so the next generation can keep learning.
That’s the difference between competing and winning.
I hear this all the time from my corporate clients: “We know how to compete. Now we need to learn how to win.” It’s not always the same thing.
When you know what to think, you’re ready to compete. When you know how to think, you’re ready to win.
Your education teaches you what to think. Life experience teaches you how to think. In school, you’re tested after you learn. In life, the test comes before you learn.
Coaches and bosses tell you what to think. Doing the work tells you how to think.
Your parents show you what to think. Adulthood shows you how to think… if you’re open to learning.
If you follow a recipe for the perfect chocolate cake, you’ll get that exact cake because you were told what to do. But after you’ve made it a few times, maybe you start thinking of a way to make it even more perfect, so you change something in the recipe. And you were right; it turned out even better. That’s about how to think, not what to think.
You can go into a big chain restaurant, order the mac and cheese, and have complete confidence that you’ll find the exact same meal in a hundred other locations, prepared exactly the same way. There’s a system in place, with procedures and guidelines, and if you’re in charge of preparing that dish, you don’t have the option to think of a better way to make it.
Master chefs have countless ways to make that dish, never the same way twice. How to think, not what to think.
Thinking for yourself creates independence, which many of the self-help “experts” out there dread, despite their promises to the contrary. Why? The more you think for yourself, the less you’ll need the “experts.” If you’re always reading self-help books and listening to motivational talkers and following inspirational geniuses on social media and podcasts, if you can’t make a decision without consulting mentors and masterminds… you’re being told what to think. You’re being told, I’m successful, this is how I did it, this is what I believe, so you should believe it too. And it all makes sense, sounds so good, so you accept it as truth. But how do you know? Are you experiencing it? Using it? Are you staying with it long enough to fully absorb what you’re learning, or are you jumping ahead to the next hot thing? Are you putting action behind all that advice, so you can find out for yourself? You may be getting a lot of great guidance and knowledge, but it’s always going to be someone else’s knowledge, until you question it, adapt it, and find out for yourself if it works for you.
Kobe used to say, “Knowledge is power.” And I’d tell him: “Only if you use it.” He definitely used it.
And yes, I know this applies to me and my books and the ideas I share with you, and if this topic makes you stop and think about how to adapt what I told you and apply it differently to your own life, then I’m doing my job. I want you to question what I believe. It’s precisely the reason some readers griped that Relentless didn’t tell them what to do.
I’m not going to tell you what to do. I’m not going to tell you what to think. I want you to learn HOW to think, to become involved in the process of learning so you can create your own ideas and thoughts, answer your own questions, and know how to create solutions when others don’t even understand the issues.
I work with my sports and business clients the same way when we’re working on mental toughness and focus. At first, most want to talk every week, with a standing appointment. But I don’t work that way, because to me, that’s just waiting to be told what to do, every week at the same time. Oh good, it’s Tuesday, now I can deal with this issue I should have handled five days ago but instead I waited for my scheduled call with Tim. We’ll still talk on a regular basis, but not just because we’re “supposed to.” I want them thinking for themselves, working on their own abilities to make decisions and manage issues. I want to see them create ways to win, and execute those ideas without running them by me first. That’s how you learn to think for yourself.
Sometimes when clients are on a hot streak, I don’t want to talk to them at all. My total communication with them might be a look or a nod, and many times, that says it all. They already know and feel things are going well; I don’t want to alter their thinking. We don’t need to discuss what’s going right, they just need to keep doing it.
Everyone looks for the “key” to Winning, like you can carry it in your pocket and pop it into a lock. There is no key; it’s a combination vault of infinite numbers and infinite outcomes, with rusted, decayed dials that barely move, and digits that have been rubbed bare by countless desperate fingers trying to turn them in their favor.
Most people will solve some of the combination, but they give up trying to figure out the rest and settle for what they have. A select few will keep fiddling with the dials, hoping to get those last couple of numbers.
But if you stay with it long enough, if you can elevate your thinking and your expertise to a level that allows you to figure out the complete combination, you can bust the lock on Winning’s heavily guarded fortress.
And while you’re celebrating, Winning is already changing the combination.
For me, the challenge has always been about working that combination so I can find new ways to make great competitors even greater. I can’t get them there by applying the same techniques everyone else uses, because we’re not talking about getting 10 percent better or 5 percent better. The goal is .0001 percent better, because these performers are already among the best at what they do. Consider an athlete like Michael Phelps, for example, who won twenty-three Olympic gold medals (and twenty-eight medals overall) by finding ways to shave a hundredth of a second off his times. You can’t achieve that by training and thinking like everyone else, you have to be innovative and dedicated enough to go where others can’t or won’t. So when I’m working with a competitor who is so elite that he’s literally competing against himself, I have to combine all the research and teachings and data, add the unique component of his specific needs and challenges, and create solutions that are unique to him.
When I was training MJ, the Bulls’ strength coach asked why I had him doing bicep curls. The theory was that biceps were just for show and didn’t really make someone a better basketball player. And that was probably true. But we were going for that .0001 percent, which included the intimidation factor of his bigger, stronger, more dominant physique. What’s the first thing you see on a basketball player when he takes off his warm-ups? Those arms.
It works the same in business. Look at a company where everyone has the same training, the same procedures, the same rules and regulations, the same products and services to sell. Everyone represents the same name on the logo. But some will excel, above and beyond, because they advanced their skills and their thinking. That’s the difference between learning what is handed to you, and understanding how to build on that.
Winning requires you to learn, question what you learned, and then learn more. You have to be willing to challenge what you’ve been taught, and learn it again with a different perspective. Everything I’ve done with my clients has been the result of helping them close the gap between being the best, and being the best ever. Big difference between those two. I had to challenge traditional training techniques, and learn them all over again through the lens of what I was discovering on my own. None of my college professors ever advised me to take the greatest athlete who ever played, have him train on game days, and give him a steak a few hours before tip-off.
Yes. He ate steak before games.
Back in the eighties and nineties, the nutrition prescription for athletes was carbs, carbs, and more carbs. Everyone was eating rice and pasta for fuel, but that wasn’t working for MJ: Aside from feeling bloated, he was playing so hard that it just wasn’t enough for him. When the team was playing at home, he was eating at 3:30 in order to get to the stadium by 6:00. So he was starving by the 7:30 game time, and by the fourth quarter, he could feel his energy decreasing.
So we added a small steak to his pregame meal.
Now, listen: I’m not telling you to eat steak before a game, I’m not giving you nutritional advice here. I’m telling you we had to devise a new plan for Michael, based on his body chemistry and schedule, his playing minutes, and the massive amount of energy he expended on the court. The steak slowed down the digestion of everything else he was eating—the starches, vegetables, etc.—and kept his blood sugar consistent so he had more energy throughout the entire game. It wasn’t something I learned in a book or nutrition class, it just made sense to me. I knew what we’d tried and what hadn’t worked. Let’s do this instead, we can always try pasta or something else at halftime. But for now, we’ll try steak.
Believe me, I’ve tried a lot of ideas that didn’t work at all. I’ve spent hours putting together the perfect program, only to take my client through the workout and realize within five minutes that I have to throw out the whole thing. I’m not a genius, far from it. I’m not going to tell you I always know the answer. But I’m going to keep trying solutions until I find it.
Winning demands that you look past “the right way” and create your own way. Coaches love to ridicule players who bend over when they feel fatigued; they say it’s a sign of weakness and tell them to stand up straight instead, with hands on their head. It never made sense to me, even when I was playing. You’re telling me that if I’m fatigued, I’m supposed to hold my arms over my head to open my lungs more? If I’m breathing hard while training or playing, my lungs are already open. It always felt more natural to me to bend forward.
So I finally told Michael, “Grab your shorts.” He thought I was crazy. “Just do this,” I said. “Bend over when you need a second to catch your breath, and grab the bottom of your shorts.” Not hands on his knees, because I didn’t want him putting pressure on his knees. But when he started grabbing the bottom edge of his shorts, he realized he was able to breathe more deeply, and recovered so much faster. You can search the Internet for yourself, and find hundreds of pictures of him on the court, between plays, holding the edge of his shorts.
We worked on every possible detail: fingers, toes, ankles… everything that could go wrong, we addressed it. It’s no coincidence that he played every game most of our years together; we created the opportunity for that to become a reality. That was our style of “load management”: managing his body to play the complete load of eighty-two regular season games, plus potentially twenty-six more in the playoffs as well as the preseason.
How to think, not what to think.
With Kobe, there were very few things he wouldn’t try in his training, if he believed we could get that .0001 percent. When I first told him about bending over to catch his breath, he said he wouldn’t do it because it didn’t look good. Winning makes everyone look good, I told him. He tried it. It worked.
We took bike rides in the Vegas desert at high noon so he could train in the most challenging conditions. We flew to Europe to try the first cryotherapy chambers, where we literally walked around inside a frigid chamber, totally immersed in temperatures that make today’s cryo tubes feel toasty. I had him eat pizza as a pregame meal when he had back-to-back games, because it boosted his energy and stamina. Even his decision to use a helicopter on game days, from Orange County to Staples Center, was about thinking of new ways to get that slight edge, because it gave him time away from everything and everyone before a game. I know the helicopter came to represent catastrophic tragedy, but he had no fear of what could go wrong. If he thought something would give him an advantage, he wanted it.
It’s no coincidence that the greats figure out what works for them, regardless of what everyone else does. Dwyane didn’t just work out on game days, he liked to work out right before the game. He preferred to be at home in the mornings; that was his time to relax. So before home games I’d meet him at the arena at 6:00 p.m., before game time, and we’d go through a set of movements for around twenty minutes, take practice shots for ten minutes away from the crowd, just enough to get his body feeling the way he wanted it to feel. He had the whole weight room and practice court to himself, and he used that time to mentally and physically prepare. No one told him to do that; it was his way of creating an environment and schedule that allowed him to perform at a higher level.
LeBron James is another great who figured out his own path to Winning. He essentially created the “superteam” phenomenon in the NBA, by deciding where he wanted to play and with whom, knowing he’d be criticized for going against the way others had managed their careers in the past. Everyone was telling him what to think, where to play, and what to do. He exercised his right to think for himself, and changed not only the course of his career but the direction of the NBA.
I hear from players every season who say, “Let’s work together, I’ll do whatever it takes.” Then I tell them what it takes, and they can’t even comprehend what I’m talking about. Not because it’s so complex, but because it’s not what they’re accustomed to. They’ve always trained one way; it’s all they know. But if you’re not getting results doing what you know, if you need to plan our work around your vacations, if you get injured every season and can’t figure out why… maybe it’s time to think about new ways to achieve what you’re chasing.
To me, it isn’t about what’s right or wrong, it’s about deciding what you will or won’t negotiate for yourself, and whether you’re willing to expand your thinking in a way that allows you to move closer to Winning than your competition.
People get caught up in their “nonnegotiables,” those rules and beliefs that can’t be altered because… because… why? Because everyone says so? Because that’s the way you’ve always done it? You can tell yourself over and over that you won’t negotiate your dreams, your goals, your plans, but if you get to the point where those things aren’t working, you might have to start negotiating with yourself. Not with others. With yourself.
You have to be careful with nonnegotiables, because while it sounds tough and badass to announce what you absolutely will and will not do, there are infinite things that can get in the way and force you to change direction. Most people did not begin 2020 planning to homeschool their kids or work from the kitchen table. They didn’t plan on their gyms closing. My athletes didn’t plan on living in a bubble or playing shortened seasons; my corporate clients didn’t plan on running their businesses via Zoom calls. Try clinging to your nonnegotiables when everything you planned is suddenly yanked out of your grasp.
Your nonnegotiables have to be things you—and only you—can control. The food you eat. The effort you commit. The words you speak. The results you deliver.
If you can’t personally control the outcome, you’re dealing in goals that will potentially require you to adapt, change direction, get creative, and think differently about managing the obstacles that block your path. Our team is going to win the title. Our business is going to triple its revenue. My kid is going to med school. Nonnegotiable? Or wishful thinking?
Winning hears your promises, and laughs out loud. If you don’t control it, you’d be better be prepared to negotiate for it. And the negotiation never stops.
I’ve seen great competitors get to the top by refusing to negotiate their ambition to win. They made every right choice, committed the time and effort, and did the work better than anyone. But as soon as they won, they renegotiated everything. The celebration began, the pressure was off, the priorities changed, and the focus on Winning was suddenly blurred by the pursuit of countless other things.
For my clients, I have one nonnegotiable: Performance. Everything contributing to that is open to discussion, as long as we arrive at the same end result. If it helps you to train on a game day, if you perform better with a steak in your diet, if you want to ride a bike in the 120-degree desert, you have my full support… as long as your performance proves the benefits.
You need to have that drink? Okay with me. I know all the studies on the effects of alcohol on performance, but I have also seen firsthand what a glass of wine can do to relax the body and mind. I’m not prescribing it or telling you to do it. If you need to go to that party and have some fun, I understand, but if your performance starts to make people wonder where you were the night before, now we’re going to need some limits and restrictions. Because the one thing we’re not going to negotiate is anything that adversely impacts your performance. If you’re out until 5:00 a.m., if you had a lot to drink, if you smoke to relax, I’ll judge you by your results. Did you play like garbage the next day? We’re going to have a talk about what happened the night before. You played great? Remind me what you did the night before; we might need to do that again.
I can’t remember all the times I trusted my own thinking and succeeded. But I can remember the times I ignored my own thoughts, did what I was told to do, and failed.
A few years ago, I was speaking to a huge audience of business owners, mostly male, very affluent, very conservative. There were several speakers at this event, and I was the closing keynote. The organizer of the event made one request of all the speakers: No cursing. “We don’t really mind, but the audience is very conservative,” we were told, “and we don’t want to offend anyone.”
Now, I can curse, or I can not curse. I’m sure it won’t surprise you to know I’m much more comfortable when I can be myself on the stage, which means occasionally cursing. But I’m also respectful of groups and audiences who don’t enjoy that, and I always comply when asked to keep it clean.
So I’m waiting to take the stage, and I’m listening to the guy who is speaking ahead of me. He’s a former Navy Seal, talking about leadership and teamwork… and he’s using words I wouldn’t even whisper in a locker room. Not a single sentence without an f-bomb. And I look out into the audience… and they are loving it. Laughing, clapping, with a huge standing ovation at the end.
And now I have a decision to make. I gave these people my word there’d be no cursing, at least from me. Do I break my word and ignore their request, as he did, because I know the audience will enjoy the talk I want to give, or do I follow the rules and keep it clean?
I kept my word, because that’s a nonnegotiable for me, and I followed the rules. And it was the first time I hated my own speech.
Not because I used clean language—I was being respectful, which was the appropriate thing to do—but because I let someone else tell me what was “right,” when I knew they were wrong.
And that is also a nonnegotiable for me.
One of my nonnegotiable core values is trusting my instincts, and believing what I know. I might be wrong, but I want the chance to be right. And I’d rather decide for myself than allow others to decide for me.
Winning does not negotiate. You won or you lost. It doesn’t care how hard you worked, it doesn’t care about extenuating circumstances that got in your way. You worked hard? That’s nice. I need someone who works hard, smart, fast, and a whole mess of other things. Get back in line and figure it out.
Figure it out. Put your craziness to work. Innovate, don’t imitate. And above all, stop listening to everyone who tells you what to think. If they knew, they’d all be winners.