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Leadership & Pickup Basketball

Updated: May 19, 2020

You can learn a lot about leadership by playing pickup basketball at the local rec center. I know that I have. True, you can learn lessons wherever you look, so long as you approach things with a growth mentality; however, I find sports to be a great metaphor for many areas of life. I probably think that way because I grew up a jock in a family of jocks. My dad was a great high school and college athlete and us three kids grew up playing at least three sports per year all the way through high school and we each played college sports. One of mine was--you guessed it--basketball.

Now, I should preface by saying that I was never a superstar or anything like that. I wasn’t blessed with freakish height (I’m on the low end of “tall” at 6’3”), loads of natural talent, a smooth jumpshot, or great ball-handling skills. I was merely a walk-on at a small mid-major school that had to work very hard just to stay on the team. I did, however, have one thing going for me that I really leaned on as my game developed over the years: my leaping ability. I was one of the slow, short kids in middle school who got teased about having “chicken legs,” so I worked tirelessly to increase my vertical leap to help compensate for my shortcomings (no pun intended). And when I hit the tail-end of my growth spurt sophomore year of high school, it began to pay off.

Unfortunately, since that ability and my newfound height got me most of my attention on the court, I overdeveloped that part of my game at the cost of under-developing the rest of it. I was an average shooter, dribbler, and passer at best, but I sure could block, rebound, and dunk over anybody that got in my way (especially if you made me angry!). This was my style of play no matter where I went--pick-up ball at the YMCA, organized games in high-school, the rec center at college--you name it. When I wanted to walk onto my college team, however, it became clear to me that no NCAA Division-I program wanted a 6’3” Power Forward. I needed to develop the rest of my game to be able to compete. That was really evident the first time I tried out for my college when I was cut and had to wait two years for my next opportunity.

Fast-forward 10 years to me getting back into playing at my local YMCA: My game is totally different. Long-gone are the days of posterizing my opponents and ripping down impressive rebounds. I can’t rely on my physical abilities like I used to, so my game is much more… crafty. I am a much better passer than I once was. I encourage my teammates to take the open shot, and even if they miss it, I don’t get upset like I used to. Some of these style changes were due to the fact I could no longer physically execute some of my moves, sure; but much of my game has evolved because I’ve learned over the years that no one should aspire to be the superstar of pick-up basketball games. Instead, we should all want to be the person that other people love playing with.

I used to be fixated on winning every game and making sure that I shined as the star in the process. And now I see myself in so many of the younger guys that I play with at the Y. They just want to score every point, do it in an impressive way, and only play defense if they can make the cool block/steal. Then they yell at their teammates if they dare to shoot and miss. The thing about these guys is that if they don’t win, the next team doesn’t want to pick them up. The teams that are sitting in wait generally don’t want someone who will hog the ball, take all of the shots, be mean to their teammates, and doesn’t play good defense.

They usually pick up the person who is dependable, fun to play with, and that opens up the game for the rest of their team. They want the person that will help on defense if their player beats them off the dribble and will crash the boards after a shot instead of leaking up the court to try and get an easy layup. And as a result, the solid, team-player types that may not shoot as much per-game as the superstar type does ends up getting up more total shots over time because they play (and win) more often. They have more fun because they don’t put so much pressure on themselves to do everything. And when they come back the next day, they don’t need to sit out for three games waiting to call “next,” because the team that’s sitting out picks them up immediately.

It’s the same with how we show up at work. People are not leaders because they can execute projects at a high level. That makes you a great “doer.” You’re a leader if people want to work with you--if you bring the best out of them. Leaders don’t get on a teammate just because they “missed the shot.” They encourage them to take the right one even if they miss, because it’s the right decision to make. Leaders are great teammates, not just great “scorers.” I think we’ve all worked with great “doers” at work that left us feeling worse because of it, even if the project or outcome we were working toward was achieved. The path matters. How we show up along the way matters.

The way I was able to make this shift both on and off of the court was by taking a hard look at how I was defining “winning.” Over time, that definition has evolved for me in both places. Whereas I used to define “winning” on the court by scoring the most points, getting the most dunks & blocks, and winning each matchup, these days I define it as getting in a good workout, not getting injured (yep, I’m officially old) , and having fun with my teammates.

Off the court, winning used to mean getting promoted fast, making more and more money, having trendy clothes, and looking impressive on Instagram. Now, it means doing work I can be proud of, making meaningful connections and contributions to the lives of those around me, making enough money to be comfortable, and learning something new each day. Each definition of success majorly impacted not only my goals and milestones, but how I showed up in pursuit of those goals, and ultimately, how I treated others along the way.

It’s crucial that each of us really take a long, hard look at how we define success in the various areas of our lives--both in the near- and long-term. Without it, we lose our internal compass and possibly even our own identity in the process. When you start with that, you open up the pathway towards showing up more fully and authentically as a leader and/or teammate. And if you can do that, you’ll be on the court “winning” for a long time to come!

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