Playing Hard is a Skill

Starless vs Star-studded

On February 9th, 2019, my wife and I headed out for my regular birthday gift, excellent tickets to a Celtics game. Living in Boston and being a rabid Celtics fan, I’ve been to plenty of games, but when my wife figured out that I would always be happy with tickets to the fancy seating areas of Celtics games for my birthday present, the early February games became tradition. For the game celebrating my thirty fifth birthday, we watched the Boston Celtics take on the Los Angeles Clippers. 

The architecture of these two rosters was completely different. The 2018-2019 Celtics featured all-stars of past and present in Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, and Kyrie Irving; along with budding young all-star aspirants Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum. Star power. The Clippers roster had not one single all-star on the team. They had a couple young prospects in Shae Gilgoes-Alexander and Landry Shamut, veteran scorers in Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari, and tough-minded energy players in Patrick Beverly and Montrez Harrell. Hustle players. While the Clippers had been playing well in their scrappy way, I entered the Boston Garden expecting to see my young talented team take care of this team without a star.

Early on, I got what I came to see. The Celtics jumped out to a big lead in the first quarter and held on through the first half. We simply had too many weapons. Kyrie dazzled with ball handling, Tatum continued his ascendence, and Gordon Hayward looked to be returning to form after a season lost to injury. Then, the second half. Kyrie went out with an injury.  The Clippers stifled the Celtics offense. Everyone on the Clippers got involved on offense–Harrel rolling to the rim, Galinari and Shamut hitting shots, Lou Williams putting defenders on skates. The Celtics’ lead dwindled.

During an out-of-bounds play, from my special birthday seats, I saw Patrick Beverly in the ear of Jason Tatum. I had no idea what he was saying, but it wasn’t anything nice. When play commenced, Beverly stopped talking, but gave up no space to Tatum. He was all over him. The second-year star with Duke university pedigree was not getting an inch from the dogged defense of the six year journeymen. Beverly made it his mission to frustrate Tatum. It worked. 

The starless Clippers continued their turn around of the star-studded Celtics with a rout in the fourth quarter. I left my birthday game having had an up close view of a hard playing team completely dominating my talented hometeam. 

Playing Hard is a Skill

In 2017, I listened to Patrick Beveraly as a guest on Adrian Wojarnowski’s podcast. Beverly recounted his upbringing in the hard streets of Chicago and why he still went back to the city every summer. Beverly outlined his career path, playing overseas in Ukraine, Greece, and Russia before making his way to the NBA. Beverly also talked about his dedicated, junkyard-dog mentality that had led him to be then named to his second NBA all-defensive team. 

Listening to Patrick Beveraly recount his hard upbringing, arduous path to the sport’s highest league, and hard mentality toward the game, Woj asked why he thought other players didn’t bring the same mentality. Beverly answered in a way that surprised me: “Playing hard is a skill.”

Effort as Skill

We often think of skills as things that the talented refine. An athlete may have a natural ability that lends them certain advantages. Still, they have to refine their skills. The best shooters shoot thousands of practice shots. The best ball handlers will spend hours dribbling the ball. The best defenders study their opponents movements. When they take to the court, they have this honed skill to give them an advantage over the competition. We admire the skill and the craft.

Effort, we don’t usually think of in this manner. Effort, we think of as being driven from within. Motivation inspired from a divine source. Either innate or channeled from some ethereal source. This is not the case. Effort is molded through thousands of repetitions, just like a jump shot. These repetitions require being beaten back, but coming forward again. In order to build the stamina to not just put forth a herculean strain for one instance, the skill of playing hard must be practiced on play after play, game after game, year after year. This is a learned skill. At first you can play hard only in bits. It will be unpleasant and difficult to put forth that energy for long, but the effort will build as you hone your skill.

Patrick Beverly’s skill is playing hard. That night against the Celtics, the Clippers team used this skill to step into passing lanes, box out for rebounds, and dive on the floor for loose balls. It resulted in a large victory. 

Life Skills

Many of us have skills. Some of us are good at our jobs, some of us are good cooks, some of us are musicians. We learned the skills from our bosses, parents, and teachers. Few of us Play Hard. We get distracted. We get tired. We lose motivation. That’s just us, we think. We don’t have that innate ability to push on through adversity. We’re not struck by the inspiration to go all out or all in. This is mistaken thinking. This assumes that we can’t learn to play hard. That we can’t learn to Play Hard through repetitive effort. Playing Hard is a skill, one earned through repetition, just like any other. The repetitions, though, cannot be accumulated with a coach, teammate, or even in the gym by ourselves. Only life can teach you the lessons of how to Play Hard. We must put forth the effort on every play. We will lack the stamina at first, but our focus can improve. In our daily lives, this means pursuing growth and exploration everyday, not just a day or two a week; being present for our relationships in every conversation, not just one call; pursuing new ideas everyday, not just waiting for inspiration. We will fail. More often at first, less frequently as we get more practice. For those of us who don’t have the pedigrees, star power, or natural talent, we must learn to Play Hard. That is a winning life skill.

The Space You Occupy For Others

“You could have been anywhere else in the world right now, but you’re here with me.” Jay-Z

The best hour of their day. That is a common refrain for fitness coaches. We know that most people’s lives start with an alarm, are filled with responsibilities, and have few moments for self care and play. We know that when our members get their hour in the gym, it is a time when they don’t have to answer emails from their boss, make sure their kids are where they’re supposed to be, or worry about the size of their next bill. When a fitness class starts, it is a group of people who will be tackling a physical task with camaraderie. At the end of the workout, people will embrace physically to celebrate their shared experience and revel in the completion of their task. It is such a privilege to be a steward of this space.

I have noted on a number of occasions my transition from an office job to coaching fitness as a positive move towards a more fulfilling life. There are certainly a number of factors that contribute to why this change has been so fulfilling: I love physically training; I love learning about different methodologies of training; I love helping people; and I love seeing the progress and change in people’s lives. However, the part of my job that I think I find most fulfilling is the emotional space that I get to be a part of others’ lives. 

As I said to begin with, the gym is a place of refuge for many people I have the privilege to work with. Though they may start their day uncertain of how their commute, work, or meetings will go, they know that they can look forward to that satisfying hour at the gym–that hour where they will get a physical release from strenuous activity and a social bond from the fellowship of their classmates. It is my job to make sure that experience is consistent and open to all. I need to make the newest member of the gym feel welcomed into the community and safe in the physical pursuit. I need to make the experienced member feel engaged in the community and physically challenged to a new level. I need to make sure the fitness theory and methodology is explained, I need to make sure the class is organized, and I need to make sure it’s fun. I need to hype people up, I need to make sure the music is right, and I need to have my own personal style. My members could be members at any other gym in the area, but they’re with me and I need to honor that. It is such a privileged position. I feel honored to hold such a position in the lives of the people that I see on a daily basis. 

For any fitness coach to really make a connection with people, that connection has to take deeper roots than shere physical training. You must get to know the person, who they are, what motivates them, and what they truly enjoy. I love that I get to see people progress not only in the gym, but be a part of their journey through life–getting new jobs, finding a life partner, starting a family. I may not be a pivotal or central figure in all or any of these people’s lives, but I am a presence in something that they choose to do repeatedly over time. For many, the only thing they will do more consistently and longer than going to the gym is going to work, and they get paid to do that.   

For anyone who pursues fitness, the benefits carry well outside of the gym’s walls. Similarly, what my responsibility as a steward of this space has taught me is to be mindful of the space that I occupy in the minds of others in any of life’s endeavors. For anyone you interact with, you can choose what you bring to the table. Are you someone who brings complaints or solutions? Do you bring gossip or information? Are you interacting or speaking? Bringing positivity or negativity? Love or hate? We all have a choice in what we will bring to our shared spaces. The responsibility of caring for special place for others has taught me that I can bring a positive contribution or not. I am in no way perfect at carrying this example to the other aspects of my life, but I have been taught the lesson. I can now be more mindful of the space I occupy for others.

A Mindset of Service with Justin Wright

My guest for this episode is Justin Wright: performance coach and athlete. Justin and I talk about his journey from dedicated high school wrestler to CrossFit Games team athlete. In addition, we talk about the dark period of Justin’s life where his athletic career took a precipitous fall do to his own mindstate and mental approach. As a result, Justin invested in his own mental game and now seeks to spread that knowledge with others on a mission of service.




Shownotes available at

Mark Devine

Unbeatable Mind

Unbeatable Mind Academy

Leader’s Eat Last

Pumping Iron (available on Netflix)