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.

Calculating the Answers

Getting a graphing calculator was exciting. At a certain point, math classes required that you have one. When I first got one, all the extra buttons held such possibilities. Thrilling possibilities. I didn’t know how to work it, but I knew that once I achieved mastery with the functions of this sophisticated quantifier, I would not be limited by the speed of my own base writing, but be unlocked through the speed of the machine’s power. My performance would reach new heights. All I had to do wass learn the machine’s tricks and then I would not have to laboriously suffer through math class as I had in the past. The calculator’s automatic quantification would set me free.

It didn’t really work that way. The excitement wore off. It turned out I only used the real basic functions of the calculator. You could program functions that were helpful for calculus and what not, but that took a good amount of work. It wasn’t a straightforward process.  You were better off just learning the equations you needed to know. Maybe write them on a sheet of scrap paper. The magical quantifying contraption was not the panacea to the problem of numbers. There was no way around math work being work.

I don’t know if students need to still purchase graphing calculators. You must be able to get an app for that on your phone now. 

Being an average functioning adult, of course, I never use a calculator. I do see a lot of options, however, in magic quantifying machines. Machines that will do the counting for you, to let you know if what you just did really counted. 

Obviously I’m not talking about calculators for school work. I’m talking about wearable technology that will monitor your heart rate, track your steps, and give you evaluative metrics for your physical health and performance. They’re selling by the millions. Apple and Amazon are competing to get you to wear theirs. Some people will get both, putting their hopes into getting their lives on track once the machine tells them what their numbers are and what they should be.

As a professional in the fitness industry, I’ve seen the obsession with counting rise. You could count your calories. But that’s not enough. You need to count your intake of each macronutrient. You could count your workouts. But that’s not enough. You need to count how strenuous each workout is. Your heart rate monitor will tell you. You could count how many hours you sleep. But that’s not enough. Your machine will count the quality of your sleep. We count how much time we spend on our machines, where we rank in the class, how far we biked, how well we rested.

It’s not just physical fitness. We count how much screen time we had; how many books we read; how many mediation sessions we engaged with; how many days you’ve been sober. There’s an app for that. You can count on it. What’s the ideal number for all this? One more or one less could always be an improvement. You can get 1% better each day. Or .5%. Or maybe some other number. But you’ll never know if you’re not measuring. Not without attaching a number. Keep striving. Keep reaching.

Resilience. Courage. Serenity. What numbers do we need to hit? Can we plug in the functions to our counting machines and get the answers? That didn’t work for me in the past. In the end, there was no way around the work, which was the real lesson itself. I couldn’t just punch buttons to find the answer.

The Mundanity of Dramatic Change

I have seen many people make dramatic changes. I work in the fitness industry. I am in long-term recovery from addiction. I have seen people undergo physical transformation. I have been witness to spiritual awakenings. In all such cases, I find a common thread, an essential component to lasting dramatic change: mundanity. The practice of undergoing a meaningful change is largely comprised of mundane events and choices.

The imagery and testimonials in various media forms, however, present a different story. According to many soothsayers and sages of nutrition, physical practice, meditation and (gasp) self-help, there are books, diets, and mindsets that will instantly change your life. Of course, this is what we want: an instant, bloodless revolution that will lead us to a new physical and psychological freedom. A bolt of lightning, a flash of light, a moment of clarity that will forever change the way our lives are lived. I’ve witnessed moments that seem like that, even experienced mild versions of the sort, but they’ve never had the deep effect of a true dramatic change.

Let’s look at the common example of someone who wants to lose weight. Someone with the dramatic goal of losing one hundred pounds. A generally accepted healthy rate of losing weight is one to two pounds per week. That’s it. One, maybe two pounds. Over the course of seven days. A sustainable and healthy change of behavior that leads to the loss of one pound, maybe two over the course of seven days can be very small at first. It’s not a radical elimination of a class of food or enrolling in the most grueling exercise regimen there is. It is a small behavioral change that is repeated over the course of seven consecutive days. If someone is able to keep this sort of behavioral change up for an entire month, they will have lost somewhere between four and eight pounds. For someone who wants to lose one hundred pounds, this will not even be noticeable on sight. For thirty days our subject has made small decisions each day that has led to the loss of weight that will not even be noticeable to others.

What will happen though is that after a few months of diligent work to making small behavioral changes, there will be moments of recognizable progress. Maybe the first one is about three months in when an article of clothing fits noticeably different. That’s ninety days. Ninety days of decisions to go left or go right. To take the stairs or the elevator. Add cheese or not. Drink soda or water. Take a walk or stay home. Day after day, for the one day when a shirt fits differently. This fitting will feel profound and perhaps provide motivation for the next ninety days of continued mundane decisions.

If our subject stays on the path for a whole year, they will hit their goal and lose a total of one hundred pounds. The decisions will vary. Some will be more difficult than others, but the end result will be a completely different person. Perhaps an outsider will see a picture from one year’s Christmas party to the next and be astounded by the dramatic change. They will assume that there must have been a drastic change and serious tumult for such a change to result, but they will be wrong. The number of profound moments will be dwarfed by the number of small, mundane choices.

I sit here writing this with over nine years in recovery, working on ten. From the perspective of the self-destructive, everyday-drinker, that is miraculous. What a dramatic change, but that is only looking at the two data points farthest from each other. Day one was not incredibly dissimilar from day two. Yesterday was not much different from today. I like to say that the night before I got sober, I got drunk. There was nothing in the night of my last drink that I hadn’t continued to drink off in years past. The difference is, the next day I didn’t. I went to a place where people get help to stop drinking and got help. It was harder at first, and got easier as time went on. I was told that it would get better, and it did.  

There have certainly been moments of profundity during my recovery, but most moments have been made up of mundane behaviors such as going to work, going to the grocery store, putting on a nicer sweater than normal for a family function, nothing in and of itself revolutionary. It was just one small step at a time. No step a large departure from the preceding step. I know predicate felon heroin addicts who now have good jobs and warm families. They did the same thing I did. It’s not a unique story and the steps taken are not mysterious, mystical, or ethereal; they are concrete, logical, and well established.

While the notion of dramatic change through adopting one extreme practice that leads to incredible results is appealing in the short term, that is not what I have seen work. What I have seen work is plain work itself. More people fail from boredom than from lack of ability. The exciting choices don’t last. It is the dull day in and day out commitment to simple practices that lead to dramatic change.