Thursday, February 7, 2013

Perfection Versus Perspective

"What makes a man wanna rule the world? (A double a double arrogance)."--Prince, "Arrogance"

A complex combination of conflicting character traits comprise the strange witches' brew that fuels a champion; a champion must "chase perfection" in order to "catch excellence" (as Vince Lombardi once put it) but a champion must also have the resiliency to accept failure. How can one simultaneously have perfection as a goal and yet deal with the reality that nothing in this world--particularly one's ability to perform under pressure--is perfect? Seth Wickersham's recent article about Bill Walsh analyzes the potent mixture of perfectionism, arrogance and insecurity that drove Walsh to greatness (including three Super Bowl championships in 10 seasons as San Francisco's head coach)--and then drove him to leave the game at the height of his career.

Wickersham writes of Walsh, "He always coached through existential torture, with alternating bouts of believing that he was brilliant and that he was incapable of fulfilling his own idea of greatness." Despite his tremendous success, Walsh felt torment both during and after his coaching career. Wickersham explains, "What haunted Walsh went deeper than pink slips and long nights. It was his drive to be great at something he couldn't control. His colleagues recall him as the most intelligent coach they'd ever seen, which Walsh not so discreetly agreed with. But he could be sensitive to the point of devastation, crushed by failures large and small."

Wickersham says that the so-called 49ers Way "was really the Walsh Way, a system flowing from one man's ingenuity and insecurity. By the late '80s, as Walsh's definition of success became so narrow as to be unattainable, the Walsh Way started to cripple the coach. He would sit dazed in his hot tub even after wins, despondent that he had miscalculated a play or two. 'I was a tortured person,' Walsh later told biographer [David] Harris. 'I felt the failure so personally...eventually I couldn't get out from under it all. You can't live that way long. You can only attack that part of your nervous system so many times."

Almost immediately after he retired following San Francisco's January 1989 Super Bowl victory, Walsh decided that he had left the game too soon--a feeling that only intensified when his successor George Seifert led the 49ers to a dominant season capped off by a Super Bowl triumph in January 1990. Wickersham declares, "Walsh hated that Seifert won a championship that year with his team, his West Coast offense, his philosophy; he so hated the ring that the team awarded him that he gave it away." Walsh's son Craig confirms Wickersham's account: "He didn't want them to win. He couldn't hand over the team he had created to someone else, because he wasn't capable of it."

Walsh wanted to define his legacy on his terms and explain to the world the exact reasons for his success, so he decided to assemble a comprehensive blueprint for putting together a championship organization from top to bottom. The result, after years of painstaking work--and the help of several collaborators, including his one-time assistant coach (and future Super Bowl champion coach in his own right) Brian Billick--was Finding the Winning Edge, a massive book that has become a bible for both aspiring and established football coaches. Wickersham writes, "For those who coached under Walsh, Finding the Winning Edge was a study of the genius beyond his playbook. For those who coached against him, it was a window into the mind of their nemesis. For [Bill] Belichick, it was validation. It was published during the crossroads of his career, while he was working as a Jets assistant. The book reinforced Belichick's own belief in detailed planning, which is why he calls it and Jack Welch and the GE Way the two most influential books of his career."

Walsh's book explores in detail a subject that has long fascinated me: The Difference Between Winners and Champions. Here is my explanation of that difference:

All pro athletes are winners. They are better at what they do best than 99% of people are at doing anything and they've been winning games or matches for most of their lives. Only a select few athletes are champions, though. They are the ones who make you watch, who are compelling figures to even casual fans--guys like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods...

Champions project a message to their opponents that induces fear and resignation. Opponents of former world chess champion Bobby Fischer used to call it "Fischer Fear." They used to say that they could feel his manic energy, his fierce will to win, across the chessboard. Michael Jordan's opponents used to feel a similar thing, as did Kasparov's and as do Woods' and Federer's.

The flip side of this kind of ferocious, single-minded drive and determination is that, as Kobe Bryant candidly admitted recently, "Winning takes precedence over all. There's no gray area. No almosts. It's a very unbalanced way to live and I know that. It's not healthy. And I can't justify it, but someone has to win and why not me and the Lakers organization." My personality is naturally wired in that fashion and while this can lead to great success there is the constant danger that without the right perspective it can also turn life into a joyless all or nothing proposition.

How can one chase perfection without losing a balanced perspective? Is it even possible to do so? More than a decade ago, ESPN's "SportsCentury" series profiled dozens of the 20th century's greatest athletes; this may be a slight exaggeration but my recollection is that Jack Nicklaus was about the only champion who appeared to be well-balanced: most champions seem to be tormented like Walsh and/or unable to completely integrate their perfectionism into their post-competition lives, often resulting in some combination of drug addiction, infidelity and/or reckless business moves leading to financial ruin. Perfectionism may be an asset during a 60 minute NFL game or a 48 minute NBA game but, as Walsh ruefully noted, "You can only attack that part of your nervous system so many times." Jerry West, the all-time great player who later drafted Kobe Bryant, is a classic example of someone who achieved greatness because of his perfectionism and yet still feels tormented.

Striving for greatness is important and meaningful but there can be a high price to pay for such striving and few people who attain greatness avoid paying for it in some fashion; that does not mean that anyone should settle for mediocrity but rather that those who strive for greatness must have tremendous self-awareness and must concentrate on maintaining proper balance mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically. 

1 comment:

tennis said...

i agree with your characterization of a champion, but I do think Federer is an example of someone who is not as ruthless and competitive as Jordan and Bryant.