James, Messi, Williams, Brady, Biles, just a few names of world famous sportspeople who’ve climbed to the very pinnacle of their respective sports. These men and women are exceptionally talented using their finely tuned bodies to excel and go where very few others can.
Lionel Messi gliding past opponents before neatly shooting the ball into the back of the net, Simone Biles able to control her body with perfect balance and poise as she elegantly claims another Olympic Gold or Tom Brady rallying his team from almost-certain defeat to clinch yet another Super Bowl ring.
These are moments that confound and amaze where we exclaim, “How did they just do that!” And rightly so. Because when people do truly exceptional things we should be provoked to awe. As an armchair sports enthusiast, it’s the moments of the truly sublime that keep me coming back again and again.
I played rugby when I was in high school and I was a passable player. I remember watching a talented teammate do something exceptional from the sidelines and saying to my coach, “He could go all the way.” My coach looked at me wryly, like a man who’d seen it all before, and said, “You need more than talent to make it.” And continued by saying, “A lot of the guys that make it aren’t always the most skillful, they’re just the hardest working. They listen to their coaches; take criticism and put in the hours when no one else is looking.”
As a teenager that grated on me because I knew he was talking about that little thing called character, a word parents used to explain away the need to do chores.
Though, in time I realized how right he was and that his insight was a truism for learning how to be successful in most (if not all) walks of life. He was talking about that unsung hero of many peoples’ lives, character.
After all, character doesn’t make the hoop swoosh, the net bulge or the wide receiver catch the pass that wins it all. That takes skill. But what got James, Biles, Brady, Messi, Williams and countless others there? The talent of character.
One of my best friends embodies the talent of character. I’ve known him since I was 12 and I’ve always admired him. He is what I would describe as being the perfect balance of skill and character, and what makes him even more impressive is that he knows that about himself.
I’ve heard him say on more than one occasion, “I always knew I wasn’t the smartest kid in the class and because of that I always knew I had to work that bit harder.” He now works at a prestigious law firm. Yes, his journey has in some ways been harder but it’s made him better because of it and it’s precisely the character part that sets him apart from others.
Ever since I’ve known him my friend had the mindset that just because he didn’t have the talent some of his peers had he wasn’t going to let that be an obstacle. In fact, he was going to use it as a motivator. In essence, he covered the areas where he didn’t have the same talent with his character. For example, when it took a smarter classmate twenty minutes to complete an assignment he would willingly take an hour. I’m not exaggerating. He went on to get top grades all the way through school.
Now, nearly fifteen years later he’s thriving in what he’s doing. Why? Because if skill is the house, then character is the foundation. My friend worked on his character foundations so that what was built above it could be utilized to the best of its potential and stand the test of time.
I think one of the most important keys to unlocking character in yourself is to be humble. I know that that was how my friend did it. He was humble enough to take stock of who he was and what he needed to do in order to become more than the sum of his parts. As an aside, the great thing about humility is that it saturates all other areas of a persons’ life, which is one of the reasons why I enjoy being around him.
I know it might sound ridiculous but I actually see parallels between he and Tom Brady. All the stories I hear from teammates and opponents alike tell of a man who is humble, teachable and a team player who’s driven to win.
Now, if you’re reading this and correlating character with being at the top of your profession, that’s not my intention. It’s purely a byproduct of learning humility, discipline and self-control. Neither am I saying that sport is the only environment for building character. I just think sport offers so many metaphors for life, especially when it comes to attitude.
I love watching talented people do incredible things in all walks of life but it doesn’t inspire me. Why? Because talent has nothing to do with attitude. Talent is a God-given gift nothing more, nothing less.
What inspires me is watching people do it again and again and again ten years, twenty years, thirty years after the first time they did, because that takes character. That tells me that the house has firm foundations and come what may you won’t find cracks in the wall.
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