I want to tell you a story about life through basketball. I know two young men, Conner and Kevin. Both play basketball for the same college team. Conner is a freshman and Kevin is a senior. Conner is recovering from knee surgery. Kevin is healthy and training. The season is about to begin, and last weekend both attended a scrimmage against a rival school. Kevin and Conner’s team lost the scrimmage, but the effort was a good one, and both athletes came to talk with me the week following.
“Conner!” I said, as he walked in my room, “you were the MVP!” Humble, Conner looked down, but he couldn’t restrain the wide grin that broke across his face. My comment referred to the fact that I’d watched Conner, still unable to play because of his knee surgery, cheer and encourage his teammates for the whole game that Saturday. On his feet the entire time, Conner’s efforts had resounded with whole-heartedness. He’d placed loving hands on tired shoulders, and stared conviction into angry eyes. He’d gestured so animatedly that he appeared to be waving hope, like a wild wizard, all over his friends. Conner even chased down and cajoled a dejected teammate who had walked away with fury following a mistake. I believe that Conner contributed more to the energy and effort of his team than many who had appeared on court as players.
“I couldn’t play, so I had to make my presence known somehow,” Conner explained to me. “I talked mess too!”
“You talked what?” I asked.
“Mess! Trash talking!” Conner explained proudly.
Smiling, laughing, I asked, “what did you say?!”
“I picked on his socks!” Conner announced. “That’s what really gets to people. You gotta pick on their wardrobe. You wouldn’t believe the energy that guy wasted on me!”
Unsure if I should condone Conner’s trash talking, I grinned and looked sideways, considering what to say next. “He started it!” Conner exclaimed, clearly reading the indecision behind my silence. “He walked by the bench and said, ‘you all weak!’ so I said, ‘you got ugly socks!’”
Conner had persisted this way relentlessly the whole game, loving and lifting his teammates, and mocking the socks of the opposition. Sweat had sparkled on his brow after the game. I’d noticed this, and marveled because he didn’t play at all.
The next day, Conner’s teammate Kevin came to speak with me. “How did you feel about the game on Saturday?” I asked him.
“I was disappointed with the number of minutes I played,” Kevin told me, soft eyes downcast. “Last year I started twenty games, and on Saturday I played about two minutes.” Playing time is a revered prize for athletes. More time on the court communicates to a player that he is a valued member of the team. Playing time is probably one of the most contentious issues between athletes and coaches in college sport, and is frequently the source of discontent when athletes come to talk with me.
“How’d those minutes go?” I asked Kevin.
“They were ok,” he said, looking at his shoes. Clearly Kevin was still feeling upset by how little he had played.
Kevin and I moved on to analyze the effectiveness of his mental performance plan. We reviewed the question, “who do you want to be?” Kevin had told me that as a senior, he wants to be a leader. “When you’re leading,” I asked Kevin, “what type of actions would I see if I was watching you?”
“I lead by example,” Kevin said, “by my performance on the court.”
I’ve heard this explanation many times before. Numerous players tell me that they lead by example through performance. Frequently, those who tell me this are naturally quiet people. Clearly, many types of personalities are of value on a team. Those who are quiet by nature have methods of contribution that differ from those who are more outgoing—and equally valuable. Sometimes however, as is the case with Kevin, this statement is used as an excuse to withdraw and not contribute—especially in circumstances when contribution involves stepping of our comfort zone, or accepting not getting our way.
The vast majority of my writing will encourage you to use the qualities that are most naturally “you.” Most of the time I feel like this is good advice. After all, science shows that we typically excel when being our authentic selves, and experience greater well-being. There is a great deal of value in identifying your signature character strengths (the strengths of character most abundant in you). However, sometimes circumstances ask us to leverage other strengths, and even our weaknesses in order to contribute. Also, we can sometimes use our character strengths to extremes—to a place where they are more harmful than helpful. In Kevin’s case, he has taken his desire to lead quietly through performance to the point where he sulks when he’s not playing. He resists verbally encouraging his teammates, and separates himself due to his loyalty to his quietness. While Conner is loved and respected by his teammates, Kevin is disconnected. There is an air of superiority about him. When I conduct team workshops I can feel the lack of synergy between Kevin and the others. As a result his relationships on the team have grown cold, and the quality of his play has deteriorated.
The point of this story is to remind us all to be very careful about how we view our character strengths, and how resolutely we hold to them. We need to look honestly and objectively at how they are or are not serving us. Is how you’re behaving contributing to a greater good? Does it serve the overall objective? Could you soften a strength, or consider the growth of another in order to contribute to the efforts you’re involved with?
How do you know if you’re overusing a strength? One clarifying question to ask yourself: is this effort for myself or for others? Also, pay attention to the expressions and responses of those around you. Do they welcome you? Do they seem happy and relieved when you arrive? Do they come to you with questions or for advice? Do you feel like you can come to them? What can I do for them is a wonderful question.
For the time being, I will leave you with that to consider. Conner is coming back to talk with me shortly. We need to discuss the limits of trash talking…
About the Author
Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
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