I think it was Tim Grover who said this quote, and it actually goes like this:
“Winning is more fun than fun is fun”
True and concise, with a funny twist to it. But it is 100% true. I have seen both sides of this, and I learned very quickly that if I wanted to be a winner and not just a participant in competitive environments, I needed to get real about the work I did in advance. I needed the prep work to be far more rigorous than the competition itself; I needed the tournament to feel like a vacation or a reward versus what I lived through the month prior as I prepared.
I know it was Grover who said another quote on this same topic that really hits hard too:
“If you think the price to pay for winning is high,
wait until you get the bill for regret”
This I have lived, and paid the high price of being underprepared for an event and getting underwhelming (but deserved) results. If you want to separate yourself for the masses, you have to do more than others are doing. At some point in your journey of competition, your talent is no longer going to be enough. As you climb the ladder of competition, you will run into others who have already started the process of working harder than those around them. Some people will try to cruise along on talent for as long as they can, or think they are satisfied with where they are at. As Tim Grover would define them, they are Coolers; on occasion they have a flash of brilliance but it is by no means consistent or to be counted upon. To be the go-to person when the game is on the line takes practice, it takes commitment and it takes a willingness to fail when others are counting on you. Most people do not want to shoulder that kind of responsibility. Most people play for “fun”, meaning they put a little work in, have small if any expectations, and can easily be talked out of winning. It was a starting point for me, but it wasn’t enough; I gave up on just having fun very early on in my athletic career. I wanted more…
For those that are willing to work hard, they may be able to become a Closer. This person will put in some extra work and strive to take the lead when given the chance to. They have gone from a good player to a great player. They are looked upon as a problem for much of their competition when mapping out their journey to the finals of an event. They are a roadblock that needs to be upset, because on a regular outing the outcome is pretty well established already. There were people I competed against in singles and doubles that I KNEW I would not lose to; I had raised my minimum level of ability to a high enough level that they were not a threat. It was a great feeling to overhear people looking at a draw sheet and groan when they see they are going to be facing me in another round or two. There was nothing better (even to this day) than to have someone do this and turn around to see me standing behind them. The look on their face said it all…
For me, this wasn’t enough. I wanted to become a destroyer, not just a winner. I didn’t just want to beat someone, I wanted to erase all hope that they even belonged on the court with me in the first place. I wanted them to know, without a shred of doubt, that I was going to win and win big. They had no chance. There was no hope of winning for them, the end was already decided and it was just a matter of time before we reached that conclusion. On a local level, I was the top player for a period of about 8 years. I had a very close competitor that was a struggle to beat every time we faced one another. Literally a two hour match would end up getting decided by two points in the end. I prevailed 95% of the time during this eight year run. I had lost to him a lot in the previous years, but once I had a win over him, we both believed something different from that moment forward. I believed I could win again, and he believed he could lose to me again. And we were both right…
After reaching this point of my career, I could have easily stayed as the big fish in the little pond, winning most of the state level tournaments and calling it good. But that wasn’t enough. I wanted to test myself at the next level. I got the chance to compete against the best of the best, although I greatly closed the gap, I never made it into the top one percent of the upper echelon. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying. I did everything both on and off the court that I could possibly think of to improve as a player and competitor. With no budget and a lot of help from others, I was able to give myself a shot at maximizing my full potential as an athlete. I became a CLEANER. I outworked everyone off the court so I could run circles around them on the court. I wanted to not just win, not just beat them, but destroy them and crush their desire to ever face me again. I wanted to retire people. THAT is a Cleaner mentality
I wasn’t until I saw the documentary The Last Dance that I really understood myself in this manner. I used to think I was a little nuts, too obsessed with winning or even more so, not losing. I defended my position at the top of the hill like my life depended on it. I craved having the chance to take the winning shot, I wanted the outcome in my hands. I learned to steel my nerves to the point that I could and did execute under the most extreme pressure moments. I read Tim Grover’s book a while ago, and I would catch things in interviews with Kobe Bryant and a few others who were that next step up from everyone else and think “Wow, I have those same thoughts”. It seemed presumptuous to think of myself as one of those guys, especially since I was not the dominant guy in my own sport. But what I learned over time was that I had the Cleaner mentality, I just didn’t quite have all of the tools necessary to be the one person everyone else had to chase.
I gave up on the fun side of racquetball about six months into my journey in the sport. I became obsessed with making it to the top, and every single thing I did was measured against whether or not it helped me reach that goal. I spent more time in the weight room, running the hill, and doing other things that most people were just not willing to do. I learned to love the craft, the prep work and most importantly the suffering. Yes, I learned to love to suffer. I recruited people who could help me suffer more, like my trainer. I knew that if I could find what my real limits are, and then extend them out even farther for the next time, at some point I would be untouchable. I could make certain things that were usually variables for most, a given for me. For example, I did so much physical preparation that I never feared ANYONE’s ability to wear me down, tire me out, or break me physically. I usually played both singles and doubles in the tournaments I entered and I would still be in better physical shape for the finals of both than someone who had only made it that far in one division. That variable became a given. I took off the table something that could have factored into every match I played. The prep work made what was a liability for some into an asset for me.
A Cleaner has a short memory and a long list of grudges that they hold. It isn’t the healthiest way of living, but if you want to truly excel and be the best of the best, you have to see the world through dark eyes. You need to hate to lose more than you love to win. You need to be willing to outwork everyone before during and after the competitive event. Fun is reserved for the few times that you reward your hard work with an extracurricular activity like playing a round of golf. This is why Cleaners are so respected but not always liked. They are not nice people, they are killers through and through. Perfect example, Kobe Bryant clotheslined Dwayne Wade during the NBA ALL STAR game when he tried to dunk on him. Wade knew before he hit the floor that he had made a mistake, and Kobe sent a message once again, to Wade and everyone else who ever set foot on the floor with him. Yes, this is an exhibition game of sorts, but the rules of engagement for me DO NOT CHANGE. Play me at your own risk.
I can tell you that I accomplished more in my racquetball career because of this mentality than I ever would have if my goal was to have fun. I sacrificed a lot of enjoyment by choosing this path, but the rewards have been well worth it. This path is not for everyone, but for the few who can walk it, you will see and experience things others only can sit on the sidelines and witness second hand. It is a heavy burden to bear, but then again what worthwhile thing isn’t?