A Mental Game Lesson From The GOAT

Growing up, Michael Jordan was the most dominant athlete on the planet and also my idol. For years, I tried to get tickets to see him play, but his popularity pretty much ensured a sellout making it all the more difficult to see Jordan in action. Then, as luck would have it, one cold March night in 1993, my dream came true. I was living in Silver Spring, Maryland at the time, which was pretty close to where the Washington Bullets (now the Wizards) played their home games. On that fateful night, the Jordan’s Bulls were in town playing the back end of a home and home series with the Bullets, and even better, there was some drama in the air. 
The night before, the Bulls played the Bullets in Chicago. The Bulls won that game, 104-99, but not without controversy. LaBradford Smith, a role player for the Bullets, had a career game. Smith went 15 for 20 from the field and 7 for 7 from the line finishing with 37 points with Jordan guarding him most of the night. After a brilliant game, Smith’s only mistake was trash talking MJ about it walking off the court afterwards. As everyone knows, you never talk trash to Michael Jordan, or get ready to put in your place. 
As the story goes, Jordan, who was always looking for creative ways to motivate himself, seized on the moment and promised payback. Given that the two teams were going to play each other the next night, game two was highly anticipated, and best of all, I was going to be there! Unfortunately for me, there was one wrinkle.
This story about Jordan and Smith is well known and was even featured on The Last Dance, a well worth the watch documentary about Jordan’s career. However, one thing that didn’t get discussed in the documentary, and that most people don’t know, is that in the first game, Jordan badly sprained his ankle early in the game. His injury not only made Smith’s 37 point night on Jordan a bit more understandable, but unfortunately for me, it also put my chances of seeing Jordan play in the second game jeopardy. Even though Jordan had his motivation, his playing status was listed as a “gametime decision”. Aaaaaaah! I couldn’t believe it. I finally got tickets and Jordan might not even play. Just my luck.
Still, with cautious optimism, I got to the arena early to watch the pregame shoot around to see if Jordan was fit to play. My hopes quickly began to fade when Jordan, clearly hobbled, proceeded to miss shot after shot in warmups. Staying on the court after his teammates left in an attempt to keep his ankle loose didn’t seem to help either. Clank! Brick! Head hanging, Jordan limped to the bench and sat down. It didn’t look good.
To my surprise and probably to everyone else’s in the arena, Jordan’s name was announced in the starting lineup for the Bulls. Absolutely amazing! Then, the most incredible thing I have ever seen in sports happened. Jordan erupted. He went 9 for 9 to start the game scoring the Bulls first 18 points. He was unstoppable. Jordan had 36 points at the half, one point shy of LaBradford Smith’s total the night before, and he finished with 47 points for the game. Oh by the way, Jordan didn’t even play the 4th quarter. To this day, it was the most remarkable athletic performance I have ever seen. 
Years later, I reflect back on the lessons this experience taught me. There are many, but one that stands out more than others was Jordan’s ability and desire to succeed even when there appears to be reasons not to. It was a mid-season game against a weaker opponent, the Bulls were playoff bound already, and Jordan was hurt. To the rest of the world, it would have been understandable if Jordan took the night off. To Jordan, however, he saw it as an opportunity to strive for more and challenge himself to get better. In an interview with self-help guru Tony Robbins,Robbins asked Jordan what sets him apart from other players. Jordan responded, “it’s my standards. Every day, I demand more from myself than anybody else could humanly expect. I’m not competing with somebody else. I’m competing with what I’m capable of.” Imagine what it would feel like, what you would accomplish, waking up every day committed to pushing yourself to the edge of your capabilities. My guess is that you too would be unstoppable.