Brad Keywell


College Basketball Doesn't Just Build Character, It Reveals Character

So said Marv Levy, the Hall of Fame NFL coach (and native Chicagoan).

With the NCAA basketball tournament well underway, my version of that insight is this — college basketball doesn’t just build character, it reveals character.

My heart, of course, bleeds the maize and blue of the Michigan Wolverines. With their game vs. Texas A&M tonight, I offer four lessons about character that apply to sports and life, revealed amidst Michigan’s first-round victory over Montana and the subsequent buzzer-beating victory over Houston.

Lesson 1:

Keep your eyes focused on what’s ahead. Enter the next stretch and win it.

University of Montana, ranked #76 in the country and the 14th seed in the West region, opened the game with a 10-0 run against Michigan, the #12 ranked team in the country and the third seed in the West. So what did Michigan Coach John Beilein say to the team during a timeout with a 10-point deficit? “Let’s win the next four minutes. That’s it – let’s play the next four minutes, and let’s win it!”

Some do great work and then get comfortable, losing focus and tenacity before the job is done. Steve Jobs nailed this one head-on when he famously said to a designer, “You've baked a really lovely cake, but then you've used dog shit for frosting,” insisting that computers should not only work beautifully but also look beautiful. In the opposite circumstance, dwelling on past challenges and failures distracts from full focus and rational decision making and prevents action.

Lesson 2:

Seek opportunity, and when the time comes, take your shot without fear.

Jordan Poole is a freshman on Michigan’s basketball team, and not only is he not a starter, but in most games he plays less than ten minutes. Three pointers? Poole had failed in his last nine three-pointer attempts before Saturday’s game. But this 18-year-old from Milwaukee has not yet learned fear. So when he got the ball, standing far outside the three-point line with Michigan down two points and one second on the clock, he took the shot with confidence. Once the mayhem subsided, he said, “I think the guys on the team know that I never lose confidence, and you just gotta always be ready for the opportunity and for the moment.”

Giving your all requires you to deliberately unlearn your fears. It asks that you orient yourself like a freshman, undaunted by the possibility of mistake and failure. Find the part of you that seeks opportunity, and abandon the learned what ifs. Work every day to create prime conditions for scalability, flexibility and leadership, and prepare for every possible outcome. That way, when the time comes to be ready for a game-winning shot, you’re ready for it.

If you don’t hit it, know you did everything you could - you left everything out on the court - and be proud. After all, missing shots happens, in basketball and in life. And when you do hit it, let your team tackle you in celebration!

Lession 3:

Set and maintain expectations of greatness.

After the game, Coach Beilein said something to the effect of, “That’s what you do, that’s what you do.” Amidst the chaos of the jubilation the coach did not refer to the past tense (i.e. ‘Great shot’) and he didn’t merely offer innocuous praise. Rather, he affirmed the power and capability of his player to succeed under pressure.

He reinforced the team culture of greatness and excellence as an expected result of hard work rather than thinking the shot was a miracle or the result of luck. He prepared his player for continued success by arming him with this message, your coach believes that you make great shots in the clutch – it’s what you do.

You have the capability for excellence no matter what the circumstance, uncertainty, or challenge may be. You have the power to be your best and, at the same time, help your teammates be their best. You have the strength to be focused (not distracted by unproductive drama or fear, and not creating the distraction of gossip), and by being fully present, you optimize your role in helping any person, company, or organization achieve its greatness. That’s what you do.

Lession 4:

No matter the circumstance, act with humility and give empathy. The person on the opposing team, or on the other side of the table, is human: with hopes and fears and beautiful flaws. Just like you.

After Jordan sunk the game-winning shot, it was bedlam. The thrill was alive and well for Michigan, while the Houston players endured deep sadness as their season met its end with a single shot. On the way to join the joyful celebration, Michigan junior (and co-captain) Mo Wagner stopped to console Houston's Corey Davis Jr. He noticed Davis, and what he did beautifully demonstrated what I call ‘competitive grace’. Wagner looked Davis in the eyes, offered words of support and comfort, and gave his opponent a hug. This quick act – taking no more than 20 seconds – illustrated Wagner’s character; the character of a champion. It was pure humility and empathy undeterred by the intoxicating thrill of victory, sincere love of competition and respect for strong competitors, and fully present and composed no matter what the circumstance. As Adam Grant, behavioral psychologist, author and Professor at the Wharton School of The University of Pennsylvania, says in his book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success: “This is what I find most magnetic about successful givers: they get to the top without cutting others down, finding ways of expanding the pie that benefits themselves and the people around them. Whereas success is zero-sum in a group of takers, in groups of givers, it may be true that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

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© Brad Keywell 2021