I used to beat my younger brother Travis in every sport we played. We would play basketball in the backyard, and I would destroy him every game. He would work hard and cry and struggle, and I would always come out ahead. When he got better, I would employ cheap tactics to keep beating him. I slowly watched his skills improve, and every advantage I had faded away. Near the end, I would tackle him as he went up for a layup, doing everything in my power to beat him. Frankly, I was a terrible example to my brother of what it means to be an athlete, and he seemed to learn that if you played like me you would eventually be overtaken. It was only a matter of time before this was the case.
My brother is now a college basketball player. He overtook the older players on his college team and started as a freshman. He is a deadly three-point shooter. Although he is not fast, he outworks people. Most do not have the ability to guard him for an entire game. He stands at a massive 6’8” with broad shoulders, and after breathing into his mouthpiece to cherry up his opponents with slobber, he will mark his territory with a dunk or a three ball.
What has always befuddled me about my brother is that he does not have an active ego to cradle his skills. I often ask myself where his grit came from, and if he had it, why had I never seen it? Surely, if someone is as good as he is at something, he will acknowledge it, pepping his step when he walks around! Travis, however, is noble in that way and never reveals his hard work to people. He rarely revels in his accomplishments. For him, it is always about the next shot, the next game, and the next season.
Travis would never say that he prepares and works to be better because it does not mean much to him to say it to himself or others. Rather, he lives it, letting his actions speak for themselves. I always knew he lived it, but I had never truly witnessed it until one night when I went to rebound for him, I caught a glimpse of his grit. When Travis shoots, he does a routine in which he goes around the ring of three point shots and makes 8 of 10 from each spot. It does not matter if he hits the rim or not; the ball just has to sink in. He goes “around the horn” a few times making about 150 three-point shots in all. Next on the agenda I guard him as he dominates me in post work. I would try my best to make it difficult for him, mainly fouling him tremendously. After we are both good and sweaty, he shoots free throws. These are easy for him, and by the end he has made about 90 of 100 attempts.
Travis then takes up the most difficult task. He goes around the three-point arc again, except this time he must make 8, and “swish” 6, of his ten shots. To my surprise he did this very well, and as he went around he did it with ease. However, when he got to his weakest spot on the floor, the far-right corner, he missed the first two shots that he took, and hit the rim on the next two. This meant that he had to make the next six shots, and all of them had to be swishes.
I was openly aggravated for him. I had already given up. There was no way to finish the workout since he had to swish, not simply make, the next six shots! Swish. “What makes a guy keep trying in this situation?” Swish. “Why did he set such an impossible standard? We are never going to leave now.” Swish. “I’m hungry.” Swish. “Wow, he just might…” Swish. But he hit the rim on the last one. Time to go again.
That moment, knowing he had to finish an impossible task – almost doing it – and then starting over when he failed, may just be what I longed to see. How he reacted was not filled with the flame of ego and the posh of being “just that good.” It was so perfectly normal, routine, anti-climactic, and dull. He looked at me and asked me to toss him the ball. We started over.
This display was but a moment in the long-term vision my brother had for improving his game, and it was a combination of failing over and over again, in trivial, unsexy moments, that demonstrated his grit. Although the case of my brother may have been centered on basketball, at the end of the day it really isn’t all about the sport. Rather it is the spirit of resolve that is cultivated in the pursuit of excellence. Like most sports, my brother has shown me how taking a sport seriously, or taking anything seriously, is the best way to learn about succeeding in life. This is far more consequential than we realize, for this grit in the pursuit of excellence extends far beyond the basketball court. Before Abraham Lincoln became president, he lost five other elections for lesser offices. He spent decades in perpetual struggle – failed businesses, romances, and political endeavors – yet always refused to give in. History does not remember those moments. But it was those very failures that came to define him. Reacting to the petty and frustrating trials, the moments of coming so close to success and having to start over, defined the spirit of Lincoln.
As with the great men who displayed such grit on a macro scale, there was something in my brother’s refusal to surrender and the resolve he had when he did not succeed, that drove him to start over. That resolve has moved history before, and it will again. “Toss me the ball, Jackson.”