Mental Toughness: Michael Jordan's Greatest Season

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Michael Jordan's best season, basketball

Every once in a while, Michael Jordan seems to be back in the news for a reason that I must have missed (note to self: do some research before writing). But it was interesting to notice just how seeing his picture brings back a flood of memories of the greatness that we saw on display when he was on the court. Now, I am not a basketball fan, but my cousins turned me on to Michael and it became fun to watch him do what he did best.

But one season of his career stands out, one that for me was one of the most memorable seasons of his career. The year was 1994.

Now, those of you familiar with his career may be thinking, “Wait a minute, he retired for the first time in 93” and, yes, after leading the Bulls to 3 consecutive titles he “retired” from basketball and embarked on what most people would look at as a "hiccup" in his career or a "stumble" on his road to greatness.

Michael Jordan, baseball 

He spent one season trying to make it in the world of baseball where, to most eyes, he failed miserably which is a bit judgmental when you consider the task that he set out for himself. 

Just consider that he was 31 and stepping into the world of a professional sport he hadn’t played since high school, but regardless of how difficult of a task he set up for himself to try to complete, he still failed at it. But he still played out the season, he still got up for every bat and battled devastating curveballs. For those who have never experienced good pitching, just understand what goes on in the mind of a hyper-competitive person as they stand in the batter's box and watch a fastball sail by them, and in their mind they think, I can nail that, and the next pitch is a curveball, one that you miss by about a foot as you swing with all you've got. basically, you are made to look ridiculous. Being made to look ridiculous is really hard to take for a professional athlete who has won the most valuable player award 5 times, and he was being made a fool of by a minor league pitcher sometimes a year or two out of High school.  But this is where the mental toughness comes in, he still got up there time after time and struggled through at bat after at bat. and he finished out the season.

I feel like I saw in that season what made him so great in basketball (besides, of course, his amazing physical gifts). Consider that he was a superstar. At the time, he was one of the most recognizable people in all of sports and he was willing to go to the minor leagues, ride the bus, and struggle, and struggle, and struggle through each humiliating at bat. He could have left at any time; he didn't need this. But there was a mental toughness that was there in him that caused him not to quit.

I have an idea that mental toughness comes through some combination of losing, being over-matched, and struggling. It takes going through all of that and still going forward that gives a person the mental toughness to keep going.

As I was growing up I had a dad who liked to play chess, and I would often play with him. He would beat me again and again. He would get me into a bind and then turn the table, taking my position, and then get me in a bind again, turn the table again, and finally checkmate me.

How humiliating. I never once came anywhere close to beating my dad at chess.

Interesting thing, though. My dad died when I was twelve and I have played a number of chess games in the following years-- since I, like my dad, enjoy chess as well. In all those years, I have never lost a chess match-- up until 12, I have no memory of ever winning a game-- since twelve, I have never lost a game. (Trust me-- I know I would lose if put up against someone really good).

Looking back at it, I really feel that I learned the most while being beaten again and again by my dad.

Sometimes we look at someone who is successful and declare that they are “a winner,” but what we don’t always see is the often long string of losing in that person's background.

I don’t know this for sure, but I have wondered whether things like getting cut from his high school team and being over matched in baseball gave him some of the mental toughness to both compete and then come back and compete again in basketball in the same way it did for me while playing my dad at chess.

What are your thoughts? Does winning come from being a "winner" or can you see the times that you have lost or been completely over-matched and how that built that mental toughness that you needed when the times got tough?


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