Heat's Victory Points to Life Lessons Learned

If America is the land of second chances, LeBron James and the Miami Heat certainly offer a prime example. It was only one season ago that King James talked about “taking his talents to South Beach,” and well before the first tip-off of the season, the celebrations were already underway. True, the Heat made it to the 2011 NBA Finals, but by the time the team was struggling in game after game of sub-par fourth-quarter play, more people were cheering against LeBron and the Heat than for them.

Just one year later the confetti poured from the top of the American Airlines Arena and the champagne flowed as the Heat won the 2012 Championship and “the King” was crowned as Finals MVP. With less braggadocio and more maturity, the Heat had become a truly formidable foe, and underlying the stellar offense and unrelenting defense, a number of changes had taken place in the soul of the team and its star player – changes that helped propel them to victory.

While only a handful of folks will ever stand on such a lofty podium, there are a number of things the Heat did to transform themselves from “losers” to “winners” that can help any of us when life knocks us down or otherwise seems to hold success and happiness at arm’s length.

What’s the real goal?

After publicly announcing at the start of the 2010-11 season just how many titles there were going to win (not four … not five … not six …), it was clear that the Heat were playing to prove something. Winning the title had become an all-consuming objective, and “doing the work” kind of got lost. LeBron recalled, “The best thing that happened to me last year was us losing the Finals… and me playing the way I played. It humbled me. After the 2011 Championships I took a couple of weeks off and then I got back to the gym and got back to the basics. I had hit rock bottom. I really wanted it, but I wasn’t doing it the right way. I knew what it was going to take, and I was going to have to change as a basketball player, and I was going to have to change as a person,” LeBron said after Thursday night’s Championship win.

What player doesn’t seek success, fortune and fame? What LeBron came to understand is that these qualities are rarely achieved by aiming your sights at them directly – they are mostly found when we focus on “doing the work” and let the results – the championships and the accolades – take care of themselves. In the course of my own work, helping scores of athletes arrive at this understanding has brought them the results they had hoped for. Key to the process was to stop agonizing over the results and make the pursuit of excellence in the quality of their play their chief focus.

Let go of the baggage

The way that LeBron left Cleveland did not sit well with many. “Last year a lot of people were saying I was a selfish person and a selfish player, and I really let it affect me. All last year I was playing to prove everybody wrong. I was angry and playing with a chip on my shoulder. At the end of the day I was basically fighting against myself.”

Early in my sport psychology career, I told a gymnast preparing for a big meet that trying to prove something out there was like competing with a 50-pound weight around his neck. “Just focus on bringing your talents and all your preparation to bear,” I said. “That’s all that the people who really matter care about.” Being free of the extra baggage helped him go out and medal in three events.

Dr. Thomas Perls, author of the book Living To Be 100, reported research findings that individuals who are effective in “letting go” thrive much better than those who insist on holding on to past hurts or the need to prove something or to “even the score” with others.

Ego is fine… when held in check

LeBron talked about how losing humbled him and made him re-assess his focus. When he talked about getting back to basics – the rebounding and the defense – he was focusing on the qualities that make him a champion. In sport – or other endeavors – our ego, and bragging rights, can be on the line. if we are able to put that aside and focus on “doing the job” – on giving full effort and committing to constant improvement – we are more likely to keep growing and stay on the path to reaching our goals.

Dwyane Wade, who himself had been the MVP of the 2006 Finals, put ego aside and accepted a different role in helping the Heat to hit their collective stride. “We made the decision two years ago to become a team, LeBron, Chris, myself, and the other guys … So you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to make sure that you reach your goal. And I had a position (and) a role to play. It might have changed a little bit, but at the end of the day we all had one common goal, and that was to become champions.”


LeBron James and Dwyane Wade at the 2012 Championship Parade

Photo Credit: David Alvarez

Even champions make mistakes – they just bounce back faster

My conversations with many elite athletes lead me to conclude that at the highest levels of play, championships are won by players and teams who make the fewest mistakes. But the fact is that even the best athletes make mistakes. The champions are the ones who are resilient – who know how to recover quickly, so that mistakes don’t take them out of their game plan and lead to even more mistakes. Just as Mike Miller’s astounding seven 3-pointers fueled the Heat in Game 5, the mistakes that the Thunder made seemed to take the wind out of their sails. But, as players and coaches on both teams noted throughout the series, you have to keep “grinding it out,” no matter what.

Bonnie St. John, silver medal winner in downhill skiing in the 1984 Paralympic Games, learned an important lesson at the time. “In my first run of the slalom, I was ahead, but then I fell down and had to get up to complete the race. In fact, the woman who won the gold medal also fell down. I knew from previous races that I could ski faster than her. But what won the gold medal for her was that she got up faster than I did after falling down. I learned that everybody falls down, but Olympic athletes get up faster, and gold medalists get up the fastest of all.”

Hang in there

Coach Eric Spoelstra, whose own job this season was at times thought to be on the line, was asked what the biggest challenge was as the man charged with bringing the team back from last season’s loss. “Just to pick up our spirits and stay on course. We knew we could do it, but it would be a long season and a tough road. We got knocked down two or three times this playoff run, but the thing that matters, we got up and we kept on working.”

In 2000, tennis great Gustavo Kuerten took an early two-set lead in the finals of the French Open, when he got trounced 2-6 in the 3rd set and was in danger of losing the fourth set as well. After winning a tie-break to take that set, the match, and the title, Kuerten said that when he felt his game slipping away he told himself that if he could just hang on, his game and his confidence would return – and all he needed to do was just keep believing in himself, even when point after point went to his opponent. More recently, New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin told reporters that as long as he had one person who believed in him, he could keep going during those tough times before he got picked up by the Knicks and he could establish himself in the NBA.

You have to please yourself

After the NBA Championship game, LeBron was asked what he learned about himself as a ballplayer and as a man on the journey to title.

“The biggest thing I learned,” he replied, “is that you can’t control what people say about you, what people think about you. You have to be true to yourself, to the people that surround you, and to your loved ones. I put a lot of hard work into this … It just shows when you’re committed and you give everything to the game, the game pays off and it gives back to you.”

In the end, redemption came from “doing it the right way.” And while the spectacular play of LeBron and D-Wade, and the way that the rest of the team rose to the occasion, brought them the championship trophy, perhaps in the qualities that make for true champions, the Heat players and Coach Spoelstra really aren’t all that different from the coach and players of Oklahoma City.

My own work in helping athletes and teams to “do it the right way” has often given them the tools to achieve top performances. But mostly, when we have talked about it afterwards, I remember their profound feelings of pride in having hung in, worked hard, and regrouped as necessary to reach the goals they had set for themselves years earlier, and attaining in the process a deep sense of personal excellence.

Dr. Mitch Smith is the Director of Sport Psychology Services at Florida Atlantic University, as well as a consultant in private practice working with clients in the areas of sports and business. (FauSportsDoc@yahoo.com)