Level One Leadership in Pro Sports

It’s an exciting time in the sports world, one many of us fans look forward to, as we begin another collegiate and professional football season! The Tampa Bay Buccaneers look to defend their NFL title from a year ago, and will be facing an entirely new threat this year: Expectation. Despite the storied career of Mr. Tom Brady, the expectations for the Bucs in their first season were good, but most pundits wouldn’t have considered them favorites. Brady was in his age-43 season, and despite a good defense and reliable weapons, the Bucs had not sniffed postseason success in almost 20 years. On top of this, Brady’s end in New England was unspectacular, ending in a surprise playoff loss to the upstart Tennessee Titans, and there were talks about a decline in his play as age possibly, finally started to play a factor in Brady’s performance. The incredible run last January saw Brady and the Bucs knock off old familiar foes for Brady in Drew Brees’ Saints and Aaron Rodgers’ Packers before handing young superstar and “Face of the NFL” Patrick Mahomes a Super Bowl loss. It is easy to say that every player mentioned here will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Just for kicks, Brady didn’t even get an offseason to get acquainted with his brand new teammates before the season started.

“It was very different because where I was for 20 years was, obviously, it was great for me, it was spectacular, I wouldn’t change anything, and I think that when we’re at that point at the Patriots, everyone at the start of the season would be like ‘well, who are you guys playing in the championship game?’ And it always got to be like, you know, the expectations were so, not unrealistic, it was just like people jumped ahead of all the intense competition which in the end for us you kind of feel like, you know, it’s a lot harder than that. It’s a lot harder than that. And I think going into this year was different for me, because you go to a different place and that wasn’t really the question I was being asked. The question is, you know, ‘can you guys be successful? How are you going to be successful? How are you going to learn your teammates? How are they going to learn you?” -Tom Brady on a new start with Tampa Bay.

Well…flash forward 12 months, and the expectations for Brady are right back where they started. The Bucs are a trendy pick to defend their title. It is always difficult when a team or individual summits the highest level of competition and stands above the rest as champion to reset the process and start over with a new level of expectation to live up to. Teams circle you on the calendar. Every competitor gives their absolute best because you are the benchmark. It comes with its own set of challenges. One of these challenges is to not give more credit to the expectations than they are worth. At the end of the day, the truth about “high expectations” in the sense that we are discussing them, is that they come from outside sources. They are not something we can control. Leadership starts with the ability to lead yourself. We talk about this all the time, and it’s referred to as Level 1 Leadership. The expectations of others can be a drag on an athlete’s confidence if they are not able to separate the expectations from their own confidence. The “failure” to live up to someone else’s expectations can actually allow doubt to creep in and affect performance in a negative way.

How can athletes and coaches fight against this invisible opponent? There is a critical difference between expectations and standards. We are able to set our own standards, and we are also able to find a mindset that allows us to accept nothing less. The best way to block out the outside noise is to find your own sanctuary in owning what you can control. Nobody can stop you from being the hardest worker on your team. Nobody can stop you from studying the playbook more. Nobody can stop you from honing skills and adding new elements to your game to turn your weaknesses into strengths. When you are accountable to yourself for your own preparation and work ethic, the weight of what others expect from you simply means less.

Taking care of oneself is also critical to performing at an elite level. We’ve seen the stress of living up to impossibly high expectations affect many stellar professional athletes. It goes without saying that athletes need to be in peak physical shape to play at a professional level of competition, but we would be remiss to leave out the incredible mental toll that performing for the expectations of others can have. This element is most frequently overlooked in such a results-oriented field.

Most recently, we have seen tennis phenom Naomi Osaka bring to the forefront a focus on mental health awareness after pulling out of the French Open this July citing mental health concerns and losing in an upset in the 3rd round of the U.S. Open after that. In her press conference after her 3rd round exit, Osaka said that she will be taking an indefinite leave from tennis to focus on getting her mental health in order. While this seems out of the ordinary for such a young and successful athlete (Osaka is still only 23 years old), her bravery and stance on this issue has seen massive support from all over the sports world, and it has unearthed something that has stayed hidden for some time. Golfer Rory McIlroy showed his support and mentioned that he went through something very similar. He spoke of finding a way to separate yourself from your sport, and make sure you are able to define yourself in a way that doesn’t make you synonymous with your career.

A closer look reveals that this is not a rare occurrence at all. It has simply been looked down upon for such a long time that athletes are expected to bury feelings of anxiety and depression or else be perceived as weak. Other athletes that have been outspoken about putting a higher priority on themselves than living up to the expectations of others include Simone Biles, Andrew Luck, Ronda Rousey, Demar DeRozan, Kevin Love, Aaron Rodgers, Michael Phelps, and many more. These are premier athletes that draw major star power to their respective sports, but fell victim to difficulties resulting from that star power that most of us can’t fathom. This is not reserved for athletics only as we see many performers and entertainers suffer from similar issues. In fact, data shows that up to 35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis which may manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout, or depression and anxiety. That is an incredibly high number, and goes to show that staying ready for peak performance goes far beyond the physical components of self-care.

At the end of the day, being a Level One Leader means having the determination and focus to define your legacy on your own terms. At the highest level of competition, many people will get paid a lot of money to talk about your performance, talk about your flaws, talk about your “floor” and “ceiling”, and talk about what should be expected of you. Often, that distraction can be a more difficult opponent than the next one on the schedule. The beauty of athletics, however, and the reason I feel drawn to watch so many of these incredible performances is that the results will always speak for themselves. Despite everyone’s predictions, despite the betting odds, despite what happened last year, a new story will always be written right before our eyes in real time, and every opinion that preceded it is rendered worthless.

You all know the origin story. The skinny kid from Michigan picked #199 overall in the 6th round of the 2000 NFL Draft was a long shot to even make the final roster in his rookie season. In September of 2021, he not only has the most Super Bowl wins of any starting quarterback, he is the oldest and second-oldest quarterback to win a championship (Super Bowls LIII and LV). And here we are, as if time does not in fact keep marching forward, writing yet another article about him as he starts a campaign to reclaim the throne with the highest expectations one can imagine. As he attempts to do so, one thing you can bet on is that Tom isn’t worried about what a single one of us thinks about him.

Share This Post