One thing I know from working with best of the best for more than two decades: The greats know when they still have it, and they know when it’s time to go.
You can’t tell them. They tell you.
As the legendary Charles Barkley said as he neared the end of his Hall of Fame NBA career, after an opponent jabbed that he had lost his touch:
“What I might be losing, you never had.”
The greats find ways to beat you. Even as their physical dominance begins to wane, their mental weaponry becomes sharper. The battle shifts from the neck down to the neck up. Their skills are so superior that they can “lose” their athletic edge and still find ways to dominate, by the sheer force of the killer competitive drive that made them great in the first place.
They work and train and perform as if every game might be the last, from their first appearance as a rookie, to the final moments of the inevitable farewell tour. Consider this from Derek Jeter, on the first day of this 2014 season, his last as a major league baseball player:
“I came up in a culture where you were never promised a job. We had to perform in order to keep our job. If you didn't do your job, The Boss would get rid of you. So every spring training, every offseason, I trained and prepared for the opportunity to win a job. I've done that every year. I never take anything for granted.”
Jeter just turned 40—an astronomical age for a professional athlete. In sports, forty is like a trip to the moon: You can see it looming in the distance, you know others have made the journey, but your chances of actually landing and surviving there are wildly improbable. A backup quarterback or middle reliever might be able to get there and make sporadic contributions, but for the superstar who shows up every day to play, the expectations—his own and those of others—remain just as high as when he was 18.
Much was made of Jeter’s slow start during this farewell season; it was May before he hit his first home run. And while the critics pointed toward age and deteriorating skills, Jeter had this response: “It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with age. I feel young.”
But feeling young at 40 doesn’t begin at 40; it begins in the beginning, when the body is fresh and young and everything is easy, long before the first whispered evidence of decline. Longevity in athletics isn’t about what you do as you begin to age; by then it’s too late. It’s about what you did before you aged, with a relentless work ethic and laser vision on one thing: getting to the top, and constantly striving to go even higher.
During the fifteen years I trained Michael Jordan, I’d ask him every night: "5, 6, or 7?" Meaning: "What time are we working out tomorrow morning?" He’d fire back a time, and that was it, no excuses or hesitation. Do that year after year, and you get results. The year he turned 40—his final season in the NBA—he did not miss a single game. No nights off, no extra rest. None of his teammates—all considerably younger—managed to accomplish the same feat.
Is there anything harder than competing at the highest level—in sports, business, anything—and consistently delivering winning results? I hear it all the time when I speak to business groups, from the top veteran leadership: How do I keep up this pace, keep improving, and stay ahead of the hungry young newcomers? Now imagine doing it for the most storied and studied team in sports, under the glare of the world’s hottest media spotlight, as Jeter has done in New York for 22 seasons, without any controversy or salacious drama on or off the field. In this era of monstrous salaries, most players make you wonder why they’re paid so much. The greats just do the work and leave no question that the owners got a bargain.
When you’re the best at what you do, you know that making it to the top isn’t the same as making it at the top. When you’re an athlete who got rich quick, the day you go pro can easily be the beginning of the end. Your money is made. Your shoe deal is in place. Instead of spending the offseason working on your skills, you travel the world pitching products. And you’re no longer dreaming about what you can do for the game, but what the game can do for you. You shake the commissioner’s hand, and exhale. Congratulations, today is the first day of the end of your career.
Most guys sign their first contracts and go out to celebrate. Kobe Bryant went to the gym to put up shots.
Age Just Happens
By the time an athlete is in his late 20s, he’s already on borrowed time—his skills are no longer enough to keep him at the top if he’s not willing to do the work. He might still be feared for what he can do, but he’s doing it less and less. On the outside, he appears the same, but the body ages from the inside out; you can’t see the decline until it’s too late to put it in reverse. Now he’s like a Ferrari without gas in the tank: looks good, but not going very far.
Those who can play into their 30s recognize they’re fighting a battle with time, a daily struggle to control whatever physical weaponry is still available to them. For the first time, they experience the ultimate betrayal for an athlete: they can no longer predict what their bodies will do. They’re respected for what they have achieved, but not necessarily feared. They preferred it the other way around.
The elite few who make it to 40—and still play every day—have one thing in common: They show up believing, “I got this,” and know they can still back it up. Because despite the injuries and fatigue and public scrutiny and younger players who want the job, their ability to perform is no longer a physical feat, now it’s a clinic on mental toughness. They know they’ll never again be physically 100%, so they compensate by being mentally 100%. They’re comfortable being uncomfortable; the hard work becomes irrelevant. All that matters is one last taste of greatness.
Before Jeter took the field on his final Opening Day, he talked to reporters about his mindset for this last season in pinstripes, which was the same as it has been every season: “The ultimate goal is to win a championship. It's not to win a division or get to the playoffs or get to the World Series. It's to win a World Series.” The end result.
And when it’s over, when the mind has finally outlasted the body, the greats know.
Time to Exhale
If you asked retiring superstars whether they wanted a big public parade toward the exit, most would say no; they just want to play. Watch the last moments of the viral ‘RE2PECT’ commercial in which other greats salute Jeter: He shows no emotion. Stares at the pitcher. Let’s do this. The classic Farewell Tour takes the greats out of their game; it’s completely contrary to their work ethic.
They spent their entire careers following a routine, shielding themselves from distractions; now they have to do special events and salutes and tributes and photo ops. They mastered the ability to shield themselves from drama, blocking it all out; the long goodbye is about taking it all in. Year after year, they played with one steady emotion, cool on the outside, fire under the surface. The Farewell Tour has one purpose: create the unyielding emotional reminder that the one thing you’ve lived for is about to end. It’s like breaking up with your girlfriend every day. You don’t really want to, but you know you have to, and the end is coming soon.
They know their names will always be preceded by the word legendary, an unthinkable accomplishment for most athletes.
But for those rarest of rare individuals, it’s not enough to be a legend; these are true icons. Legends are about the past. Icons last forever.
Tim S. Grover is the CEO of ATTACK Athletics, world-renowned for his work with championship and Hall of Fame athletes. An international authority on sports performance and motivation, he is a keynote speaker for corporations and sports organizations, and the best-selling author Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable and Jump Attack. Follow Tim @ATTACKATHLETICS on Twitter, and visit www.attackathletics.com for more.