In the 11 years since LeBron James entered the NBA out of high school, he’s experienced painful disappointments and learned a lot of tough lessons.
The greats of every industry know that temporary loss doesn’t mean permanent defeat .
Top performers know that in order to win at the highest level, you need to overcome serious failures and adopt world-class mental frameworks to succeed after difficult losses.
In other words, you have to die a few times before you can really live.
What can we learn from LeBron’s greatest mistakes and achievements along his journey becoming the most powerful athlete in the world?
In the stories below, I offer 2 remarkable lessons that we can take from LeBron’s story to apply to our own lives to use as strategies to unlock the greatness within ourselves.
NOTE: These are specific, actionable techniques which can be adopted and used to your advantage immediately…
1. “The Decision” — Worst Marketing Move Ever or Best Decision of His Life?
As an unrestricted free agent after playing 7 seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James and his business manager, Maverick Carter (founder of LRMR management firm and LeBron’s childhood friend), accepted an invitation to host his announcement on national television.
Broadcasted live on ESPN, over 13 million viewers from all over the world tuned into to hear where James would sign with in free agency.
It was appropriately titled “The Decision.”
On July 8, 2010 at 9:28 EST, he made his announcement:
“I’m going to take my talents to South Beach…”
(listen to the in-studio crowd reaction of shock as he makes his announcement)
Cleveland Cavaliers fans were the most outraged, even burning his jersey on national television.
Cleveland fans would later rank the departure of James second only to former Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell’s decision to move entire franchise to Baltimore (after lying to the public stating that he wouldn’t).
Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Charles Barkley all weighed-in on The Decision, deriding the choice by LeBron James to team up with his “rivals” instead of chasing a championship without them.
LeBron James became the villain of the NBA for the entire season that followed—jeered in every NBA arena he entered, except Miami’s.
According to ESPN Sports Poll data, in the season after The Decision, LeBron’s favorability plummeted from 15.6 percent of respondents calling him their favorite player to only 10.4 percent.
To make matters worse, the Heat lost in the NBA finals that year to the Dallas Mavericks. And it seemed everyone was pleased.
LeBron’s favorability dropped even further to 9.4 percent in the following season. This for an athlete that wasn’t caught cheating at his sport, taking performance-enhancing drugs, caught in infidelity in his marriage, or in any trouble with law enforcement.
So how does LeBron feel about The Decision now?
According to his recent interview in GQ magazine, LeBron said this about The Decision:
“The best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. “I needed it. It helped me grow as a man. As a professional, as a father. At the time, as a boyfriend. It helped me grow. Being confined, I spent my whole life in Akron, Ohio. For twenty-five years. Even though I played professionally in Cleveland, I still lived in Akron. Everything was comfortable. I knew everything, everybody knew me—everything was comfortable. I needed to become uncomfortable. Now I’ve seen everything on and off the floor this league has to offer”
Did you miss that?
His environment. His friends. His home. His acquaintances. His daily routine. The same drive to work every day. The same local support system that praised him every year. The same people he grew up with his entire life.
Everything promoted a sense of ease for him. Everything made him comfortable.
What LeBron needed was to become uncomfortable.
That’s exactly what The Decision offered LeBron: an opportunity to become uncomfortable so that he could transform and evolve.
As a result of the overwhelmingly negative attention LeBron received, he was forced to assume a different perspective because he was no longer able to be the LeBron James that everyone perceived him to be all his life—well-liked, jovial, and outgoing.
He was now cast as the villain.
At first he accepted the role of a villain. Playing to fans on-and-off the court; inciting further negative exchanges from the booing crowds; and avoiding members of the media and others after his games.
But after he lost in the finals that season, James spent the next two weeks in a room mostly by himself, taking to almost no one.
It was one of the lowest moments in his entire life.
“People who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are…” James Baldwin
After time spent in reflection, he discovered that he was allowing others to dictate the way he approached the game. And it was affecting his entire life.
LeBron realized he had two options:
- Allow his approach to constrict him and allow his critics’ reactions to contradict his true character
- Alter his attitude to allow for more freedom of action by framing this experience as a positive and forever disregarding his critics
He decided to go back to the playing the game the way he knew how—with fun and full of joy.
But one important thing changed: he no longer remained sensitive to what others said about him.
the Powerful Psychology behind What ACTUALLY Took Place
LeBron employed a “reversal.”
A reversal is overcoming the negative of a particular fear and flipping it on its head so that it can lead to a much stronger positive quality, such as self-reliance, patience, supreme self-confidence, and so forth.
This is a powerful psychological concept used by leaders such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Steve Jobs, which has very practical application and real world effects.
Here’s how he did it…
LeBron reversed a seemingly bleak situation into an opportunity for complete freedom by mentally reframing his circumstances and manipulating his responses to them. This simple reversal gave him more power to control his own fate and more freedom of action—completely unencumbered by the opinions of detractors.
Here is the paradox of a reversal: you mentally transform a negative event into an opportunity or challenge, providing you with more internal power and motivation. As a result, you care less of what people think about you, paradoxically causing them to admire you more.
The negative publicity is then turned around.
Psychologists sometimes refer the difficult experience that LeBron went through after The Decision as “adversarial growth” and “post-traumatic growth.”
The struggle against some obstacle propels the individual to a new level of functioning. The extent of their struggle determines the extent of their growth.
The obstacle becomes an advantage.
In LeBron’s situation, he learned that people were going to dislike him anyway, despite how he acted or didn’t act in accordance with their expectations. So he figured he would act as himself and live with the consequences since it wouldn’t alter public opinion anyway. Only winning, he felt, would do that.
What LeBron had to do was overcome his fear of being uncomfortable.
Do you think this nightmarish experience prepared him for major decisions like what team he decides to sign with, despite outside opinion?
He has since carried this critical lesson with him to create even more freedom of action and take further control of his fate in matters on-and-off the court, including his mega endorsement deals, his global icon plan, and his decision to opt-out of his contract with the Miami Heat.
Why This is Important To You
Understanding and applying this simple psychological concept to your unique problems can make all the difference in turning a seemingly overwhelming failure into a complete success.
To do so, you need to identify possibilities to employ reversals in similar areas of your own life.
We can accomplish this by noticing the opportunities to convert negative circumstances, such as not earning the raise we expected or being passed over for a promotion, and turning those into a powerful opportunities to create new opportunities for ourselves.
These new circumstances become valuable occasions for us to make progress on our own goals despite objections from the outside.
The opportunities are all around us. We just need to adopt the proper mental frameworks to take advantage.
Lesson Learned: You can turn your worst trials into your greatest triumphs through the power of reversal — overcoming the negative of a particular fear leads to a positive quality such as self-reliance, patience, or supreme self-confidence — and use this experience to your advantage by growing in proportion to your struggle to a new level of functioning through adversarial and post-traumatic growth.
2. How The Best Get Even Better — The Secret to World-Class Performance
LeBron James is arguably the most athletic player to ever play in the NBA.
His speed, power, and agility is unlike anything we’ve ever witnessed in any player his size. In any sport, really.
At 6 feet 8 inches, he simply shouldn’t be able to perform, with skill, the acts that he does…
In recent years, his current coach, Miami Heat’s Erik Spoelstra, donned LeBron with the moniker “NBA’s Swiss Army Knife” for his ability to guard every position on defense and play multiple roles offensively.
But he didn’t always have this ability.
LeBron identified the gaps in his ability and what his team required of him in order to win championships.
And then he worked at it. Tirelessly.
According to an article on Grantland, Coach Spoelstra says:
“It took the ultimate failure in the Finals to view LeBron and our offense with a different lens. He was the most versatile player in the league. We had to figure out a way to use him in the most versatile of ways — in unconventional ways.
“Shortly after our loss to Dallas in the Finals, LeBron and I met. He mentioned that he was going to work on his game relentlessly during the offseason, and specifically on his post-up game. This absolutely made sense for us. We had to improve offensively, and one of the best ways would be to be able to play inside-out with a post-up attack.”
“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” Pablo Picasso
LeBron analyzed his team’s performance in the Finals to identify the gap between where their team was currently performing and the level they needed perform at in order to win a championship.
He found that their post play contributed the most inconsistency. In particular, their lack of a post presence on offense was causing them to shoot way too many low-efficiency jump shots, and it forced their guards to initiate offensive sets by dribbling the ball to create spacing and most of their scoring opportunities for the team.
LeBron immediately began working to make dramatic improvements in the area of post play by working out with one of the all-time greats to enhance his low-post game: Hakeem Olajuwon.
(Tape of LeBron’s training sessions with Hakeem Olajuwon)
Many people in the Heat organization state that LeBron’s development of his low-post game is what turned the Miami Heat from a runners-up into champions the following year.
“When he returned after the lockout, he was a totally different player,” says Spoelstra. “I don’t know if I’ve seen a player improve that much in a specific area in one offseason. His improvement in that area alone transformed our offense to a championship level in 2012.”
His improvement in the post contributed to increased shot efficiency all over the floor. Take a look at the shot chart below comparing LeBron’s final year in Cleveland to his first year in Miami.
In his last year in Cleveland, LeBron took a lot of 3 point shots. For a player of his size and strength, he’s not utilizing his physical gifts most effectively when he’s shooting outside of the arc. Also, he took a lot of mid-range shots (low-efficiency) and some shots near the basket (high-efficiency).
His first year in Miami, LeBron better leveraged his physical gifts by taking more shots inside of the arc. He increased the volume of shots taken near the basket for a higher percentage of shots made and reduced the volume of three point shots taken.
However, his Miami Heat team still lost in the Finals to the Dallas Mavericks.
Now, let’s take a look at his shot chart the following season after LeBron worked with Hakeem Olajuwon to improve his post play.
His second year in Miami LeBron significantly reduced the volume of 3 point shots taken. There’s only one dot outside of the arc for this year. Additionally, he increased the volume of shots taken at the low block on the left side. This new concentration of shots taken on the floor represent an addition to LeBron’s game.
This is where his work on the low post with Hakeem paid off!
To make sense of these shot charts, let’s put these numbers in perspective…
In LeBron’s rookie year, he shot 42 percent from the field and 29 percent from beyond the arc. In his second year in Miami those numbers rose to 53 percent and 36 percent, respectively.
An impressive feat for anyone!
And it turns out it was just what they needed to win his first championship.
LeBron continued his improving efficiency rising to 56 percent from the field and 41 from beyond the arc the following year.
The best part of LeBron’s increased efficiency on offense is that the effect wasn’t limited to just LeBron; it affected everyone on the team.
LeBron’s migration to the left block not only helped his scoring efficiency, it opened up space elsewhere for spot-up shooters like Ray Allen, Shane Battier, and Mike Miller who made big contributions in the Finals so that LeBron could win his second championship with Miami.
“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together” Vincent van Gogh
How Top Performers Become World-class
Here’s the thing: LeBron was already head-and-shoulders the best player in the world.
Many analysts even questioned just exactly how LeBron could actually become any better.
Where the vast majority of people get better for a while and level off, reaching the limit of their abilities where even years of additional work have not made them any better, LeBron made dramatic improvements in one offseason that resulted in a world championship.
How did he improve so dramatically in just one year, especially when many “experts” didn’t even think it would be possible for him to become any better?
Well, the answer isn’t “by practicing.”
LeBron wasn’t just practicing. That’s not how world class performers become better at their craft.
He was practicing with a purpose. LeBron was practicing with the specific intention to improve his low post offensive ability.
This practice with the specific intention is referred to as “deliberate practice.”
Deliberate practice requires that one identify certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work intently on them.
You may have heard this term before, but what you may not know is, exactly what is deliberate practice?
According to Anders Ericsson, the psychologist who advanced the concept of deliberate practice, “the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.”
The concept of deliberate practice is characterized by several elements. These elements can be divided into 5 criterion:
- activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help
- it can be repeated a lot
- feedback on results is continuously available
- it’s highly demanding mentally, whether it’s purely intellectual or heavily physical
- it isn’t much fun
Let’s see take a look at how the example I detailed above with LeBron stacks up to this criteria:
- improve performance (low post offensive ability), often with a teacher’s help (Hall of Famer, Hakeem Olajuwon) ✓
- it can be repeated a lot (practiced shooting and low post positioning, twice a day for 5 days with Hakeem, then every day for the rest of the summer)✓
- feedback is available (made shot vs missed shot; gaining low post position vs being pushed out of the paint) ✓
- highly demanding mentally, whether it’s purely intellectual or heavily physical
- it isn’t much fun
Think his exercises weren’t highly demanding mentally? Or worse… do you actually think it was fun?
Read LeBron’s self-enforced punishment for not attaining his own shooting goals and you may think otherwise:
“It’s a lot of work. It’s being in workouts, and not accomplishing your goal, and paying for it. So, if I get to a spot in a workout and want to make eight out of 10, if I don’t make eight of 10, then I run. I push myself to the point of exhaustion until I make that goal. So you build up that mentality that you got to make that shot and then use that in a game situation — it’s the ultimate feeling, when you’re able to work on something and implement it.”
You can see how much feedback, detail, and intensity is interwoven throughout LeBron’s workout to make progress on his goal. And every element of the deliberate practice criteria is met in LeBron’s workout, ensuring that he’s getting better with every repetition.
Now, let’s talk about how this applies to you…
How This IS Useful To You
LeBron may not have known he was following the requirements for deliberate practice in his workouts. However, chances are, he knows EXACTLY what deliberate practice is, and he’s implemented it for years to become better at his craft.
So have others like Kobe Bryant, Mozart, and Picasso.
Well, chances are you didn’t know that researchers confirm that the top performers in every industry engage in and are committed to deliberate practice.
It’s not merely that top performers are “putting in the hours.” No, it’s that top performers break down the skills that are required to become an expert and focus on improving those skill chunks during practice.
You can start today to analyze the gaps in your performance relative to where you desire to perform. Then use the same criteria outlined above to ensure you’re following the necessary framework.
Although it may not be fun, it will undoubtedly move you closer to your goal and, in the process, bring you closer to mastery over your chosen craft.
Lesson Learned: You can adopt the same approach that top performers use to become world-class in their craft. Analyze the gaps between your current performance and what’s required to achieve mastery; break down the skills into specific skill chunks; and commit yourself to the process of deliberate practice to improve with each repetition during practice. Over time, your commitment will bring you to mastery over your chosen craft.
There’s no question that LeBron wants to be the best basketball player ever.
Michael Jordan fans are quick to rule out this possibility, but there’s no doubt that LeBron is putting in the practice and positioning himself the way he feels gives him the best opportunity.
And while LeBron recently lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals on his quest for a third championship, he will again conduct an autopsy on the LeBron that failed to learn what’s required of him to win another championship.
And, if history is any indicator, he will come back better than he was before.
Being the best in any profession isn’t about being the most talented; it’s about adopting the mental frameworks and practice habits that the best use to become great.
And by leveraging the power of reversals and committing to deliberate practice, you give yourself a great chance to become great.
The 50th Law by 50 Cent and Robert Greene discusses the powerful role of reversals, along with other strategies and tactics for success in life and work based upon a single priciniple: fear nothing. He utilizes several examples of leaders who have overcome adversity through understanding and practicing the 50th Law, including Napoleon Bonaparte, Malcolm X, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and more.
Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoffrey Colvin details the concept of deliberate practice. Backed by scientific research, it shares the secrets of extraordinary performance and shows how to apply these principles. The book features the stories of professionals who have achieved world-class greatness through deliberate practice, including Benjamin Franklin, Chris Rock, Jerry Rice, and others.
Flow: The Psychology of the Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the process for Flow, a term used to describe the optimal experience of experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement in an activity. Bonus points if you made a connection between the requirements for deliberate practice and the process for Flow, except it not being much fun.Tweet Share