Years ago I used to travel to Minnesota to oversee a project, and after work I’d bum around with a coworker named Garry. We had what popular culture would today call a “bromance.” He’d flatter me, probably because I was higher up in the organization. And I was star-struck. Garry was a former NFL lineman.
One night, fueled by testosterone and a drink or two, Garry made an offer I couldn’t refuse. He wanted to see if I was tough enough to get around him. How could I resist? As a track guy, I’d always wished I’d had the girth to slap on the pads. This was my shot to learn what it was like to play on Sundays, to live out what I had only watched.
So we headed to a nearby park to settle it. Call it David vs. Goliath. Cardio vs. muscle. We put our paws on the grass and barreled into each other.
And it wasn’t even close.
I couldn’t get past him. I tried everything: spins, club moves, bull rushes. Didn’t matter. He’d pancake me to the ground. Then I used basketball techniques: stutter steps, angles, fakes. Same result. He’d get his hands on me and drive me back. It was emasculating to have someone control my every movement, to hear him taunt, “Is that all you got?” or “Had enough?” as I hobbled back to our imaginary line of scrimmage. Despite the bruises and cuts, my humiliation just made me want to beat him even more.
A funny thing happened the final time we lined up. Instead of blocking, Garry went low. And I landed on my face. Shocked, I started pointing and cursing. Chopping the knees was dirty. Cowardly. Dangerous, even. I hadn’t played football in school. And Garry was beating me every play anyway. It wasn’t fair. Why would he stoop to this?
Strangely, Garry reacted to my meltdown with a knowing smile. He knew that he’d won the mental game, too. You see, Garry didn’t cheap-shot me just to be a jerk. I was so wrapped up in my own aches and anger that I didn’t notice how Garry was breathing heavier and moving slower. Ten years removed from the gridiron, he was wearing down. With each snap, I was inching closer to getting past him. So he took the low road—and I took the bait. I lost my concentration and composure. And there was no way of getting it back.
Watching football, I used to wonder why teams would collapse near the end. But now I understand. It begins with soreness and fatigue. Then attention wavers and technique grows sloppy. Frustration and doubt creeps in as the setbacks pile up. You miss tackles by a fingertip. You go down rather than battle for that extra yard. You freelance instead of following the game plan. You lash out and rack up penalties. And you start wondering if all this is really worth the price. You’ve lost the game long before the buzzer sounds.
It’s no different in business. Most days I feel under siege. My in box explodes, and my workload overwhelms me. Then I remember Garry pulling me up each time he slammed me down. So I chip away, task by task, knowing I can get through this if I quit grumbling and keep moving.
Other times I seethe when the competition plays dirty, making promises that no one could ever deliver on. Then I remember Garry, sweating and hunched over, and I realize I’ll ultimately be better off if they overextend themselves.