Unexpected Lessons from the Super Bowl

I can’t believe I’m writing this. I hate football. I’m saddened by the physical damage it inflicts on its players, and I don’t understand it—in spite of repeated attempts by several old boyfriends and my sister, a fervent fan­, to explain the logic and language of the game. Even though I live in Boston—a very easy place to fall in love with football—I’ve never found a way into its magic, until this year’s Super Bowl.

I was sick in bed, recovering from a wicked stomach bug, and weary of watching the home re-do’s on HGTV. My sweet husband, also unfazed by football’s allure, picked up some Chinese take-out, and joined me in the bedroom to watch the game.

During the first quarter, I commented to my brilliant husband—who is as football-illiterate as I am—that trying to follow the game was like watching a foreign-language movie without subtitles! When I sat through previous games with my sister, she would translate the inscrutable mess on the field for me. This time, I was at a loss. Even with the announcers’ play-by-plays, their advanced-level football vocabulary was far over my head. So we just watched, and soaked in the energy of the game. By the end of the first quarter, I sensed that the energy was turning against the Patriots. Then, as the second quarter progressed, I could see that Brady was being sacked and that many of his throws didn’t add up to much. It didn’t look good for the Pats. Even I could see that.

By the second quarter, the announcers were reporting that in fifty years of Super Bowls, the largest deficit ever overcome was 10 points. By the third quarter, the Pats were down 25 points. Winning seemed impossible: until it wasn’t.

Earlier that day, as I started to emerge from the fog of my flu, I curled up under the covers with the NY Times Magazine, and read the cover article by Sam Anderson, about a basketball player I had never heard of: Russell Westbrook (I’m not much of a basketball fan either). The article illustrated Westbrook’s extraordinary toughness, resilience, and steely focus after a court-side fan cursed and gestured viciously at him:

“This storm of negativity triggered one of those Westbrook moments when he seems to pop out of space-time. . . . So Westbrook started shooting, and — just as he had in warm-ups — he missed and he missed, but still he didn’t stop . . . tonight he was surfing and wiping out hard, only to get back up and immediately wipe out again. . . . With just under three minutes left and the Thunder trailing by 3 points, Westbrook dribbled hard at the basket and, without any apparent shadow of self-doubt, stopped to rise for a pull-up jumper — precisely the shot I had watched him clank so many times before the game. Now, however, he made it, and then with around a minute left he did it again, giving the Thunder the lead, and in the end . . . the Thunder won by 6 points.”

Hmm. Sounds a lot like Brady and the Patriots; never giving up. But it was the closing reflections in the Times article that stayed with me:

 “There are people in Oklahoma City who hold themselves differently because of Russell Westbrook,” Sam Presti, the Thunder’s general manager, told me. “I mean that literally. They stand up straighter. People, not necessarily athletes, draw confidence from him and his disregard for the judgment or labeling from others. I’m confident that there are a lot of people in this city that go into job interviews saying to themselves: ‘Come on, you’ve got this — be Westbrook, think Westbrook.’ And that might actually help them get the job, and if they don’t, they walk out feeling sorry for the person that missed the opportunity to hire them.”

“This is the lesson of Russell Westbrook. In a deeply imperfect world — a world where a shooting touch will suddenly abandon you at the worst possible moment, where your teammates might not be good enough to make a win possible, where an economy might suddenly collapse for no apparent reason, where the decency of strangers cannot be presumed — in a world like that, Westbrook’s approach to life might actually be the most rational one. You control the things you can control (family, daily routines, the occasional big choice) and outside that you fling yourself with wild abandon, every day, at every object that seems worthy of pursuit. In the absence of guarantees, in the absence of certainty, in the new American volatility, we can bank on only one thing: total presence, total sincerity, total effort, all the time.”

This passage reminded me of the great lesson my mom taught me: “If you have control over a situation, grab the reigns and never let go. But, if you don’t have control, let them go”. This is especially important to remember today, where layoffs have become the norm, not the exception. In the late 20th Century, all you needed for job security was to work hard and make your boss’s life easier. These days, even star performers are not protected from layoffs. Much of our suffering and anxiety is caused by trying to control things beyond our grasp.

One of my clients said he is suffering from PTSD from all the layoffs he’s endured. So how do you bolster your resiliency to thrive—and not just survive—in a world marked by deeply unsettling uncertainty? How do you pick yourself up again and again, when you are sacked by another layoff, or bruised by the unanswered calls to recruiters? You find inspiration where you can, even from unexpected sources. Remember to focus on what you do have control over. And remember what Julian Edelman (a Patriot, for my fellow football illiterates) said to the gaggle of reporters after the Super Bowl, about how “mentally tough” his teammates were through adversity, how “we stick together, work hard, keep on playing and keep on grinding.” He never lets himself think the game is over.