My 3 Self-Improvement Tips On Beating Adversity, Injury, and Failure
In 1999, I was a freshman at Kent State University and we had just beat Wally Sczerbiak in the MAC Tournament to move onto our first NCAA tournament. Wally was an All-American power forward at Miami University. This dude looked like he popped anabolic steroids into his daily smoothie every day, but still had the silky smooth jumper of a 6'9 Larry Bird.
Bye Wally, hello Temple Owls.
A week before playing in the biggest game of my life, I went up to block a shot in the last scrimmage of a grueling three-hour practice and as I came down, I heard:
“Shit. Shittttttttt,” I thought. “NOOOO!”
I twisted into the ground. I laid on the court, pinching my eyes together, writhing in agony, knowing either my ligaments or bones were torn or broken.
I did it again and my first NCAA tournament was over.
Our society teaches, listens, gets distracted, even celebrates and embellishes the dramatic stories of when someone goes down.
How often do you turn on the news and hear the stories of bounce backs?
Yet, the success stories are out there, we just don’t talk about them like we should:
The father that shows up every day and spends time with his kids.
The mother that puts her kids through school.
The grandma that stops smoking at 70.
The grandpa that finishes a marathon.
The stories of real heroism, grit, and success.
I’ve had four ankle surgeries, five fractures, one microfracture, one compound break, and probably twenty ankle sprains in my 25 years of playing hoops. Each time I had an injury, each time the physical pain subsided, I was left with a choice:
Focus on making the best of my injury with a sense of humor, progress, and toughness or let it bring me down and let it ruin my attitude or days.
At 19, I left for Kent State a naive kid. At 22, I left for Europe with a closed mind. At 36, I came back with an open mind, heart, and some very important lessons to share:
You can always change as your experience and perspective change.
Why does this idea of mental fitness and flexibility matter?
One of my friends in Europe was Sebastian Bellin. He was a former pro athlete, like me, playing in Belgium, but he had one of the most traumatic experiences and injuries anyone could ever go through. In the same Brussels airport I had sat and enjoyed Starbucks over 30 times in my pro career waiting for flights, friends, and family, Bellin was part of a horrific terrorist bombing that killed and injured hundreds of people.
In his interview with Runner’s World he said:
“When I was dragged away from the blast zone, I was holding on to my leg because I thought it was detached and didn’t want to leave it behind.”
Over the past two years, I have seen his Facebook posts, watched his interviews, and listened to him speak about his experience.
I just shake my head and think: “What would I do? How would I react?”
Yet, this man has never said a negative word or stopped working on himself to find his silver lining and use the experience as fodder for what’s next.
One man’s failure is another man’s fuel.
Which makes me think, the world is full of destruction, pain, and chaos, but what do you decide to choose after it happens to you?
Maybe you’ve never had a traumatic experience. Maybe you feel like I did, the slow decay of your days doing something you aren’t all that passionate about doing.
When professional basketball was over for me, I lost the creativity and energy to think of new possibilities for myself. I was in a negative state, yet nothing really acute happened.
Just because nothing big happens on the outside doesn’t mean something big isn’t happening on the inside.
Something in my mind or soul was shifting, I just didn’t realize it.
What I thought was true about transition, injury, failure — wasn’t.
The true warrior first finds the answer and strength internally — regardless of what is happening outside him.
The journey of an athlete as they try to rise to the top or succeed is just like anyone that wants to start over and find happiness.
1. Personal success comes down to what you want to focus on becoming and how quickly you decide to let go of what failures, bad habits, injuries, breaks, and people don’t help you get there.
Everything between my games was the focus of my life; the evaluating, planning, goal-setting, performing and letting go of losses.
Sports taught me to be mentally fit. To bounce back. To survive. To toughen up and fight through.
From Runner’s World: “All he could do was survive, he thought. He found a scarf and made a tourniquet for his legs, which held until he eventually found the triage area. There, it was clear Belgium had never scene an incident like this. Medical workers’ hands shook as they set up IVs, and the traumatic images of blood will never leave Bellin’s mind.”
And this is an important fact about sports and life lessons: the more you focus on something, the more real it becomes.
Bellin didn’t give up on himself, on his family, on humanity, on anything other than improving his life one day at a time. I have felt the fear of being on the operating table multiple times in my life and in the end, that is one of the reasons I stopped playing pro hoops.
“The path that life intended me to have was to go through being a victim and survivor,” Bellin said. “That was my path and I have to find ways to overcome that. It means I have to work a little harder to do things, and that’s how I turn this negative into a positive.”
Choose your focus wisely.
2. Happiness is a practice, not a destination.
There is a term in sports that every competitive athlete knows: two-a-days.
While most athletes despise that word, it became my life, my therapy, my joy, and my Zen. I started doing two-a-days in middle school. Almost every hour I had free before school, or at lunchtime, or after school was spent voraciously focusing on improving at the game of basketball.
Life can seem real tough as a teenager, a single mom, or a 38-year old with an sloppy dad-bod, but the truth is, just focusing on the next small step is the only thing to care about.
Caring for yourself and practicing what you need builds happiness. Awareness. Joy. Every morning, after my weird wake up, I put an hour aside to learn, study, and become a better thinker, learner, businessman, partner (to whom, I don’t know yet), and creator of my passions.
I must practice happiness through working for it.
3. Sports taught me that self-improvement is never-ending, we must focus on becoming an infinite loop of growth with the skills that help us succeed within our passions.
Bellin will run in a marathon in November.
I bounced back from my ligaments tearing in practice to play in my first NCAA game.
You will do the same if you choose to let go of the negativity and build your mental fitness day by day.
Self-improvement with mental fitness and mental flexibility lays in the weeds of our daily choices.
We all have the same 24 hours in a day so use your time and pick your passions accordingly.