How I Bounce Back from Failure
My 5 Pro Athlete Tips On Beating Adversity, Injury, and Failure
I twisted down into the ground. I laid on the field writhing in excruciating pain, knowing my ligaments and bones were torn away from each other. The sky was too bright. Whitish black-ringed sun spots blotted my vision. I couldn’t get my breathing down, so I punched the ground, and swore at myself.
I heard it snap, hoped it was a sprain, but I heard it. Felt it. I knew the familiar sound. The trainers slid my sock off and my mother showed up, breathing heavily.
“Oh honey. Not again.”
I looked down slowly. Not again. Damn, not again. The swelling looked like someone had slide a grapefruit inside my taut, reddish, inflamed skin where my ankle used to be. Wet tears slid into the corners of my eyes as it dawned on me my junior season of soccer and basketball were in jeopardy, again.
My mom carted me off to ER as teammates, parents, and coaches tried to console me. Their pats on the back and words of encouragement didn’t help. Not after two ankle breaks. Not after being 17, trying to cope with the mental pressure of trying to reach my goal of playing college basketball.
My life was over.
In high school, these injuries put me into a tail spin. I’d sulk and let the negativity spiral out of control. I’d sit at home and watch TV and not eat. Not sleep. Recently, at a Starbucks in Bucktown, I was telling the story about how I hurt my ankles in high school, and how the silver lining of the four ankle (yes, I broke my ankle again my senior year) injuries were like trying to decipher Van Goh’s early abstract paintings.
But looking back, those injuries prepared me mentally; to become tougher, to get stronger, and become more resilient.
Battling back from adversity teaches you what you are capable of and how much your mindset and focus matter more than anything else.
You hear about freak injuries with athletes and their comebacks all the time. Jabari Parker tearing his ACL twice in the NBA. Paul George breaking his leg. Payton Manning coming back from spinal cord and neck issues. But what you don’t hear celebrated within the media, news, and social world is the story of their comeback; of their mental toughness; of their ability to bounce back quickly and deal with the darkness, fear, and depression; of how they dealt with losing their special ability to do their passion.
Our society listens, gets distracted, even celebrates and embellishes the story when someone goes down more than how they got back up.
I’ve had four ankle surgeries, five fractures, micro fractures, one compound break, and probably twenty ankle injuries in my 14 years of playing pro 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 and not let it bring me down, or let it ruin my days. As I got older, that choice got easier to make.
Bouncing back from failure, from injury, from the traumatic vision of hearing bones crack and ligaments tear, or the mental stress of losing myself for months at a time, taught me how to find the silver lining in each bad experience. At 19, I left for Kent State naive. 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:
My belief systems, outlooks, ideas, values, or sense of what is right and wrong, good or bad, negative or positive, can always change as my point of subjective experience and perspective change.
Open your mind to all the possibilities failure bring with it.
The world is full of oysters, we just have to choose which one to shuck here, fam.
And I feel you if you don’t know what I’m talking about.
When professional basketball was over for me, I lost the creativity and energy to think of new possibilities for myself, whether it was creating new business, passions, and purpose, life fed me a shit sandwich soul question. Not having answers has taken me to the brink of wanting to not live, to wanting to not die, to wanting to travel the world, to wanting to help others find their own answers.
The Philadelphia 76'ers call this, “The Process.”
I called it hell on Earth.
We all deserve to know what passion, craft, and purpose is inside us, waiting to come out. Being a parent. Making money in a startup. Coaching a kid. Living your bucket list. Building your own home.
If we stick with eating this shit sandwich, we must believe we can eventually get a delicious one later.
It’s what helped me through the dark days.
I always knew on the other side of the injury was healing. Rehab. Recovery. Light at the end of player tunnel. Even when basketball ended, I had to remember what those injuries taught me about myself.
For two years, my soul bled out with wanting something as passionate as basketball. As competitive. As thrilling. Basketball was pervasive to my being. It took my whole body, my skin, my mind, my soul, my muscles, my neurons, my atoms, and wrapped it up into a leather ball and bounced it so hard, I thought I’d never come down again.
When my career ended, when my relationships deteriorated, I still thought, I’ll be fine. It will end soon.
What I thought was fact, was in fact, fiction.
The journey of any sports team, or player, or athlete as they try to rise to the top or succeed is just like anyone that wants to start over, or aspire to greater accomplishments in another part of life, whether it is business or marriage or being a better parent or wanting to become something new and sustain your life with it.
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, and people don’t help you get there.
Many of these sports and life epiphanies were made and battle-tested in and outside the lines of winning and losing championships. But everything in between those games was the focus of my life, the evaluating, planning, goal-setting, performing, letting go of loss, and training as hard I could to win.
I was lucky to win conference, state, and national titles in high school, college, or the pros, but I always come back to my ability to focus, obsess, and push away distraction as one of my most crucial learned skills.
I listened to what my soul demanded of me.
Winning validates many people, including me, but looking back, what if I hadn’t won? Would I have focused on a sport that didn’t give me validation? Would I have played and worked without feedback, success, and feeling like I had some natural talent to cultivate?
To be honest, it doesn’t matter, because right at this moment, as I write this next word, I’m faced with the similar challenge. No one may read this. No one may like or use my advice. You may even disagree with my thoughts, even throw gas onto the fire of my small kindling of shitty words.
But then someone may read this and feel different. Maybe someone will feel me. Maybe that person will change their lives and decide to focus on what matters.
See, writing is a passion of mine. I have to get out what is in my head. I have written since high school, since Mrs. Flynn, my English teacher told me she enjoyed reading my thoughts (again, maybe we all just want to be validated at what we are good at doing). But even if she hadn’t told me I had some talent, I would have still written. Getting my words out on paper was part of my existence. It was part of me, just like basketball was. Something I knew I had to do; something that drove me because of how it made me feel.
For years, improving my writing took a back seat to sports, but what I loved about sports was I could see improvement by focusing on what skill I wanted to improve.
And this is an important, simple fact about sports and life: the more you focus on improving something, the better you get at it.
2. The real issue isn’t always people’s innate talents, weaknesses, or strengths, it’s the speed at which they improve, and the core indicator of their rate of improvement is how and how often they choose to focus on improving the skills necessary to succeed.
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 trying 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.
My performance goal as an 8th grader was to do my basketball dribbling workout 365 days straight.
I knew the odds of me getting a D1 scholarship sucked. But the battle to focus and embrace the struggle was part of the fun. Could I wake up? Could I get another workout in? Could I say no to my friends that wanted to go to the beach? Could I say no to video games? Could I say no to TV? Could I say no to calling girls (on yes, a rotary phone)?
Damn, fam, I’m old.
Life can seem real tough as a single teenager or a 38-year old with an aspiring dad-bod, but the truth is, just focusing on my next small step is the only thing I care about.
I don’t care if you like this. I don’t care if you read it. I will keep writing because of how it makes me feel, much like playing the game of basketball.
Yes, my ability to focus and cut away distractions helped me succeed and reach levels I never thought were possible in pro sports. I feel lucky to even have played and get paid. But yo, it was not as glamorous as you think. I lived in a Portuguese apartment with one light bulb I moved from room to room. I got paid fake checks. Sent home after two games. Abused in the media, on TV, and in the communities I lived in.
Playing in Europe wasn’t the NBA.
But the free apartment, the car, the doppio con pannas, the fans, the media, the ups, the downs, everything pro sports entailed, it is all just a reminder of how much focus it takes to succeed at something you truly love; how much focus it takes to win at something that most people give up on.
Now my life has changed, no one will pay me to put a leather ball in a metal rim, but I can still use the same lessons, focus, and principles for success in finding future crafts, passions, careers (like writing), and happiness. Much of my life has been about learning how to improve my body, my mind, my connection to the energy beneath our thoughts to unlock better performance; to be authentic, practice my weird, and focus on aligning my time with my most important goals, values, and energy.
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. On certain days, I read Brian Johnson and watch his videos. He is a leadership coach and his mission is to condense and add together the best of psychology + leadership + stoicism + sports performance + life hacks + happiness + science books into small nuggets of practical information so we can practice OPTIMAL LIVING in our daily lives.
Brian often talks about the idea of the practiced, yet disciplined pursuit of less.
I have to say no. You have to say no. Learning to be more productive starts with you setting aside time to learn how to be more productive, just like being a better jump shooter means I need to put aside more time to learn proper technique and game-like drills to become a better shooter.
3. Sports taught me that improvement is never-ending, we must focus becoming an infinite loop of growth in the skills that help us succeed.
As a writer, taking classes, reading, listening to videos, building an audience, learning how to market, learning SEO, tapping into my network, and being a student of the writing game. In business, there are so many ways to infinitely grow. In education, in art, in music, in anything, there is an infinite number of ways to grow and focus on improvement.
There are days when I wish I could play basketball again, but I know I can’ t pursue that path anymore professionally. It won’t put food on the table. It won’t help my body heal. I can’t win those fans back with behind the back passes or 35-foot jumper.
But I wish I had thought about this concept and question more while I was still playing.
4. Invert your life for a moment. If you lost everything, or gained everything, where and how would you start your next day?
Let’s start with complete abundance and complete scarcity.
Take a bird’s eye view.
Maybe you are at the bottom of you life. In the dumps. Maybe you are at the top. Killin’ the game, as the kids say.
What would the worst thing that could happen to you if you had nothing and had to start over? What if the world gave you everything you needed to be happy, how would you respond tomorrow?
Yeah, the worst thing is I could die, maybe that’s your answer. True, death is always closer than we think. Throw a coconut margarita party for me tomorrow if I kick the can into Lake Michigan. Even worse, my loved ones could die and leave me alone Earth. My friends could stop liking me. I could lose my health. My family could lose their health. I could go broke. I could lose my hair and be single for the rest of my life, oh wait fam, that’s already happening!
What would you do if everything was taken away? What would you do if you had the chance to do anything you wanted to reinvent yourself?
If I had to start at zero, start over, I would start by living frugally. Maybe even like a rat. But I know one thing. I’d live in a complete state of focus on what I wanted to do and create next.
I’d set my intentions and let the universe know what I was coming to do.
There is nothing else for me to do but focus on what I choose. This next line. This next startup. This next phone call to a potential client. This next book or inspirational video to read. This next moment, without distraction, with complete focus on being, improving, and becoming what you want.
When basketball was over, my life inverted, but my family, friends, and brother Damon were there to help me find what was next. It was my job to look. To study. To learn. To begin each day with curiosity and focus.
The funny thing was, my big thing is standing right in front of me. I can starting building an audience, starting building a business I am passionate about and start working to find people I value, right now.
The real struggle for success wasn’t playing basketball. It was having the discipline to go all in, day after day, moment after moment, and letting go of all distractions of modern life: telephones, computers, social media, Instagram, TV, Netflix, and begin simplifying, aligning, and focusing on getting better at my big thing.
What is the definition of simplicity? From the world Latin word simplicitas, to simplex, to today’s word, simple. Simplex. Does it remind you of its antonym, complex?
Complexity in life isn’t your friend when it comes to distractions and focusing on improving your one passion and purpose every day.
5. Figure out what your small victories will be tomorrow
Figure out what small things you can do every day, every free minute, or hour, to become a better player in the arenas you want to become better in. Start focusing on them. Figure out what isn’t working and do less of it. Simplify your life around these small marginal victories you can achieve every day by focusing on your big thing and getting the small distractions out of the way.