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Business Lessons from Sports Excellence

Two of the world’s greatest athletes recently shocked the world in two very different ways. The first is Tom Brady, who officially announced his retirement from the NFL on February 1st. Many of our European readers do not follow American football, but Tom Brady is synonymous with greatness. Curiously enough, people did not expect much out of Tom Brady when he was entering the NFL Draft. Quarterbacks are always the most sought-after position; a great quarterback can elevate a team, while a bad quarterback can drag a team down. Brady was chosen by the New England Patriots as the 199th pick in the 2000 draft, which is extremely low. But despite the low expectations, Brady quickly proved himself to be a lethal combination of improvisation, execution, and intelligence. After arriving at the New England Patriots as a fourth-string quarterback in 2000, by 2001, Brady led the team to its first ever Super Bowl victory in just his second year in the league. After back-to-back Super Bowls, there was not even a debate among pundits whether Brady deserved to make it into the Hall of Fame, and the man was only in his mid-20s. And although he endured a 10-year Super Bowl drought, Brady went on to win three more Super Bowls with the Patriots, and another with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2021 at the age of 43. All in all, Brady has won 7 Super Bowls, and for context, only two other quarterbacks in the history of the sport have 4 Super Bowl victories. That is why the man is widely considered to be the GOAT (the greatest of all time). Brady’s decision to retire did not come lightly. Just a few weeks ago, his team lost in the AFC Championship, which is one round before the Super Bowl, and in that game, Brady almost led his team to yet another miraculous comeback at the age of 44. So, he certainly had the physical ability to continue to compete at the absolute highest levels, but Brady explained why he chose to end his career:

I have always believed the sport of football is an “all-in” proposition — if a 100% competitive commitment isn’t there, you won’t succeed, and success is what I love so much about our game. There is a physical, mental, and emotional challenge EVERY single day that has allowed me to maximize my highest potential. And I have tried my very best these past 22 years. There are no shortcuts to success on the field or in life.

This is difficult for me to write, but here it goes: I am not going to make that competitive commitment anymore. I have loved my NFL career, and now it is time to focus my time and energy on other things that require my attention.
I’ve done a lot of reflecting the past week and have asked myself difficult questions. And I am so proud of what we have achieved. My teammates, coaches, fellow competitors, and fans deserve 100% of me, but right now, it’s best I leave the field of play to the next generation of dedicated and committed athletes.

After redefining greatness for more than two decades, Brady has earned every last bit of the respect and accolades he has received.

Defying Odds

That type of elite commitment is something that has made tennis star Rafael Nadal so formidable. But just six months ago, while his peers were competing in the US Open, Nadal underwent a foot surgery that cut his season short. And just six weeks ago, after little competitive match play and a bout with COVID, Nadal was not even sure he would be able to compete in the Australian Open, the first of the four grand slams in the tennis calendar. Nadal has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, and he has missed many more grand slams during his prime years — 11 — than his rivals Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. According to Nadal, who is now 35 years old, it has become harder and harder to build himself back up, not just physically, but mentally as well. The commitment it takes to compete at the highest level, and what that does to one’s body and mind, becomes harder and harder to justify. To make matters worse, Nadal’s draw at the Australian Open looked particularly brutal, and it seemed that he would have to face strong players much earlier in the competition than one would hope. Thus, when Nadal began his Aussie Open campaign, the tennis world did not expect too much from him. Neither did the oddsmakers, who had Nadal at 8/1 odds of winning the tournament.

As Nadal progressed through the draw looking unusually sharp for someone who had played so little in recent months, people began to take notice. He was dispatching strong players with relative ease, despite the punishing Australian summer heat and his lack of preparation. Entering the final, Nadal was set to face world number two Daniil Medvedev, the reigning US Open Champion and arguably the best hard-court player in the world. Despite his good run, expectations were low: Medvedev was the heavy favourite. After Nadal lost the first two sets, it seemed that his dream of breaking his three-way tie with Djokovic and Federer at 20 grand slams apiece would not come to fruition that day. But Nadal dug deep, and over five and a half gruelling, punishing hours, Nadal shocked Medvedev, the world, and himself by claiming his 21st major. He has now won more grand slams than any male player in tennis history, and his career is not over.

Honing Your Craft

One reason that businesspeople love sports is that they can teach us so much. In the case of both Nadal and Brady, we see two men who have a type of dedication to their craft that is extremely rare. Both have always had considerable talent, but both are known within their field as being the hardest workers in their respective sports. As we mentioned, Brady was not drafted particularly highly because he was not seen to be the type of physical specimen needed to win football games. But through his dedication, and in spite of his lack of physicality, he willed his way to the top. He and Nadal have worked hard to squeeze every last bit of talent out of their bodies. Nadal has pushed his body to the limit. Early on, pundits assumed he would not be able to have a career past 25 because of the punishment he inflicts on his body by never, ever giving up. Nadal is not retired yet, but he will retire soon, and he will enter retirement much like Brady: knowing that he did absolutely everything he good to be the best throughout his career. Brady left everything he had on the field, and Nadal will continue to leave everything he has out on the court. Let’s face it, we are lowly mortals, mere businesspeople. But just because we are not global superstars does not mean that we will not be able to retire happy. To do so, we have to make sure we are leaving everything we have out on the field, whatever field that may be.