Why Being Best is Not Always Good



In team and individual sports, the ideal recipe for improvement is a few easy wins, lots of hard wins, and a few tough losses.

But what if you're the best by a long shot? Then you have a problem.

Albert Johnson, the guy in this picture, is the best squash player in Memphis. He is also the best player in Tennessee, and probably in Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi because there is little if any squash in those states. To find players who can consistently beat him, he has to travel to tournaments in Atlanta, where there are hundreds of players and three clubs with multiple courts.

Day in and out he plays at Rhodes College in Memphis, where he was a star basketball player in the 1990s with his brother Thomas. After graduation, he played professional basketball in Europe. He's injury free and only in his mid-30s. He's been playing less than ten years. So he has some upside. The problem is, there is nobody in Memphis who can do to him what he consistently does to the rest of us — push him by beating him consistently, even without expending maximum effort. So while he's making us better, we're not making him better, assuming we are not dragging him down to our level.

Competition is the key to raising performance. Runners and swimmers can race against the clock, but a training partner and arch rival will produce better times. It's been my experience that tennis players get about as good as the best people they play. The good ones go to schools that have good teams and coaches, and the outliers go to academies, like the ones that produced most of the girls in the national clay-court tournament going on at the Racquet Club of Memphis next week.

This principle works in team sports too. I can remember when dunking was unusual in high school and even college basketball. Now it's as routine as dribbling behind your back, another skill that once drew "oohs" from the crowd. A 30-inch vertical jump once made you a leaper. Now it makes you average. Competition raised the standard.

So if you want to get better, first you gotta get beat.

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