Professional athletics in need of humility

Earlier in the semester, I came across a brief quotation–or a saying, if you will–that truly struck me, one that resonated with me on a much deeper level than most sayings. When asked by some members of the Boston media about his definition of humility, the newly christened NBA head coach Brad Stevens repeated the renowned C.S. Lewis in his response: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

When I encountered that saying, I stopped what I was doing for a minute and got to thinking about the power of those words. I took a moment, gathered myself, and replayed what I had just heard from one of my favorite basketball coaches.

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

It was succinct, yet simplistically brilliant. A sign of respect to one of the most influential thinkers of the past two centuries, Stevens’ answer struck a chord for so many reasons, but perhaps no more so than for its applicability to the hyper-competitive world of sports. As I compare athletes of all kinds, I look for humility first and foremost as the telling indicator of good character.

Merriam-Webster defines humility as the quality or state of being humble, or thinking that you are not better than those around you. This definition implies a sense of unselfishness and an air of modesty and the decision to seek out a lower profile instead of craving attention.

In far too many cases, humility escapes the world of sports. It escapes the high-profile athlete, be it in high school or the collegiate and professional ranks. It perturbs me deeply that so many athletes succumb to the temptations of self-glorification and chronic attention-hoarding behavior, while so few remember the virtues of unselfishness and modesty, the value in thankfulness and an unassuming demeanor. The inflated ego runs rampant in the realms of basketball and football, two cutthroat competitions always in need of star power–when one sensational competitor separates himself from the pack with outstanding play and undeniable charisma.

Much has been said about showboating, and there’s been constant disagreement over the thickness of that line of celebration–the point at which an athlete goes too far with his acts of self-glorification. Amidst the flexing and the sideline dancing, the puff of the jersey and the wag of the finger, it is too easy to get lost in the commemoration of individual accomplishment–when the individual decides to mark his accomplishment with extreme celebration, the situation spirals out of control ever so quickly. At least, it does in my eyes, since I still put a lot of weight on humility. It means a lot to me.

There are countless examples, and more are added to the list with each passing day. LeBron James’ dance routines on the sidelines of a blowout in Miami, Johnny Manziel’s unprompted taunts in the face of an inferior opponent, the sack dances of every defensive lineman from Jacksonville to San Francisco–they all make the count, a nefarious list of self-obsessed athletes lacking a firm dose of humbleness. All of these athletes, and the many more that avoided mention, forget that there’s something to be said for a modest, unadorned approach to the game.

Sometimes, it’s best to ignore the temptation of self-adornment in favor of selfless decency–when the common fist pump takes the place of the Dougie, when hugging a teammate takes the place of flexing a muscle. There’s something to be said about the recognition of the other instead of the self, when an athlete congratulates a teammate on the pinpoint pass instead of honoring his highlight reel catch. In my mind, that is the ideal–the simplicity of the fist pump and the humility of the hug. And the athlete should strive for that ideal because humility is always the ideal. I believe that is inarguable, and I commend any and all athletes who recognize the importance of modesty and selflessness.

I obviously praise Michael Jordan, my favorite athlete to ever play any sport, for his extraordinary play and rare ability to eloquently articulate his thoughts. But, I praise him even more for his straightforward celebrations and unadorned acts of self-recognition. He never danced, and he never flexed. He never held a celebratory fist pump for any longer than he truly had to, and was the definition of a respectable player and human being. I appreciate the simplicity of his approach as well as the humbleness.

With the exception of his actual play, Michael Jordan never went the extra mile. He kept it simple. His confidence never suffered as a result that much is certain. Even though his celebrations were anything but elaborate, Michael Jordan never thought less of his skills or his mindset or his place among the game’s greats. The celebrations exuded a good measure of humility, and he never thought less of himself as a result. He maintained his character, his integrity and his values while still dominating on the court in every aspect. In the end, that is the definition of true humility.

To possess an inordinate amount of confidence in the self without reverting to needless self-glorification is the ideal, for which each and every athlete should strive. There’s no need to perform the Dougie and hurl an unprovoked taunt, at the same time disrespecting the opponent and forgetting the teammate who made it all possible.

Let us remember the wise words of C.S. Lewis and Brad Stevens after him. Let us remember the virtue of humility. Let us remember the other instead of the self.

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

Those words resonated with me quite deeply, and they ring true to this day. That quotation is a beautiful display of deeper wisdom and intelligent simplicity, and we would be wise to take it to heart. We are consumed by ourselves on far too many occasions.

Do not think less of yourself, by any stretch. Think of yourself less. That should be the ideal for each and every one of us. There should be no exceptions.

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