A young athlete reaches out to Duke basketball’s Kara Lawson with an unusual problem: Her will to win is making her miserable.
“Ask the Coach” is an advice column to help you keep your mind in the game.
I run high school track, and recently I’ve become obsessed with being the best on my team. Like, it’s all I think about. I turn everything into a competition — even practice. This need to win motivates me to train hard and put everything into my races, but I’ve noticed I’m more impatient and stressed than before, and some of my teammates don’t want to be my friend because I take things so seriously. Can I use this competitive drive as an edge, or will it end up getting in my way?
Hungry but Also Miserable
17-year-old track athlete
It’s great that you’re competitive, HAM. I get it. And I share your drive.
I started training to win at age 3. Inspired by sprinter Evelyn Ashford winning gold at the ’84 Olympics, I’d try to race cars — on foot, from the sidewalk — as they drove past my house in Alexandria, Virginia. I can’t imagine what my parents thought of me!
That competitive drive still fuels me, just like it fuels you. But it sounds as though your drive is coming at a cost. And that’s something you’ll want to get ahead of before you end up hating your sport.
I want to help you as much as I can, but I also want you to talk to your own coach about what you’re feeling, because they’ll be able to follow up with you. You might even ask them to connect you with a therapist or sports psychologist to help you find some balance. I perform my best when I offset competition with recovery and downtime. And it’s when I feel happiest.
To achieve balance, I look for moments when I can focus on all the nonbasketball things I love. What do you love to do off the track? Maybe it’s playing with your dog, listening to music, or spending time with your family. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it gives you some mental space. And if you can’t seem to relax right away, be patient with yourself.
You can even look for opportunities to refocus during practice breaks, on the team bus, or in the locker room. When I was a point guard at Tennessee, my coach, Pat Summitt, would make me give speeches to the team on topics that didn’t have much to do with basketball. At first it felt terrifying (and, if I’m being honest, pointless), but then it clicked. Coach Summitt was trying to show me that connecting with others could empower me — and my teammates.
…be patient with yourself.
Speaking of your teammates, one way to bond with them is by taking a genuine interest in what they like, aside from competition. Find out what you have in common with them, whether it’s movies, music or style. You don’t have to like all the same things your teammates do or spend all your time with them, but making these connections can help build positive energy.
Another thing that might be contributing to your obsession to win is a fear of losing, which is something that a lot of athletes struggle with. In the immediate aftermath, losing sleep or being upset is part of the experience. But if that continues long-term? That’s not a good sign.
…making these connections can help build positive energy.
Keeping your losses in perspective is really important. Look, athletes aren’t born clutch or able to handle high-stakes situations perfectly. I sure wasn’t. Getting there required a lot of success — but also a lot of failure. In basketball, there might be 12 mistakes made on a single possession, even in game six of the NBA Finals. Of course no one wants to make mistakes, but they happen. And when they happened to me, I relied on my resilience to help me move forward.
One way you can build your resilience is by giving some grace to yourself when you make a mistake — and to your teammates too. Shifting your mindset takes practice. But if you stick with it, you won’t just continue to master your sport, you’ll also continue to love it.
Kara Lawson is the head women’s basketball coach at Duke University. Previously an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics and a respected broadcast analyst, she was a standout player in the WNBA for 13 seasons, leading the Monarchs to a championship win, and a member of the Team USA roster that won gold at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. As a dominant player at Tennessee, she led the Lady Vols to three NCAA Final Four appearances.
Illustration: Harrison Freeman