What we can learn from the Villanova Men’s Basketball Team
(Or, how to get ready for your “One Shining Moment”)
As a not-so-recent graduate from Villanova, I always get vaguely interested in sports when the NCAA tournament gets underway. I grew up in Texas and naturally learned to love football. When I started at Nova, five years after the men’s basketball team had won the NCAA Tournament, there was still great hope that the team would be able to get back to its former glory, and so I learned about college hoops by osmosis.
Despite some great players, the team was not a part of March Madness while I was a student. Each year, I follow Villanova’s path through the tournament (if they get there). I am at best a fair weather fan, not because I don’t support Villanova but because sports don’t interest me anymore. I used to love the drama of sports games, and any league would do. I used to marvel at the level of expertise of the players, the competition, the tenacity, the drama, and in the end, a winner and a loser. But over so many years of scandal in so many sports at so many levels, I have lost whatever interest I had. Was the winner really a winner, or would we soon learn about some less-than-by-the-books way that the team achieved the success? True sports aficionados can block that out with passion, stats, and strong opinions. For me, it just turned me off to sports in general.
Then the 2016 Villanova Wildcats decided they were going to win the NCAA March Madness tournament. Since the games are a “one and done” competition, it gives opportunities for both hope and devastation. Villanova chose hope, and in doing so gave hope to its fans, even fair weather ones like me. Through the journey from “wow, Villanova is doing really well in the tournament” to “wow –they could actually win this,” I took some lessons from this group of men.
When you have a challenge, you fight harder – you don’t give in.
Villanova was a strong team going in to the playoffs, but they were not picked as the tournament winner in most brackets. Nonetheless, the opportunity to win the tournament is there for any team that gets in to the tournament, one game at a time. It would have been very easy for the team, the coach, and the fans to look at the competition and make excuses about why they wouldn’t be able to make it to the end, especially in a field that has been dominated for so long by a few strong teams. But that’s not what wins. What wins is defining your goal and believing that you have the tools you need to achieve your goal. And then… Never. Give. In.
Practice and hard work really do pay off
There is something beautiful about hard work: it’s hard. Humans maximize their potential when they are challenged and when they work hard. The human body only gains muscle through hard work, and the human mind is no different. The reason that the Villanova men were able to dig deep and get better with every game they played was because they had methodically built their skills. They practiced and practiced and practiced. When Kris Jenkins was asked after the game whether he thought his game-winning shot would go in, his answer was honest: yes. He had practiced so many times that there was no reason to doubt that this one, too, would sink.
In today’s online world, everyone can at least try to be a star. But just because you are given the opportunity to be a star doesn’t mean you should take that opportunity. Ryan Arcidiacono could have taken the shot – it was his call. But he grabbed the ball, saw that Kris Jenkins was perhaps more open to shoot, and passed the ball for what was possibly the calmest championship-winning shot in college basketball history. Maybe Arch would have made the shot if he took it himself, maybe he wouldn’t have. But in that split second, he knew to give the ball to someone he believed in, and in doing so, became part of history.
Support those who make a mistake.
In any game, in any office, in any family, people will make mistakes. It’s part of the fun of being people. Growth doesn’t occur when people make mistakes – it occurs when others react to mistakes. In today’s 24/7 news cycle, there is a big appetite to pounce on the mistakes of others, as if we in our glass houses have never made one. The Villanova men just kept believing in each other. Missed free throw? Shake it off – we can make it up. Defense didn’t work right in that play? Remind each other what we do best and go back to the plan. No need to dwell on what didn’t work – instead, focus on the goal to win.
Leaders need to think outside the box, especially when that box is full of the team’s weaknesses.
There were many moments in the path to the championship that could have thrown the Wildcats off of their path. The last nail-biting minutes of the championship game, in particular, presented moments that the team could have mentally been defeated. But those moments were at the tail end of what had been a long march to get to the championship game. Coach Jay Wright knew his team wouldn’t win on “obvious” traits like height and first round draft picks. Instead, he had to identify the strengths of the opposing team and make a plan to neutralize them, and then identify the weaknesses of his own team, and attempt to neutralize them. Rather than trying to stop UNC’s best player with a traditional defense, Coach Wright deployed three different players, at different times, from different angles, to disrupt the obvious UNC advantage. UNC was ahead at halftime, but only because of an unsustainably high shooting percentage- the plan was working. Villanova’s Daniel Ochefu then took the lead in the locker room at halftime to remind the players that they were here to win, and they all needed stick to the plan and work a little harder.
Many words have been used to describe various members of the Villanova men’s basketball team: selfless, team-focused, and humble seem to top the list. For any of us in any job, on any team, or as a member of any company or family that has goals to achieve, we would all be wise to practice, practice, practice these traits so that one day we, too, might have the chance for our own One Shining Moment.