20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Tim Grover's Relentless Training Approach and the Dark Side of Greatness

Tim Grover has trained several of the greatest basketball players of the past three decades, including Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. Grover's new book Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable (co-written with Shari Lesser Wenk) reveals not only his methods but also his cogent observations about the personalities of elite athletes and the traits that enable them to consistently outperform their peers.

Grover says that an athlete--or anyone striving to be the best--can become "unstoppable" by "placing no limits" on himself, a philosophy that Grover employed to get the biggest break of his career; Grover was a young, unknown personal trainer when he saw a small newspaper article describing how Michael Jordan was determined to no longer be pushed around by the two-time NBA champion Detroit Pistons. Grover contacted the Chicago Bulls and said that he had the right recipe to transform Jordan's physique. Jordan was skeptical because he had injured his back the last time he worked with a personal trainer but after hearing Grover's detailed pitch he agreed to give Grover a 30 day trial. Grover remained Jordan's trainer for the next 15 years (until Jordan retired for good) and the publicity that Grover received from training Jordan became the foundation for building his Attack Athletics business. Grover did not listen to those who told him that he would never get a chance to work with Jordan; by placing "no limits" on himself Grover achieved far more than anyone could have reasonably predicted or expected.

Grover's message to his clients is simple: "Show up, work hard and listen." That is reminiscent of John Madden's motto when he coached the Oakland Raiders: "Be on time, pay attention and play like hell when I tell you to." Grover expresses himself very confidently and Relentless has a strident, blunt tone that may make some readers uncomfortable--but Grover would not have it any other way: "Comfortable makes you good. We're going for unstoppable, and there's a price to pay for that." Grover divides competitors into three categories: "Coolers, Closers, and Cleaners," which Grover defines respectively as "Good, Great, and Unstoppable."

Grover describes a Cleaner as "the most intense and driven competitor imaginable...You understand the insatiable addiction to success; it defines your entire life." Grover admits that he is not a psychologist and that he has not conducted an academic research study of greatness; he learned what he knows about the subject by working with elite athletes and his message to readers is "not science. It's raw animal instinct." Grover came up with the term Cleaner because "They just clean up the mess and move on," like a custodian who "calls no attention to himself, no one sees him work, no one knows what he does, but the job always gets done." A Cleaner has a simple mantra: "I own this." A Cleaner takes responsibility but does not seek credit or glory: "A true Cleaner never tells you what he's doing or what he's planning. You find out after the job is complete. And by the time you realize what he's accomplished, he's already moved on to the next challenge." Real bad boys move in silence, while posers just talk about what they are going to do.

There is an unintentionally ironic line in Grover's book. He declares, "Those who talk don't know, and those who know don't talk. I don't talk." He says that his clients have to completely trust his discretion and for that reason he has never revealed his training methods--yet the very point of Relentless is to not only describe his methods but to convince the reader that those methods are more effective than the methods of other trainers! Grover is right that, as Tevin Campbell once sang, "Nothing comes from talkers but sound," but it still strikes a discordant note for him to criticize talking about one's methods in a book written for the general public, because as an author Grover is in fact "talking." Despite this one ironic statement, Grover's larger point is correct; it is much more meaningful to be about it than to talk about it and Grover and his clients have a long track record of successfully getting the job done.

Cleaners share 13 traits. Grover deliberately settled on the number 13 because he does not believe in luck, only "circumstances and outcomes, and you can control both if you desire." Grover believes that if you give someone a numbered list then that person will assume that some things on the list are more important than others. Grover insists that everything he says--as a trainer and as an author--is important or he would not say it, so whenever he makes a list every point is numbered "1."

A Cleaner thrives in pressure situations but Grover notes, "There is no such thing as the 'clutch gene'" and he adds, "I'd be insulted if someone said I had a clutch gene. It's not a compliment when people say you step up for the big games. Where were you all the other games? Why weren't you that solid and aggressive and effective all the time?" Grover concludes, "Clutch is about the last minute. Relentless is about every minute." Grover agrees that Being a Clutch Player is More Significant than Just Making Clutch Shots; a clutch player--a Cleaner--puts pressure on himself to excel all of the time, not just in some arbitrarily defined clutch situation. 

Grover says that a Cleaner controls his emotions and saves his energy for his performance: "Before a game, I don't want to see guys dancing and screaming and shaking each other into a frenzy. It looks good for the fans and the cameras, but all that emotion pulls your focus toward manufactured pregame hype and away from your mission...Watch the true leaders. At game time, Kobe comes onto the court the way a CEO walks into a shareholders' meeting. Shakes a few hands, says hello to the players and the refs, and gets down to business. Michael wanted no physical contact before a game--no hugs or handshakes. He'd give his teammates a fist bump or a subtle high five--hands never too high, always low and contained--and he never made eye contact. At the end of the player introductions, he'd go around to his teammates and settle everyone down, like a father covering the kids, a quick moment to remind them, Don't worry, I got you."

Maintaining inner calm is the key for an athlete to stay in the much talked about but little understood Zone. Grover observes that Michael Jordan is the only athlete he has ever seen "who was completely in the Zone every time he played, always a Cleaner." At first that may sound like an exaggeration but consider that Jordan led the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls to a 72-10 record; that whole team was in a Zone almost every night and it would be fair to say that their few losses stemmed more from physical exhaustion than any loss of mental focus. Grover mentions a particular game from that season that casual fans may not know about but that serious Bulls fans will never forget: the Vancouver game when the Bulls seemed to be heading toward a loss and Darrick Martin decided to start trash talking Michael Jordan. Jordan may have been out of the Zone at the start of the game but after Martin foolishly woke him up Jordan put on an incredible performance in an otherwise meaningless game--and the only way a team goes 72-10 is if that team does not believe that any game is meaningless. That pursuit of greatness--of perfection--is so much more viscerally appealing than the nonsense we see far too often when teams "rest" players because certain games are considered meaningless.

Jordan's leadership of the 72-10 Bulls represents all that is positive about being a Cleaner but in Perfection Versus Perspective I wrote about how challenging it can be to balance being a perfectionist with achieving serenity and peace:

The flip side of this kind of ferocious, single-minded drive and determination is that, as Kobe Bryant candidly admitted recently, "Winning takes precedence over all. There's no gray area. No almosts. It's a very unbalanced way to live and I know that. It's not healthy. And I can't justify it, but someone has to win and why not me and the Lakers organization."

I then asked the key question:

How can one simultaneously have perfection as a goal and yet deal with the reality that nothing in this world--particularly one's ability to perform under pressure--is perfect?

Grover does not directly answer this question in Relentless but he acknowledges that there is a price to pay for the "dark side" that propels a Cleaner to success:  "Cleaners have a dark side, and a zone you can't enter. They get what they want, but they pay for it in solitude. Excellence is lonely...Most people are afraid to climb that high, because if they fail, the fall will kill them. Cleaners are willing to die trying. They don't worry about hitting the ceiling or the floor. There is no ceiling. There's no floor either."

Grover's take on the Tiger Woods scandal will offend many people, particularly those who think that faithfulness in marriage is more important than becoming the greatest golfer ever: "With everyone watching and judging and analyzing every detail of his private life, that dark side evaporated; that kind of energy simply can't survive in the light. It completely loses its power, unless you're willing to stand up and say, 'Yeah, so what?' and go right on doing whatever you were doing."

In case you missed the message, Grover states his point explicitly in Relentless: "As someone who has known and liked Tiger for a long time, I didn't want to see that apology. I wanted to see him say nothing in public and show up ready to fight another day...No apologies. I wanted to see Tiger handle his situation with that kind of confidence. He built this intimidating reputation of being a killer on the golf course; I didn't want to see him hanging his head. He didn't murder anyone. He stepped out on his wife, it's between him and his family. Worried about losing endorsements? Go win something, they all come running back." That may sound cynical but it is true: one Super Bowl title made most people forget that, at the very least, Ray Lewis obstructed justice in a double murder case and then a second Super Bowl title seemingly elevated Lewis to some kind of secular saint status in the NFL universe.

Grover believes that the same dark side that inspires elite athletes to set records and win championships also explains their risk taking away from the field of play and that in fact it is not possible to reach the highest level without having a dark side that inevitably spills over into other aspects of the competitor's life. Is it possible to become the best of the best without in some way giving in to the "dark side"? It would be nice to think that it is possible to be great without succumbing to darkness but the parade of elite politicians, athletes, writers and other highly successful people who have become embroiled in sordid scandals is not encouraging. Yes, of course one can find examples of seemingly well-balanced, happy people who are very successful but are those examples refutations of Grover's idea or just the proverbial exceptions that prove the rule? Without getting into graphic details and just limiting the discussion to basketball it is well known that many of the greatest players of all-time had/have tremendous appetites for gambling, drugs, lavish spending, extramarital sex and/or other activities that often result in misery for themselves and/or their spouses, children or other relatives. Grover's direct take on this subject is disturbing and uncomfortable not because he is off target but because he may very well be correct; how many times has someone been elevated to role model status only to eventually become disgraced when his transgressions are revealed?

Grover knows how to train champions and he understands what makes champions tick. His description of the mindset of Cleaners like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant is compelling and it rings true--but any thoughtful person will inevitably wonder about the price of greatness. Being Relentless has worked for many elite athletes but is it the only approach or is it possible to reach the pinnacle with a mindset like the one described in Garret Kramer's Stillpower?

Labels: , , , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 4:19 PM



At Monday, April 15, 2013 5:24:00 PM, Blogger RileyD, nwJ said...

Two words refute the "dark side' comments of Tim Grover: John Wooden.

At Monday, April 15, 2013 5:30:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


That is a valid point and I am a huge John Wooden fan. I particularly like his quote, "Make each day your masterpiece." However, those who have studied UCLA's success closely might argue that if Wooden had not received "help" from booster Sam Gilbert then he would not have been able to land high profile recruits like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) and Bill Walton. Wooden's tremendous ability to teach and to mentor his players is indisputable but even Wooden's great legacy has a dark side to it.


Post a Comment

<< Home