Since animals are judged by humans based solely on their actions, I always find it fitting to make analogies to animals when it comes to leadership in sports. As a kid, my dad did a motivational speech on ducks and eagles that I partly plagiarized during a leadership retreat in college.
During my retreat presentation, I used duck and eagle analogies easily relatable to sports. One of these was ‘quacking’, which I linked to useless complaining and the following of others with no sense of direction. Then I emphasized how a duck is rarely seen alone and always has the luxury of hiding behind others.
My delivery started a bit of an inside ‘team joke’ (I may have started walking around quacking in the middle of my presentation) but I still got the point across. The duck has always been a symbol of ‘sticking together’ due to the popular Disney film, “The Mighty Ducks.” The new ‘post retreat’ duck image that was left in everybody’s mind wasn’t a positive one.

My cousin is a successful Digital Media strategist and former player living in Toronto. He and I recently had a conversation about the differences between the hockey world and the working world. A conversation I believe to be common among other people as well. Most often this conversation takes the form of two parties trying to convince each other what lifestyle is better. An athlete might make the argument that a fan pays a ticket to watch him play, thus making him more important. A fan might argue that he or she contributes to the wages of people that provide them with entertainment two nights a week, making them sound superior. These opinions are often just shaped based on what category one finds him/herself in. There is no superiority. One lifestyle is not greater than the other, it’s simply a matter of perspective and what makes you happy. The main difference for us is that each lifestyle exposes different qualities of a person. Team sports are able to highlight many positive personality traits that could’ve otherwise remained hidden like teamwork, competitiveness, and discipline.
In order to thrive in the working world, one needs to be a ‘go-getter’ and make things happen. Many such comparisons can be drawn between the two lifestyles. This article is about one ingredient in particular. One that in my opinion is way easier to get away with in team sports. One that leads to underperforming teams.

I’m talking about dependence.

The option to hide behind others like ducks is extremely present in team sports. Humans tend to take the path of least resistance, and if hiding is an option (which it is), unfortunately many will resort to it. Furthermore, it is often tough to point out who is guilty of it, making it even more detrimental. After all, we’ve been taught to stand together at a young age. We’ve been taught to unify and depend on each other. These ‘important’ group skills are overrated as they are learned by default simply through participating. I also feel they can serve as a mask worn by those that hide. An imaginary shelter that keeps ducks comfortable! On the other hand, something I believe to be very important and requires constant work within a team, is independence and selfishness. And I don’t mean selfish in a bad way. I mean egoism as how Ayn Rand portrays it in her book “The Fountainhead.” She says;

“The egoist in the absolute sense is not the man who sacrifices others. He is the man who stands above the need of using others in any manner.”

And later;

“Degrees of ability vary but the basic principle remains the same: the degree of a man’s independence, initiative and personal love for his work determines his talent as a worker and his worth as a man. Independence is the only gauge of human virtue and value”

Patrick Kane was asked in 2012 why the Blackhawks were so good. His answer was that everybody wanted to be the best player on the ice every night. A room filled with players with that mindset is extremely powerful. The players that take initiative, want to make the difference, and WANT the puck on their stick are the ones that are huge assets. They are the type to get off the ‘cart’ and pull it because they take pride in contributing to it moving forward. They are the eagles. Hiding behind nobody, they proudly soar as if they own the sky, hunting for food in their own unique way. That’s not selfishness like taking a full pizza for yourself when others are hungry, or not passing on a 2 on 1 simply because you want the goal. The motivation behind that attitude is negative. The eagle mindset isn’t at the expense of anyone else, which I believe to be the difference between independence and selfishness in sports. From an outsider’s perspective, it might be difficult to tell the difference between the two, but there is one. Just as there is a difference between being a team player, and hiding within a team like a duck. That’s why team success is so hard to achieve. You might not know who’s who, and there is no accountability in obscurity. The good news is that, similar to the infectiousness of a duck’s quack (negativity and hiding) within a team, the ‘eagle attitude’ is also contagious. I’m sure many readers will be familiar with the following Marianne Williamson quote, from the movie “Coach Carter”:

“And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Being an eagle is plausible for every player in his own unique way. I believe it just needs to be unlocked. This is why leadership within a team is so important. Being a leader doesn’t just mean saying the right things, it entails portraying the attitude of an eagle. Everybody wants to eat but not a lot of people are willing to hunt for their food. A leader inspires people to hunt by doing it himself. An independent and driven athlete that concerns him/herself with his/her own performance.

We’ve all been there at some point in our career. The team is down a goal late in the third period, and suddenly one of your teammates steps up and scores a huge goal. The next time this situation occurs, a natural reaction is to hope for that guy to step up again. Over time, this attitude is deadly for a team. On the flip side, the opposite feeling, in my opinion, is the ultimate form of confidence a team can enjoy. When you know your team is so good that there is no way you’re going to lose because of all the players that want to make the difference. The feeling that prevails when looking around the dressing room at all the individual name plates of a bunch of independent eagles. That is the most dangerous team I can imagine. As coach Jimmy McGinty (The Replacements) would say: “Winners always want the ball when the game is on the line.”

Steve Mason

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