Like many sporting enthusiasts I was captivated by the Netflix documentary, The Last Dance. Wow—impressive on so many levels—the behind the scenes story, the unprecedented access to the team and resulting candid interviews, the dramatic game footage, and, of course, the seemingly impossible athleticism and skill on display throughout the entire series. What wasn’t to like?
However, with COVID allowing for plenty of time to process and reflect these days, I find myself thinking it would be disastrously unfortunate if this celebration of, what most would consider, the greatest team in the history of sport inspires a resurgence in the combative hate-fueled approach to excellence that in many ways produced that impressive distinction. Because, let’s face it, there was a lot about the entire package of what and who the Bulls were that was dysfunctional, offensive and downright broken.
As I imagine the nay-sayers chirping in refute, “Hey, it won them six NBA Championships. It’s their job to win—that’s professional sport. Besides, it’s win-at-all-costs, and if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen!”
Believe me, I appreciate the sentiment—all of it! Hell, much of that “package” was what I was taught, bought into and lived as an elite national team rower for Canada. And, yes, it did and still does still win championships. But, and it’s a very distinctive and important “but”—it is an “expensive” strategy for driving high performance.
WHERE TO BEGIN:
Like all of us, my early life experiences provided the touchstone for what I knew and believed as a young adult. Thankfully, those beliefs have evolved—especially in regard to sport. Therefore, yes, unfortunately, there was a time when the culture of what’s on display with the Bulls organization was my MO. Placing competition in a war paradigm was ubiquitous amongst many of my coaches and fellow rowers. The machismo and egotism that oozes from each episode of The Last Dance mirrors perfectly on so many levels the fuel that drove us as young athletes. And, like this documentary, it wasn’t questioned—instead, it was celebrated.
In fact, I found myself continually referencing the characters and key moments from each episode with the characters and key moments I knew from my rowing career. Everything from having teammates who, like Dennis Rodman, needed regular social blowouts in order to survive our mind-numbing training, to the way the Bulls, especially Michael Jordan, utilized motivation.
For me, the most poignant example was listening to Michael justify “crawling up someone’s ass” as a necessary strategy for getting the best from his teammates. Although that approach worked at the time, during his present day interview where he recalled and defended the intent behind tormenting his teammates, it brought him to tears. Perhaps all of these years later, even the great Michael Jordan may have some regret.
As for the strategy, I get it—I used similar “sticks” as an athlete and younger coach. And, it worked. However, the trouble with stick and carrot motivation is that it often results in JUST enough effort to avoid the stick and/or garner the carrot. In other words, if the annoyance of having an individual taunt, shame, or even bully their teammates doesn’t intensify each time they engage in those old-school tactics, at some point the efficacy of prodding someone to try harder will level off and eventually wane. When we require a stick to motivate ourselves, as soon as you remove the threat we let up—that’s why it’s a limited motivation strategy.
The same could be said for the ability of their elusive three-peat to sustain the necessary desire to continue performing at such a high level of play once that distinction was achieved. When you chase some form of egoic notoriety, like the stick, you have to continually increase the attractiveness of that carrot. After three championships, playing to “win a fourth title” clearly had little appeal for many of the teams’ roster, especially Michael.
His departure to chase a possible career in baseball was, in my opinion, another attempt at filling the emotional void that winning three NBA Championships hadn’t. In most instances, winning never brings us what we hope it might. Research tells us that in interviews with Olympic Champions who won gold at their respective Games, waking up the morning after their long sought after accomplishment was a reckoning of personal disappointment that “nothing had changed”—they were still the same person.
The other noteworthy component in terms of showcasing broken strategies for motivation was undoubtedly Michael creating fictional conflict as a way to generate competitive fuel. In his return to professional basketball the energy required to “get up” for games seemed to require an added punch—he chose hatred—potent fuel.
In desperation, he began to construct falsehoods about his opponents as a way to provoke a reason to compete. True, revenge, retribution and redemption can prove effective motivators but, speaking from experience, when they finally brake down—and they inevitably do—look out, it can be ugly.
In this instance, it’s where things like gambling can take hold. Michael tries to justify his expensive pastime with, “I’m just really, really competitive.” Hmmm, sorry, that doesn’t cut it for me. There’s something more to it. The desire to prove something to himself or others never appears to shut off. Again, if you return to the question, “What’s fueling the desire to compete?” you’ll likely find your answer. And, as it had been throughout his career, it’s found in the ego. Therein lies the culprit.
The emotional costs of chasing distinction to satisfy the ego are exhausting. When I look at Micheal’s eyes during those present day interviews, I see pain. There’s still something missing—something unresolved. Despite all of his wealth and accomplishments, he doesn’t strike me as man at peace with who he is or what he’s done. He appears to still have something to prove. The chip on his shoulder that drove him as a young athlete appears to still be weighing him down.
If The Last Dance has reminds us of anything, it’s that, “winning-at-all-costs” is an archaic paradigm that in many ways serves as a cheap copout. It’s similar to the expression, “Hey, it’s business—don’t take it personally.” Both are served up as excuses for behaviour that would otherwise be deemed as inappropriate and, likely, offensive. But, in the case of winning games or making money—no holds are barred, right?
I believe how we hold competition as a society is our collective Achilles heel. It’s what makes sport vulnerable to abusive practices that compromise not only the integrity of sport, but the very individuals we are reliant upon—the athletes. When we allow the message that winning, above all else, is the only acceptable outcome to competition, we enable the abusers to utilize any means possible to attain “the win.”
The combative strategies that Micheal Jordan and many of the other athletes featured in The Last Dance utilize are not only examples of what’s wrong with an old-school approach to sport, but of what old-school sport produces. They are the byproduct of what a warlike kill-or-be-killed paradigm spits out. I don’t blame them. I’m sure they’re all good people. It’s what they grew up knowing, it’s what served them in the moment, and at no point were they ever given a reason to question it.
Today, however, we know better and we’re beginning to question it. We understand that we are right to insist on circumstances for our athletes that support a much healthier existence. Imagine, if you will, instead of a toxic environment where demanding egos compete for attention and accolades, you had a safe one where athletes relied upon intrinsic forms of motivation to inspire themselves to greatness. Where their sense of self was healthy and strong, and left no reason to verbally or physically diminish and degrade their fellow teammates and competitors in a vain attempt at feeling superior.
Imagine a team where love was the foundation of their collective why. Why they played their sport. Why they belonged to a certain team. Why they loved competing. And, where their daily fuel was sourced from a never ending curiosity in search of the athletic heights for that which they were capable.
Imagine if athletes felt equally compelled to support the growth and development of their teammates as they did their own. And, even more ambitious, imagine a competitive arena that fostered the celebration of the victors as well as the defeated. Where competition was a synergistic expression of the combined energy of individuals and teams striving for their best performance on the day.
Unimaginable? Nope—I’ve seen it. It’s a beautiful and powerful creation that quite honestly has no limits. It would simply take enough people to wake up to the possibility that sport offers itself as a positive societal influencer. No longer would sport be seen as merely entertainment—an easy distraction. Instead, it could represent the essence of what this world desperately needs at this moment in history.
Look around. As a planet we are hurting. As people we are longing for something—someone to inspire us to be better. As we prepare to return to play, at the professional, amateur elite and youth levels, sport could be that source of inspiration.
Imagine if the Bulls had embraced a love-infused culture similar to what has been described here? My bet, they would’ve won more than six titles and, more importantly, their legacy would be bigger than just their win/loss column. Now is the time to enable sport to raise the level of consciousness on this planet. We don’t need more examples of hatred. It’s hope and love we need.