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Are you a winner or a champion?

Author James Michael Lafferty and Olympic champion Michael Johnson leading a youth coaching event in Warsaw, Poland, in July 2002

Sometimes you read something that is so powerful, it can change the course of your life. That happened to me nearly 30 years ago.

As an avid sports enthusiast, I soaked up everything I could read on sports. And in 1988 I came across a study, which was published in the iconic American publication Sports Illustrated, on what differentiated winners from champions.

Winners are defined as those who win occasionally at best. Maybe only once, while a champion wins consistently. Time after time after time. If we talk about NBA basketball for a moment, a winner might be the Portland Trail Blazers. They did win once, many years ago. But a champion would be the Boston Celtics. Or Los Angeles Lakers. Or the Chicago Bulls. Those teams that won way more than one or two rings. When you talk champions, you are talking teams or individuals that win a ring for every finger!

Roger Federer. Serena Williams. Manny Pacquiao. Paeng Nepomuceno. These are examples of champions. Winning over and over again.

The question is not, “What is the difference between a winner and a champion?” No, the real question this study answered is, “What are the factors that make a champion?”

There were several factors identified. But the single most important variable identified by the authors was, champion teams and champion individuals all possess what they termed “the sense for the historic.”

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Now, what the heck is “the sense for the historic?”

In simplest terms, “the sense for the historic” is this recognition in someone that, “This unique moment may never pass by again. This is a historic moment in my life.” And thus, they up their game. They refuse to fail. They don’t think, “Maybe I will get another chance next year,” or “Bahala na, what will be will be.” No, the champion simply refuses to lose in these moments. We all lose in life. Everyone. But champions don’t lose in these big life moments.

You ever hear the expression, “Opportunity knocks but once”? Well, this is a time-tested credo that champions tend to abide by. Winners often mistakenly think there will be a “next year.”

One of the greatest of all champions was the sprinter Michael Johnson. This is the guy who personifies “the sense for the historic.” He wore gold shoes in his Olympic final in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics! Many people interpreted this as an arrogant move. I mean, who wears gold shoes in an Olympic final when you haven’t won yet? But this is not how someone who possesses “the sense for the historic” thinks.

Johnson decided for the four years leading up to the 1996 Olympics that he would win gold. He decided to out-train, out-work, and out-discipline the rest of the world. He knew he might never get another Olympics after 1996. There would be none of this thinking: “I am just honored and happy to be in the finals, to participate.” No, screw that! He was coming to win. Gold was his. And everyone else would have to fight for silver and bronze. This is the mindset of a champion.

Champions don’t make excuses. Champions are not happy for the “experience” of being there. Champions never console themselves with the thought, “Maybe I will get another chance.” No, they recognize they may never be in such a position again. So, they execute perfectly. They prepare perfectly. They train harder than everyone else. They don’t have “cheat meals.” They rise to the occasion. And for a brief snapshot in time, they are perfect.  It’s a historic moment in their lives that can forever change their destiny. So, they see it, they recognize it, and they just refuse to fail. That’s “the sense for the historic.”

Here is a fun fact to chew on. Michael Johnson, between 1991 and 2000, ran in 13 finals in the Olympics and World Championships. Thirteen times he lined up in a final race over a 10-year period.

He never lost an Olympic or World Championship final. Never! He won all 13. Yes, he lost many races in his life, but the big ones, when it mattered, he did not lose. He refused to lose. And this is “the sense for the historic.”

The learning for myself, and all of us, is “the sense for the historic” is a life concept, not solely a sports concept. We all have defining moments in our lives, those moments that set direction for the rest of our days. If we do well, we change our life for the better. If we fail to grasp “the sense for the historic,” our life may take a turn for the worse.

This is true for business. Family. Career. Hobbies.  You name it. Our lives are continually presenting us with defining moments. Moments when we need to grasp and possess “the sense for the historic.”

This can be a chance someone gives you. An interview with someone or some company you only get one chance in life with. This could be that big presentation that, if successful, will change your career trajectory. They are the moments and opportunities in life that represent a chance to change our stars.

Let’s take a few examples.

In 2001 I was CEO for Procter & Gamble Poland. I was on the board of the American School, and the director asked me if P&G would sponsor one scholarship for one talented but needy Polish student, and give a young Polish kid a shot at a world-class education. Even back then, the American School fees were way out of range for a normal Polish family. The fees ran $20,000 per year, about twice the annual wages of a worker in Poland at the time.

So I, of course, agreed to fund a scholarship, and we identified a 13-year-old boy, living on a family farm in rural Poland, who was reportedly a gifted student and had some base in English. His name was Rafal and he was a shy and humble boy when we met him, along with his parents. We offered him the full scholarship, we emphasized this was a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity. And off to school he went in a whole new world, an international school, top facilities, and every class in a new language!

After his first year, I was invited back to a review meeting. So, I went to the school, walked into a classroom and met Rafal, his parents, and the school director. Before anyone said anything, Rafal started crying and begged me to not take away his scholarship. He promised he would do better. He promised his failures would “never happen again.” He was sobbing and begging to stay and be given another chance.

I expected a disaster. My heart sank in my chest.

The director handed me his report card and I was shocked. Stunned. Blown away.  He had seven classes in total. He had perfect “A” scores in six of the seven classes. In the seventh, which was PE (Physical Education) he got a score of “B.” The kid was number two in his class! But here he was, frightened and scared he would lose his scholarship because he was only perfect in six out of seven classes!

I had tears in my eyes, partially from wishing my own kids had such dedication to excellence. They took going to great schools like the American School for granted. They never understood what an honor and privilege it was to attend. But Rafal had “the sense for the historic” in spades. The kid understood it. He worked his ass off in a new language and aimed for perfection. He did not blow his chance in life. He saw this as a defining moment, even at the young age of 13, and by gosh, he was not going to fail!

Rafal went for all four years of high school on scholarship and graduated with honors. He then won a full scholarship to Harvard University in the US, where he graduated with honors. Today, that poor kid from the farm has a high-ranking government position in the Polish administration. He is back serving his nation and living a life he could never have imagined.  This is “the sense for the historic.”

Now, let’s contrast this with a current example. About a year ago I met a man, Mark, who seemed like a very charismatic and good guy. He was unemployed. I could not understand why. So I asked. And he told me he unfortunately had an NBI (police) record and this fact turned off every potential employer. He made a mistake once when younger, and was paying for it ever since. All he wanted was one chance to show what he could do.

I must admit I had a great deal of empathy. I did some dumb things as a kid. Nobody deserves to lose second chances. Nobody should have their life ruined by a youthful indiscretion.

So I asked a company I know to waive the NBI clearance, interview him and give him a chance. He won the interviewer over and was offered a nice paying sales job, which he gladly accepted.

His start was rocky. Mark struggled to hit his targets. So they invested heavily in training and development. But he also struggled with being on time, showing up for work, and in general always had excuses. Over a period of a few months, this degraded to where he simply would not show up for several days, and now it appears he is completely AWOL and has stolen some product. Nobody knows where he is, he doesn’t advise anyone of his status and refuses to take phone calls.  So, a few days ago, he was summarily fired.

Getting that job was a defining moment for Mark to turn his life around. And he blew it. Completely. No sense for the historic whatsoever. And he has nobody to blame but himself. I am not sure anyone is going to give him another chance now.

The good thing about “the sense for the historic” is this is not a skill but a state of mind. Anyone can apply it with discipline and perseverance. It boils down to a couple of simple steps.

First, we must all be smart and recognize these defining moments. Always ask yourself, “Is this a rare opportunity that may never pass my way again?” Build your own self-awareness of moments where “the sense for the historic” matters.

Secondly, once you have identified these situations or opportunities, you must drive out all the hedging and caveats. No talk of, “Well, if I fail, I can get another shot later.” No “Bahala nas” or “Inshallahs” or reasons to just toss your fate to the wind. No, you decide, in the mind and will that God gave each of us, that on this day, at this time, I am not going to fail. You just make this decision. And you never look back.

And finally, once you have decided this, then do what you must to ensure you nail it. Mindset alone won’t do it, just like Michael Johnson did not win on mindset alone. You train. You work your ass off. You do what you must do. You show up early for work every day. You practice that big presentation repeatedly until it is like poetry rolling off your tongue! You put in the work to ensure success.

The sense for the historic exists in every one of us. Being a champion is not genetics or birthright. It’s a choice we can all make.  And who doesn’t want to be a champion in our lives?

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Interested in the concept of “Winners vs. Champions” for your team or organization to elevate performance? Inquiries or questions on an acclaimed keynote and training on this highly relevant topic may be directed to Facebook, James Michael Lafferty.

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