Pa Ranahan: Winning Mentality separates the greats from the good

“Deep down in my stomach, with every inch of me, I pure, straight hate you! But God damn it, do I respect you!” (Anchorman)

Like a growing number of people in Ireland, I stayed up till the wee hours recently to watch the Superbowl. In a world where the only certainty at the minute is uncertainty, a Superbowl featuring Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr brought some degree of normality. Appearing in his tenth showpiece game, with a team in Tampa Bay who he joined in 2020 after helping build the New England Patriots dynasty, Brady continues to defy his age. At 43, the quarterback was faultless in claiming his seventh Lombardi trophy. And even spoke in the immediate aftermath of coming back for more in 2021. The hunger insatiable. The drive for more seemingly endless. It’s inspiring if not annoying.

Whatever about his undoubted ability, the most impressive thing is the way he raises the standards of everyone around him. He expects more of himself, so he expects more of his teammates and coaches too. And you either get on board with it or you face his wrath, as can be seen on the sideline after a play goes wrong. It’s not sugar-coated, and you don’t have to be a lip reader to understand the language being used. But it’s a winning formula, and his teammates to a man speak so highly of him. Winning will do that.

That competitive drive is a trait I admire, and something that is found in a lot of high achieving sportspeople. It’s a funny one though, as you have to be successful in order for that attitude to be acceptable. How the individual is judged, as with so many things, is based on the final results. Winners are praised for having that killer competitive streak, whereas those who fall short can be seen as being disruptive figures. It’s not so much ‘beauty being in the eye of the beholder’, more ‘what have you done for me lately’! Brady’s involvement in the infamous “Deflategate” incident and his occasional dodging of the post-match handshake after a loss are things that are overlooked owing to his ability to get the job done.

Athletes with this streak can be seen across many different sports. As was shown on “The Last Dance” documentary, basketball legend Michael Jordan put immense pressure on his teammates to perform and wasn’t slow in telling them what they needed to do so that the team could win. It’s fair to say the end justified the means, with Jordan and the Chicago Bulls picking up six rings during that period. But at the same time, when it was put to MJ that this attitude probably cost him friends, he got very emotional. “Winning has a price. And leadership has a price. So I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled….That was my mentality. If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way”.

There are plenty examples of this here at home as well, Roy Keane being Exhibit A. Marmite for a lot of people, but unquestionably the driving force behind that great Manchester United team. The standards he created at the club led to a period of success never seen before. I’m sure his teammates and coaches had to put up with a lot, but it was for the greater good. A clip surfaced recently of an old quiz night between the players and coaching staff; his competitive streak even on show here when his team started to fall behind. He had to win. And yet there is the infamous Saipan incident, where that constant drive for higher standards wasn’t met with the same degree of urgency and led to a complete breakdown. There was no middle ground.

In Rugby, you have the case of Johnny Sexton. That famous pic of him shouting down at Ronan O’Gara (another who had that killer competitive edge) after Leinster finally got one over on Munster in 2009. Abrasive and vocal, his will to win has been acclaimed over the years both for club and country. The leadership he has shown in big moments testament to his ability to walk the walk after talking the talk. However, the line is a thin one. And his heat map around referees has come under some scrutiny lately, as has his reaction to being withdrawn in games. Is it a coincidence that this has come at a time when results have not been positive?

In GAA circles, Henry Shefflin was the most competitive animal when he played, looking for every conceivable edge he could find. A real leader, both in what he was capable of with the ball and how he drove his team on. He was well able for the verbal side of things and would never shy away from that battle either. Winning was all that mattered. You could see that in the successful teams throughout the years. Shefflin’s Kilkenny sides, the Tyrone and Kerry teams of the 2000s, the current Dublin football and Limerick hurling teams. Ultra-competitive. Fighting to get every advantage. And you know you are doing it right when opposition fans are starting to question it.

29 November 2020; The Limerick team huddle prior to the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Limerick and Galway at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

For me, without that trait winning just isn’t possible. Not consistently anyway. I remember losing a championship match with Limerick and seeing a couple of players who had been playing laughing and joking in the dressing room, just minutes after the final whistle. Sport isn’t life or death, and no one expects floods of tears after a loss. But achieving anything worthwhile has to matter, and for me it speaks to why some teams are not reaching their potential. It is almost more important to be liked than doing what is required to win but running the risk of being disliked.

People can be very different away from the arena though. Brady is Mr Mild Mannered in his media work, is well liked by his teammates and obviously a real family man. But can then turn into “Psycho Tom” during games, especially when the trash talk starts. Likewise, Keane comes across as funny and laid back in his work with Sky Sports, especially alongside Micah Richards. But you also see glimpses of that competitor when speaking about things that he regards as “lazy” or “unprofessional” from players.

For me, legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi summed it up best;

“I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfilment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious”.

It is the will to prepare to win that is most important.

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