What I Learned from “Hard Knocks”

I really like the show Hard Knocks (HK) on HBO. I enjoy watching (American) football on Sundays, but HK gives a level of access and insight that is very interesting. I take a number of lessons from my interests (I’ve learned a lot about life from the lyrics of Neil Peart and John Hiatt… ) and the season of HK with the Miami Dolphins is a prime example.

Below are some of my key take-aways, and how they matter for everyone.

What You Did Last Season is So Last Season

Every day we have the opportunity to be and do better. But it’s more than an opportunity, it’s a requirement. Getting better at who we are and what we do is, as I’ve heard more than one person say, our rent for the space we take up on Earth. Are our accomplishments important? Absolutely? Are the sufficient? Nope.

Everybody Has Work to Do

No one is exempt from the necessity of growth, development and improvement. For football players each season, and for us, each year (or each day, week, month… ) is new. Our experiences, our successes and failures, have made us wiser. And we must take what we can from our experiences and improve. Football players cannot rest on their laurels, no matter how great their accomplishments – everyone starts the season 0 – 0.

Football players rely on both the bodies and minds. Of course, a football player has to be amazingly strong, fast, agile and have tremendous endurance, but the game is exceedingly complex as well. In fact, some college players, who were very, very successful as collegians, wash out of the NFL because they cannot sufficiently grasp and implement the schemes, plays and adjustments.

To make it in the NFL a player must have significant physical talent, but also must have a sharp, practiced mind

The Mental Game is The Difference Maker

The ability to persevere is absolutely critical for an NFL Player. As it is for us. Are there variations in talent and ability amongst NFL players? Most certainly. That’s why the players that perform at a high-level are the ones who want it more.

An early season of HK featured the Dallas Cowboys. One of the players they followed was (then) rookie Martellus Bennett. Bennett was a very good tight end in college and had, as they often say in sports, tremendous upside (which means a great deal of perceived potential). And Martellus had a wonderful opportunity in being Jason Witten’s teammate.

Witten (being one of the best tight ends in football), if Martellus was willing, could have be a great example (and perhaps mentor). But Bennett was mentally lazy and thought he could get by on talent. He never had to work very hard in college and saw little reason to do so as a professional.

Long story short, Bennett was released (not that season, but the next I believe) and picked-up by the New York Giants. I am a Giants fan so I was wary of Bennett taking up a roster spot and wasting the Giants’ time. He was still seen as having lots of potential, but he was (smartly) only offered a one-year contract, which was somewhat incentive-based.

The key to Bennett’s success (so far) with the Giants this season? He realized and admitted that he was resting-on-his-laurels and that he needed to work very hard to be good in the NFL, and even harder to be great. As they say, he had to get right mentally before anything good could happen.

Talent and Physical Ability are a Given

As I’ve said above, everyone in an NFL training camp is strong, fast and smart. What makes the difference between those that: 1) make the cut from 90 to 53 at the end of training camp 2) win games and make the playoffs, 3) win a Super Bowl and 4) those that achieve greatness over their careers?

What matter are things like: time studying practice and game film; proper nutrition and conditioning all-year-round; having a solid support system off-the-field; an excellent working relationship with your position and head coach and a clear idea of who you are and what you want to accomplish as a football player.

The same idea is true for us, mere mortal non-football-players… The little things matter at both work and home.

At work, there are many, many talented and ambitious people. A key differentiator is emotional intelligence. Just as talent is necessary, but insufficient in the NFL, so it is at work. It’s assumed we can do the work. But, can we make our team and work-place better? Do people look forward to working with us? Are people coming to us for ideas and advice?

If yes, great, we are doing more than the minimum, and doing it well. If not, then maybe we’re not going beyond the base-line of meeting our job requirements, or perhaps we’re in the wrong position or line-of-work.


To wrap all this up I want to introduce you to a word that I was recently reminded of: kaizen; the process of continual and incremental improvement. Our work is never done, and always to be begun. We don’t have to go from bad to good, or good to great overnight, but we do need to get a little better each day – as the old saw goes… how do you eat an elephant? one bite at a time.

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