If You Want to be Great. You Have to Put in the Time

It’s a recurring theme you read from all the best athletes and coaches: You have to put in the time.

If you want to be great. There are no shortcuts.

You have to put in the time

Nobody can do this for you. You have to put in the time. Develop the habits and discipline to be great.

In the words of some of the best ever, here is some key advice:

Train on Your Own:

Here’s Connor McDavid the Oilers Captain interviewed at SportsNet:

How much of what you do on the ice is ability and how much is a result of work ethic and practice?

“I’d like to think that it’s a lot of hard work and a lot of practice. I don’t think too much is given to anyone — I don’t think that’s the case. In my case in the summer you’re shooting pucks, you’re at the gym, you’re on the ice, you’re doing all types of different stuff. What fans see is the game and the finished product, but what they don’t see is all the hours spent that goes into that finished product. So it’s definitely a lot of work and there’s a lot of behind the scenes stuff.”

Here’s the great researcher Anders Ericcson on the Finding Mastery Podcast discussing intrinsic motivation and independent work:

“If you as a parent have more or less just trained your child, that’s quite different from preparing your child to be an independent performer who is actually in control of their training so that once they reach an adult level they will be actually able to take over responsibility for their development.”

Nutrition and Recovery

The other day there was a great article at The Guardian about Tom Brady’s longevity.  What shone through was how much his consistent work ethic and discipline paid off later:

But what really impresses Orlovsky is Brady’s discipline. “We talk about his lifestyle and what he does today, but Brady’s been living this way for 15 years and is now reaping the benefit,” he said, “He’s been living with such a different mindset, one that most Americans just don’t have. He truly has slowed time.”

Here’s Sue Bird at GQ discussing the changes in diet and workout after the first year or two in the league. She credits that with her longevity.

How different is your preparation now compared to earlier in your career?

It’s entirely different. You can break my career down into thirds—the first one began at 21, when I came into the league. When you’re in your early 20s, you don’t really care. You eat and do what you want, and it doesn’t really affect you. The second third—I felt like I hit a bit of a lull. At that point, you start thinking about what things can you can control, and nutrition is one of them. It wasn’t really until this last third, though, that I changed my entire diet. I met with a nutritionist, changed my workout regimen, and hired a sports performance coach. I wish I had done it all when I was 22. That’s really the message I give to all my young teammates: “You can never start too soon.” That’s the reason I’m able to play at 37.

Put in the Time

The NBA hall-of-famer retired a few years ago.  Several years before he broke Reggie Miller’s 3 point NBA shooting record. He was one of the greatest shooters to ever play the game.

I bring Allen’s greatness up now because I recently read a great post about risking failure on the site Basketball is Psychology. The author makes the case that you will deal with failures en route to being an excellent player.

Allen is a tremendous example of a player willing to risk stumbling in pursuit of excellence.

In 2012 in a letter to his younger self Allen let us know his approach:

“But you’ll keep showing up every day, putting in the work.

You’ll put up more than 26,000 shots in your career. Almost six out of 10 won’t even go in. I told you this game was a sonofabitch.

Don’t worry, though. A successful man is built of 1,000 failures. Or in your case, 14,000 misses.

You’ll win a championship in Boston.

You’ll win another in Miami.

The personalities on those two teams will be different, but both teams will have the same thing in common: habits.

Boring old habits.

I know you want me to let you in on some big secret to success in the NBA.

The secret is there is no secret.”

Or here at the NBA site a tidbit about Ray Allen who retired at 41 after a Hall of Fame career:

“Our nickname for him is ‘Everyday Ray,’ ’’ Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said when he had Allen as a Heat sniper from 2012-2014. “It’s every day. It’s not every other day. It’s not some days. It’s every single day Ray. His work ethic and his discipline are in the top percentage in this league. Ninety-nine percent of the players do not have that type of consistent work ethic.’’

Quality Training Includes Challenge

I wrote recently about quality; attend to the quality coaches. But I want to be clear, I also think you need to make mistakes, fail, get outside your comfort zone in order to grow as an athlete. In fact it’s essential to growth. A high quality training environment includes this component.

Josh Waitzkin has a great phrase for this: “invest in loss.

Challenge yourself with tougher opponents and be willing to lose in order to learn, to get better, to grow. When you are comfortable within your training increase the challenge.

In the book Peak, Anders Ericsson makes the case that it is our capacity to train which drives our development and not simply innate skill. Of course talent matters, in fact it may drive our passion early, but the capacity to train separates elite achievers.

“So here we have purposeful practice in a nutshell: Get outside your comfort zone but do it in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, and a way to monitor your progress. Oh, and figure out a way to maintain your motivation.”
ray allen can teach you to be great
Photo by Eric Kilby

Ray Allen Can Teach You To Be Great

Ok, so now back to Allen who demonstrates this capacity to train very clearly.

He is a great ambassador for the notion that work ethic, discipline and quality of training environments matter more than simply an innate talent.

It even seems to insult him that everybody implies that his success is due to a given ability instead of an earned one. Here he is in speaking in a 2011 column written by Jackie MacMullen.

“I’ve argued this with a lot of people in my life,” Allen said. “When people say God blessed me with a beautiful jump shot, it really pisses me off. I tell those people, ‘Don’t undermine the work I’ve put in every day.’ Not some days. Every day. Ask anyone who has been on a team with me who shoots the most. Go back to Seattle and Milwaukee, and ask them. The answer is me — not because it’s a competition but because that’s how I prepare.

He also is as good an example of growth mindset as we see in sports. It’s not simply about effort, but the effort leading to something.

“Some people could care less if they make a jump shot, a free throw,” Allen continued. “I have chosen to zone in and focus on this. I played baseball and football and some soccer, and I truly would have been the best at those sports at whatever position I chose because I would have set my mind to it.

Also pay attention to what Ray Allen says about the quality of training not just amount of training in this interview at the postgame.com.

“You never walk into the gym and start shooting your C-level shot,” Allen says. “You walk on and shoot your best shot, your A-shot, every time you step on the floor. That ‘A’ level shot is the one that you’ll need. That’s the one that you may shoot in the fourth quarter when the game is on the line and you have to get it over a seven-foot tall defender. You don’t want to have to change anything up. You can’t just practice a mediocre shot and then walk on the floor and expect to have your best.”

Allen retired a few years ago.  He was 41 years old. Still at least one coach, Erik Spoelstra, thought he would never retire:

During Tuesday’s news conference in Miami, Spoelstra found out that Allen had officially retired. Even though Allen hadn’t played in two years, Spoelstra still was taken aback. Deep down, Spoelstra felt that Allen’s other-worldly work ethic and conditioning could keep the 41-year-old playing in today’s NBA.

“… for another five years,” Spoelstra says.

He will be remembered as one of best shooters of all time. Many will assume he was a natural, but Allen was one of the greatest practitioners of deliberate training we will see in the NBA.

He trained hard consistently and was willing to fail in service to his craft. That’s quality.

You can read more about deliberate training in the book Peak: Secrets From a New Science of Expertise.


The links could literally be endless but still it seems that we have to win this argument with young professionals and college players year after year.

Putting in the time is not simply extra work, but also deliberate appropriate work.  It is taking the information you learn from a coach, mentor or peer and working on your own. Accept the feedback and get to work.

Putting in the time is going out of your way to learn about nutrition, to eat well, prioritize recovery, sleep etc.

You want to be great? You have to put in the time.

There may be people that have more talent than you, but there’s no excuse for anyone to work harder than you do.” – Derek Jeter

You also might like this Harry Kane interview from NBC Sports