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Little Miss Bright Side: How to Win Without Losing

With all this talk about “culture eating strategy for breakfast...” do we focus on the breakfast, or should we wonder what’s licking its lips and drooling over our deliciously juicy culture?

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

How do you win without losing? What does it mean to win? Is it possible to win without losing?

Of course it is! The word “win” is traditionally defined as “to finish first in a contest,” or “to succeed by striving or effort,” or “to gain victory; overcome an adversary.”

To win, though, doesn’t always just mean outscoring your opponent, like the Suns have done at a robust 27% clip for the last three seasons.

Sometimes the adversary is your battle with your own state of mind. And as sports fans, our own minds can be our worst enemy.

The question we should be asking isn’t “is it possible to win without losing,” it’s HOW do we win without losing?

Step ONE:

Define our vocabulary. We set the parameters. To be specific: Who is our adversary? What does “victory” mean to us? What is the definition of success? Did you ever see Alice in Wonderland starring Johnny Depp? Through most of the film Alice is confident she is in a dream. She argues with the hound dog about what should happen next on her path to success (aka battle the Jabberwocky). She is tired of arguing, tired of running from imaginary monsters, and tired of being bossed around. What does she say to him?

Alice says, “This is MY dream. I MAKE the path!” What does it mean to each of us to win? We make the path for ourselves and, likewise, our teams. Do you define winning as being successful? And how would you define success? defines “success” as “the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishment of one’s goals.”

That last part is probably sufficient; Success is to accomplish one’s goals.

Well, what are your goals? Do you want the Suns to be better than every team out there? No. That would be unattainable. There is too much beyond our control and too many variables to keep track of and orchestrate. In my life experience, I would refer to that as “herding squirrels.”

Have you ever tried to catch squirrels? (God, I hope not. That sounds entirely pointless, but ironically something that would probably have 4 million hits on Youtube within the first 24 hours.) So, if it makes no sense to herd squirrels in everyday life, why would we try to do it in basketball? Let’s define what winning means to us... as players, as coaches, as fans... and let’s do it by setting reasonable goals. Do you think setting goals is the only way to win?

NOPE. We also need an outline; a path to those goals. This path probably includes a lot of practice, I doubt it includes a Jabberwocky... but why not?

“Imagination is the best weapon in the war against reality.”

- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

This path definitely includes imagination. It includes conversation. It includes bonding to build trust. And sometimes it is as simple as being aware of each moment you are in and taking it all the way to the limit. I have been asked what success means to me many times over the years, and every time I circle back to the same answer:

Success is never a line you cross, or a destination reached. It means creating the continuous ability to keep fighting and growing. Success is the ability to create the opportunity to be better. In that moment. Use imagination to battle all the negative weapons reality uses against us and remember that this started with playing a game. When we reach the end of an experience, a game, a meeting, a marathon, a family event, a rite of passage, whatever the moment is, we reach it and think, “Wooo! YEAH! Who’s up for round two?” Can you describe an experience when you felt like that? What about the experience made you want to repeat it over and over again?

What stops us from reaching this moment of success? Have you ever had a fight with your spouse, parent, friend, or sibling, and while you are looking at them, virtually the ONLY thought you have running around in your brain is “I can’t wait until they stop talking... how long until they stop talking? What do I say to make them stop talking?” And there you sit... watching the squirrels running through your head of their own volition, listening to words that sound unpleasantly like Charlie Brown’s teacher, counting the seconds until you find a moment to make your escape. Do you think this situation will happen again?

YEP. You can bet your head full of squirrels it will. Why? And I am seriously asking. Think about that. Why does everything bad seem to repeat itself? (Over and over again.)

What if the bad things repeat themselves because we let them? What if we actually INVITE them? We like drama. Right? Let me answer that for you... yes. We LOVE drama. We like knowing that you-know-what is gonna hit the fan. Big time. And we do a little Grinch dance and giggle with glee when embarrassing things happen. Just not when they happen to us... am I right? That is our imagination HELPING reality. We just handed our best weapon of defense (or offense) right to the enemy. Allow me to ask a question, and be honest with yourself when you answer... do you like when things suck so you can complain about it and blame people?

Let me share a personal example that helped me unlock this imaginative ability:

Several years ago, one of my most favorite Russian Ballet instructors used to force us to perform fouettes over and over and over again until we wanted to die (you can Google “ballet fouettes” later and you will understand why that experience is death inspiring). Mostly from the bruising, because I spent a lot of time sprawled across the floor after wiping out in likely the least graceful half-belly flop, half-backwards flip known to ballerinas of all time. Was this torture meant to be mean? Was it the instructor’s fault I was laughed at? Was it some twisted form of entertainment? Possibly, but probably not. Was this to make us perfect? Absolutely not. Then why? It was to make us fearless. The more you fall... the easier it is to get up.

I remember my instructor would walk over shaking his head at the sight of me covered in sweat, dirt, and dust, spread eagle on the floor with all the other girls rolling their eyes, snorting, making jokes at my expense. In his deep, Russian accent he said, “Neyna, if you fall down and cry... I bring you tissue.”

Something snapped in the back of my mind. I WAS the Grinch giggling, crazy girl... at myself! I was ASKING to be picked on. I was JUST like that big, awkward bird surrounded by all the tiny little ballerina birds on the Pixar’s Bird on a Wire film. I swear I cracked a rib trying not to laugh that day, but even as I felt my face breaking into a huge, idiotic grin I saw Mr. Serious Russian Ballet Teacher whip back around with what can only be described as Mr. Potato Head’s angry eyebrow expression and say, “But don’t ever cry!”

There you have it. The fear was gone. (Replaced with uncontrollable giggling.) I was free to see the world from a completely different point of view; one where even though I sat on the floor like the “loser” I had not just made it through the humiliation, I was in control of the humiliation and the fear. I was bringing the humiliation on myself. It was better to fail on a level beyond that of any of the other girls because if I was going to fail at least I was going to be the best failure there was. I realized I literally had just laughed in the face of all that I was dreading. And do you know what started happening after that? I got up. And did it again. And again. And pretty soon, I was doing triple pirouettes AND fouettes. Take THAT perspective! Because I had the imagination to see beyond the fail and how that fail could actually become a success. And it WAS.

What if we stopped to use our imagination and consider another way of looking at the events and the situation before us? What if we reversed that whole dread-filled, fearful perspective? What would happen if we looked at it from the OTHER side of the Charlie Brown argument?

What happens if we see this #Timeline as a real opportunity for growth for the Suns rather than just one we complain about? Complaining has a time and a place. But... Complaining doesn’t win championships.

Step TWO:

Change our perspective. Have you considered what is going on in the spouse/parent/friend/sibling’s head? Have you asked yourself, “Why are they yelling?” Now take a look at their facial expression. Are they crying? Are they flushed? Are they repeating themselves?

Be IN that moment. Be observant. Respond to what that person says rather than praying for the phone to ring or waiting for the moment where they have to catch their breath between monologues so you can escape. What would happen if we looked at all aspects of life this way?

The Phoenix Suns are not successful by a lot of people’s definition. Not by a long shot- or a short shot... or even any shot in-between.

But, are we really defining success the right way? Was there still improvement over the season? Was Devin Booker still awesome? Didn’t Josh Jackson come a long way? Even the Elfrid Payton hair KIND of ALMOST started to grow on us... Did the Suns get up and drag themselves out there every game? Was there a moment at all in the season where you wanted to get up out of your chair and cheer? Who DOESN’T want to see the underdog turn it around? Who doesn’t want the dorky, giant ballerina to do the triple pirouette after she spent weeks hitting the floor and being laughed at?

Who cares if the best stays the best? Only the best, right? So how do you- how do WE- define that? Change our perspective. Change our situation. It’s our path, and we have the choice and the chance to make it what we want it to be.


Take Action. Accept and embrace the culture to promote meaningful growth. I’ve been hearing and reading this quote everywhere on the internet lately: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

What does that quote even mean? I think right now that makes the Phoenix Suns the breakfast. But DOES IT? Who really is the victim in this situation? Our team’s strategy isn’t working. Clearly. Does it mean that we as a basketball society make plans that are unrealistic? Probably. We can’t continue to ignore the people, the ideas, the emotion, the goals, and the changes around us. But what if we stop being the damsel in distress and start being the knight? Our culture loves this idea right now. Consider West World Season One? The typical damsel, Delores Abernathy, actually says, “I imagined a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel.” SPOILER ALERT: All it takes is one little flip of that coin, and we are on the reverse side.

If resistance is futile... then acceptance is imperative. Accept that the definitions are always going to be different from person to person, team to team, coach to coach, etc.. By some definitions we will always lose. What matters is that by our OWN definition we are always winning. We do that by making a choice to grow, and a plan to get there, and putting ourselves out there even though we are laughed at and rejected and picked on. Who cheers for the bully? (The ones who haven’t made their own choice. The ones who are too afraid or too weak to fight what they see as a “losing” battle. I bet they aren’t using their imagination to find another outcome to the story and a way to make it happen.)

That choice could be to support a team who barely wins any games, because we believe in what they stand for and what they are trying to do. Maybe it’s a choice to simply support the home-team. But that is for you to decide; That is for every player, coach, and fan to define. So, use your imagination, channel a little DJ Khaled and put your hands in the air (mostly for rebounds) and choose to be a winner.

It CAN be that simple: Like double-dutch jump rope... sometimes you just gotta feel it to make it happen.

Breathe. Smile. Play. Be thankful. And all we do is win. (No matter what.)

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