After the most devastating loss imaginable on the biggest athletic stage on the planet—the World Cup—the Japanese men’s national soccer team cleaned up their locker room, leaving it spotless, and left a handwritten sign saying ‘thank you’ in Russian.

Reaching the knockout rounds by surprise, Japan then faced the mighty Belgium (eventual finalists). Performing out of their minds, they took a 2-0 lead, setting themselves up for a historic upset. Unfortunately for Japan and their followers, they allowed three consecutive goals by Belgium. The final dagger came with only seconds left in regulation time—an absolute devastation when all observers fully expected to enter into a 15-minute overtime period after a draw in regulation time.

When the whistle blew amidst Belgian bedlam celebration, Japanese players were sprawled out on the field, pounding the turf and fighting tears. Under these circumstances, what happened next was mind blowing. First they gathered to bow in unison to their supportive fans. After they showered, packed up, and departed the stadium for the final time in this 2018 tournament, their locker room was discovered to be absolutely spotless. The simple photograph went viral.

The Japanese have a name for their evolved competitive spirit: doryoku (Door-e-oh-koo). Loosely translated, it means that the honor is in the effort, in contrast to the western fixation with winning at any cost. I compare and contrast the Japanese team’s evolved competitive attitude to the sordid tale of the USA men’s soccer team, as detailed in a Ringer.com exposé about dysfunction and infighting in the organization that culminated with them choking a chance to even qualify for the World Cup. Yes, this and other crap like Super Bowl heroes deflating footballs and denying it when caught, or “winners” misbehaving in real life ala Tiger Woods all stem from an unhealthy obsession with winning and misplaced competitive intensity that overlooks the higher ideals of competing.

Please realize that the show title of Get Over Yourself was inspired by my own athletic experience; when I was able to maintain a healthy perspective, inspire others, and emphasize effort over obsession with results, I was able to thrive as an athlete. When I got “caught up” in a superficial obsession with winning, this resulted in extra stress, wasted energy, and poor decision-making. This led to overtraining and getting discouraged, instead of turning failure and defeat into growth opportunities and positive experiences. This is a brief, fast-moving, and pretty intense show with a profound message to reflect upon by all competitors in sports, career, and life in general. Take a breath, listen and reflect.

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NOTES:

Doryoku: Japanese word meaning effort or hard worker. A visible demonstration of hard work and giving one’s best effort where commitment and effort are rewarded over achievement.

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SHOW TRANSCRIPTION:

Welcome to the Get Over Yourself Podcast. This is Brad Kearns.

“The locker room area of the Japanese team, and it was left in absolutely pristine condition.

Doryoku and what it stands for, what it means is a visible demonstration of hard work and giving one’s best effort where commitment and effort are rewarded over achievement.”

Here we go with the breather show. This is about one of the most incredible sports stories in years. The story of the Japanese locker room at the World Cup. I’m recording this summer of 2018, World Cup fever time. The greatest, largest, most watched sporting event on the planet by far. Magnitudes more significant than we Americans obsessing about the Superbowl, the NBA finals, the world series. Oh, my goodness.

The story that came out of the World Cup is just absolutely touching and extremely significant to reflect upon. So, I want to talk about the Japanese locker room. So, the Japanese soccer team, not one of the highly ranked powerhouse teams of the planet, but they made it to the World Cup; better than the USA, right? But they’re ranked – whatever these rankings are, these unofficial rankings. They’re the 48th team or something, and they had some great success in the early rounds. So, they’re playing in the elimination rounds against heavily favored Belgium, one of the top teams in the world. I heard someone say it was like the number seven ranked against number 58 or something.

Amazingly, the Japanese got up two to nothing, which is a significant lead. Playing fantastically, scoring these beautiful goals. And then heartbreak ensued as the Belgians scored a goal, then scored another goal to tie it up. And then, with time running out in the game, and you know, if soccer ends in a tie, they play these 15-minute play-off periods. And if they still are tied, they’ll go into penalty kick shootouts.

So, with only seconds left in regulation time of the game, the Belgians had a crazy fast break the entire length of the soccer field, and scored a goal with literally only 15 seconds left in the regular part of the game. Absolutely heart-breaking, crushing defeat for the Japanese. The players were lying on the field, slamming their fists into the turf. I mean, you can’t have a more heart-breaking loss than to go down three to two with final seconds left in the game.

So, the Japanese are going home and on we go with the World Cup, seeing who’s going to win. And the story comes out with a dramatic photograph of the locker room area of the Japanese team. And it was left an absolutely pristine condition with a beautiful hand-written sign that had the Russian word for “thank you”.

This is what the team did in their absolute state of devastation. The last act was to tidy up before they left the stadium, left the country and flew home. Just absolutely devastated. Such a beautiful juxtaposition between all the stories we hear about players smashing the glass and the locker room, trashing it. LeBron James even in the NBA finals, punching his fist through a whiteboard after losing the first game.

So, it definitely has a cause for reflection. I have a nice quote from some of the coverage of this, where a Japanese person weighed into the reporter saying, “This is a part of our culture. Japanese school-aged children would have also done this. After a school day, they clean their classrooms. They even make their lunches in class and clean up after.” A very different culture.

It was also pointed out that John Wooden, UCLA’s legendary coach and The Pyramid of Success author that emphasized these high value principles over just the obsession with winning, that’s more common. He expected the same of his players, to keep things tidy and clean.

Hoof, yeah. There’s a lot behind this, especially for me having been through that high intensity athletic experience. Naming the show, Get Over Yourself because in my own life, it was so important for me to maintain a sense of perspective. Seeing that bigger picture than just being all about myself as an athlete. When I was able to see that bigger picture to help others and motivate and inspire other athletes, and take defeat in stride as a learning experience, as somewhat of a positive experience where I could recalibrate and refocus and work smarter or work differently, continuing to aspire to give my absolute best effort, but not attach myself esteem to the outcome; that’s when I was able to really thrive as an athlete.

In contrast, when I got wrapped up and obsessed with winning, and obsessed with getting the coverage that I deserved in the magazine or making sure that I was getting paid enough from all my sponsors and how I compared to what the other athletes were being compensated or how much coverage they were getting in the magazine, this was all extra stress. Wasted energy, and it lead to poor decision making.

Generally speaking, in the endurance sports, what I would do, was I would try to force the process of fitness to happen in a way that wasn’t naturally meant to be. So, I’d make bad decisions. I’d push myself too hard, because I’d have this misplaced competitive intensity, trying so hard to win at all costs by any means necessary and all that nonsense. And you get pushed off your balance of power there, where you have that pure motivation – you’re enjoying the process, not attaching your self-esteem to the result.

So, the Japanese behavior in the locker room speaks volumes. And oh, my goodness, compare and contrast with the sorry ass saga of the United States men’s soccer team, leading up to how they disgracefully choked their chance at entering the World Cup and being one of the top 32 teams. They had a pretty easy track to get into World Cup in their region here in the Americas. And all they had to do, leading up to the final qualifying game was achieve a tie or of course a victory over the mighty soccer nation of Trinidad and Tobago. And what happened was they went down there and they lost and thereby, not making the final 32 teams of the World Cup.

This was really the final unraveling of an organizational structure that had all kinds of holes and dysfunction in it. There’s a really long exposé on the website – Ringer.com. A source of many great articles. The title is The Inside Story of How the US Men’s National Team Missed the World Cup. And the subhead says it all.

“It was the culmination of nearly a decade of mismanagement that broke the team’s spirit and condemned them to failure.”

And as you read through the article, they’re talking about all the stress and tension in the locker room and the infighting and the controlling, domineering leadership style, where people were just trying to kind of abuse the competitive spirit and the positive spirit of the athletes and the teamwork and the comradery that might ordinarily develop through this obsession with winning, and all the things, all the impure influences that go along with it.

So, if you’re a soccer fan, it’s worth reading and just kind of reflecting on the difference between that, and a team where at their absolute bottom, they’re able to tidy up a locker room and leave a thank you note. “Thank you for letting us participate in the World Cup because it’s all about the journey and the participation.” And those Japanese players, playing their hearts out and representing the hopes of their entire nation, the hopes of the entire nation on their back. And after the game, they went over to the area in the stands where the Japanese fans were and bowed in respect. Bowed to the fans, thanking them. Do we see any of that in the crazy rabbit American sports scene? Hardly.

I also have some more comments to make about the Japanese sports and Japanese culture, where they have this important competitive value, and it’s known by the Japanese term doryoku. And what it stands for, what it means is a visible demonstration of hard work and giving one’s best effort, where commitment and effort are rewarded over achievement. And this is a central focus of Japanese culture, particularly in the sporting scene. And the fans respect this honor and the effort more so than the obsession with winning.

There’s a great book that I read a long time ago, called You Got to Have Wa. And it’s an entertaining look at the wildly popular professional baseball league in Japan, and this recurring theme throughout the book of this emphasis on doryoku, where the players work very hard and they have this tremendous camaraderie as a team. And they’re just giving their all to the sport of baseball and to putting on a good performance. Honoring their team, honoring their teammates and transcending this misplaced competitive intensity that we see in the Western society, where we have our Superbowl heroes deflating footballs in secret and covering up the evidence instead of just admitting to it.

I know I always pick on Tom Brady, I’m sorry. I don’t think he’s going to be a guest on the podcast anytime soon. But I’d love to have him and talk through the whole big picture and the pressures that top athletes face from the team and from the culture around them. So, I don’t know. What do you think Tom? Give me a shout out if you want to be on.

I also want to make the distinction here, that this rabid competitive intensity, the obsession with winning will work on a certain level. You can just go for it and grind away and practice your ass off and compete like a crazy man, and pick a fight on the basketball floor. All this crazy stuff that we see when our people let the competitive intensity get the better of them. Have a temper tantrum on the tennis court like McEnroe and those that followed him.

So, it works on a certain level. But I want to ask, I want us all to consider to what end all this stuff, this obsession with winning leads to. I know a great many troubled, rich folks who won the game of life and career. I know a great many troubled champion athletes. We all know a great many troubled champion athletes who have a very difficult time functioning in real life and are just absolutely maladjusted as human beings, even though they’re athletic heroes, as evidenced by their misbehaviors that make the front page of news.

Speaking of that, there’s a new biography out about Tiger Woods. I think the title is Tiger. And it was by these two prominent journalists that spent several years going through his entire life story and interviewing a couple hundred people to finally, once and for all, get the complete and clear picture of what this guy was all about. And it was a very fascinating book. It was excellent, extremely well done and researched.

One of the main things that I got out of it, because I studied Tiger Woods’ life immensely. I wrote a book about him myself, called How Tiger Does It. That was published before his great downfall. So, he was being studied as what I consider to be the greatest athlete of all time in terms of what he’s done in sports.

But anyway, the one thing that came out of the new book is that a good old dad, it was nothing like he’s been characterized throughout the dozen books that had been written about he and Tiger and the many more articles and portrayals of this guy as the supportive dad who guided his son through sometimes tough love, but constantly emphasizing the top priorities. And we always heard that education and homework came first for Tiger. And Tiger will do what he wants with his life, I’m not going to interfere. And all this stuff was pretty far off-track. And it turns out this guy was pretty much of a money hound who drove his son really hard and manipulated and controlled his life in many ways. All with the constant obsession of making him the champion golfer that of course his dream came true. And Tiger came out to be all that and then some.

But look, to what end, my goodness. The guy had a very hard time transcending his bubble that he existed in for his entire life. His childhood was taken away from him. Oh my gosh, the love of his life, this girlfriend that he had in high school and into college, the dad just kind of squashed that thing and cut her loose in the most severe and harsh way possible. Because apparently, he felt like a girl might be a distraction to Tiger’s mission to take over the golf world.

So, it was a very sad story at times, especially the tragic figure of Earl Woods and how he kind of brought in some impure influences into Tiger’s life, especially the girl thing. He was running ladies in and out of his scene, big time blatantly. And there’s the example that was set, but just the lack of perspective, that it was all about winning and having that competitive … tear their throat out and all that kind of stuff that came to be part of Tiger’s legend.

Enough already. We’re also hearing about how the guy never tipped anybody or just tipped like a cheapskate. And it got to the extent it was so bad that a representative from the PGA Tour would follow in Tiger’s wake and handout bills so that this wouldn’t get out public and spoil and sully the reputation of the professional golfers in general.

How about that? A cover up man hanging out hundred-dollar bills like Cardi B. “Went from dollar bills, now I’m popping rubber bands. Bruno sing to me while I do my money dance.” Hey. Yeah. So, get that book. If you’re a golf fan, if you’re a Tiger fan, you want to get some more perspective than just, “Oh, Tiger’s got 14 major championships. Is he going to get the 18 that are set by Jack Nicholas?” Who cares man.

Jack Nicholas, my golfing hero too when I was growing up. And I’ll never forget that day when he had a chance to support the Supreme Court case of the disabled golfer, Casey Martin, who was Tiger Woods’ teammate at Stanford. And these guys, these great golf champions basically turned their back on what should have been an open and shut case to allow this guy – I don’t know if you remember the story, but he was lobbying to use a golf cart while he played or tried to play on the professional tour. Because he had a severe leg disorder, circulatory disorder in his leg that prevented him from walking on a golf course.

These guys; Nicholas Palmer, the great names of golf, basically, shut him down, testifying against him in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. So, my opinion of these guys changed quite a bit after that. Tiger did not step up for his teammate either. Tiger, Michael Jordan, and our great heroes have really not stepped up on behalf of anything, except for the corporate brands that they represent; taking nothing away from the great entertainment and inspiration that they provide in the competitive arena. And I love watching these guys, so I’m not here talking out one side of my mouth. But I will comment on that big picture, and then bringing it all the way back to the amazing behavior exhibited by the Japanese soccer team. Showing that their hearts and their minds are in the right place and these are true champions and true competitors.

Thank you for listening to this breather show.

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