Letters to a Young Athlete – Book Review

Chris Bosh is a retired basketball superstar that played 14 seasons in the NBA. He played 7 seasons with the Toronto Raptors and another 7 with the Miami Heat where their team went to four NBA championships of which he won two. He played as an NBA Allstar 11 times out of 14 seasons. His career came to a premature end as a result of a non-basketball related health issue. His jersey was, nonetheless, retired by the Miami Heat as a tribute to his prowess as a contributor to that organization’s success. Bosh has written a book, Letters to a Young Athlete, in which he tries to distill some of the lessons that he learned through his years as a high performance athlete that may be useful to us and our teens as they begin to give thought to heading back to school.

The book consists of 12 lessons which are written as letters to younger athletes. Though the format offers a reader friendly style, one doesn’t need to be a young, aspiring basketball player to benefit from the lessons Bosh offers. Each of these applies to all of us as we make our way through life. Success is success independent of avenue. The book reads as an ode to personal responsibility. Bosh points out that although there are no guarantees, the path to give yourself the best opportunity to succeed has some common elements. There’s a lot that’s within our control. Do your part. There’s great joy and satisfaction in trying to become the best version of yourself possible. Bosh’s letters can be considered as serving as the basis of a personal code.

Moments matter and Bosh had a memorable one prompted by a question from a high school coach during a practice session. The coach asked Chris “What do you want to do with this?” Bosh understood the coach to be asking about much more than what he wanted to do with basketball but with his life. Bosh writes, “What did I want to do with my life? Who did I want to be? How could basketball get me there? Where could my talents take me and where could I go if I really sold that first step and put everything I had into driving toward my goals?” A single question from a caring coach prompted Bosh to get serious. He was mature enough as a high schooler to begin to lean into learning to do the work to improve. From this interest and a life time of hard work he developed his twelve life lessons.

When You Ain’t Nothing But Tired.

When your warning lights go off, you’ve got a lot more to give. A core belief offered by Bosh is that “How an athlete plays when they’re exhausted tells you everything about who they are as a competitor. The successful ones don’t even think about being exhausted. They’re so used to it that all they think about is performing.” A corollary of this is, “Agreeing to not give your best—in any circumstance, for any reason—is cheating yourself.” Bosh learned these lessons the hard way. He wasn’t born with a superhuman ability to outlast others. He learned by trying that he had gas left in the tank even when feeling fatigued. He also saw other great players keep working. Somehow they could do it. After being beaten by himself and other players, he learned that another level of effort existed beyond the point of fatigue. He wanted to reach and find that level. Bosh now endorses the approach of David Goggins offering “It’s all about learning to distrust your limits: When you think you’ve hit your limit, you’re only at about 40 percent of your capacity. Your mind is telling you that your body needs to stop—but it’s lying. Your body can keep going well beyond that point.” The only way to find the new limit is to push past the old one. This is what practice is for, to learn that you’re capable of more. When you push through what you believe are your limits, your worldview changes. You develop confidence that your capabilities are more than they were, because they now are. “Winning, or doing anything worthwhile, requires accessing materials or energies from deep within that are not typically accessed. It’s just a fact.” Bosh came to realize that conditioning had nothing to do with talent. Conditioning was something that was in the individual’s control to positively influence. The hard work isn’t easy, it never becomes fun, but when understood as something that expands your capabilities, it, at least, becomes something that is expected.

As Bill Walsh observed in The Score Takes Care of Itself, “I think top performers in all professions have that same deep respect—even reverence—for their work.” Walsh wrote there’s no “mystery to mastery.” He witnessed both Joe Montana and Jerry Rice become legends and remain legendary late into their careers based on their work ethic. Walsh points out, “If you’re Jerry Rice, the greatest receiver in NFL history and, according to some, the greatest player, you’re practicing a slant pass pattern at 6 am over and over with nobody within a mile of you—not football, no quarterback, nobody but Jerry working to improve, to master his profession. Why is the NFL’s greatest-ever receiver doing this? Jerry Rice understands the connection between preparation and performance.” Work ethic works. There’s a reason conscientiousness as a personality trait is the best predictor of success. Walsh writes, “For me, the starting point for everything—before strategy, tactics, theories, managing, organizing, philosophy, methodology, talent, or experience—is the work ethic. Without one of significant magnitude you’re dead in the water, finished.” This is what Walsh searched for first and foremost in players, coaches, and staff at all levels of the 49er organization. Walsh witnessed what Bosh and others have seen writing, “You never stop learning, perfecting, refining—molding your skills. You never stop depending on the fundamentals—sustaining, maintaining, and improving. Jerry and Joe, maybe the best ever at their positions, at the last stages of their careers were still working very hard on the fundamental things that high school kids won’t do because it’s too damn dull. It wasn’t dull to Jerry and Joe, because they understood the absolute and direct connection between intelligently directed hard work and achieving your potential.”

Find Your Why.

Spend time connecting with your deeper purpose. This is what Bosh’s high school coach was getting after with his earlier question. Bosh writes, “Could I really look beyond the work I was putting into the game and think about the purpose I was putting all of it in for?” His coach was asking him if he knew why he wanted to commit to the life of an athlete? The coach knew and Chris learned that being recognized on the court or winning a game just wasn’t enough staying power to keep one working so hard. A deeper reason was needed. What’s your why? Bosh observes, “there’s nothing sadder than watching someone going through the motions with no real idea about why they’re doing it.” Many of us can’t answer this question. We’re doing things with a lack of intention. It is impossible to bring our best and become our best when we contribute with an absence of intent. Bosh came to see, “I wasn’t playing ball—I was trying to be the best version of myself I could possibly be. I was trying to realize my potential in life, and I carry that why with me to this day.” He found his reason for putting in the work. He found the source for his drive and dedication which fueled his discipline. A why is not just a nice goal to look forward to, but is constant fuel. It’s more than a thought. It’s a deep seeded belief that helps you bring your best efforts day after day. Bosh writes, “That’s my why. It’s me saying” This is who I am.” To Bosh it is a recognition “that to become who you are in sports, in life, in business is the loudest statement a person can make.” Your why works whether you are winning or losing. It doesn’t have an end point. It can be proving others wrong. It can be to prove that you matter and your presence makes a difference. It shouldn’t be for fame and fortune. For, if it is, it’s unlikely to last. It can change with time as you mature.

Stay Hungry.

Hunger is desire which breeds commitment. It follows reconnecting with your why regularly. Sport shows that nothing fails like success. When one earns that championship trophy, the efforts the next year are tough to sustain. The grind at practice is tougher to endure. One wonders what they’re playing for now that they’ve reached the pinnacle already. To athletes like Bosh, hunger is a gift. “Hunger is a lot more about showing that you can compete on equal terms with anyone on any given day.” It’s answering ‘how bad do you want It’ by responding with ‘more than the other guy’. In any momentary battle, hunger is the biggest success factor. Hunger beats talent. Hunger is a skill that you can try to cultivate by connecting your why with the moments of your day.

“For me, life is continuously being hungry. The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer.” Arnold Schwarzenegger

Cultivating the Mind.

Learning is a lifelong affair. Your brain is your most important muscle. Your abilities are only as good as the brain that will drive them. Bosh offers a quote from his grandfather, “Use that thing in between your ears because if you don’t, no one else will.” Education and learning was important to Bosh. He did well at school and was interested in learning. He continued to read throughout his athletic career. He observed that those at the top of their profession, whether coaches, athletes, or others were all heavily invested in learning. Reading wasn’t a chore, it was another tool for development. Those that continued to improve, continued to put in the work wherever and however they could. Reading became a commitment Bosh made to his daily development.

Communication is Key.

In another lesson that applies to sport and life, Bosh offers that “A big part of learning to play a game at a high level is actually learning the language.” Communication is one of those factors that rise in importance as do the stakes of one’s situation rise. We use garbage speak and gobbledygook when the stakes are low. When things matter, things need to be concise and clear. When there is an emergency we don’t want long-winded explanations using words we don’t understand, we need actionable bullets. Great leaders are great because they are able to communicate when it matters. So, too, it is with relationships and families. Bosh quotes Napoleon reflecting on the importance of communicating to motivate soldiers, “One must speak to the soul, it is the only way to electrify the men.” Bosh points out, “A leader sees the challenge ahead, knows what the members of their team need to do to meet the challenge, and knows the words or symbols or the images that will get them where they need to be.” Communication is infectious, good and bad. The better we are at informing others, the more likely they are to reciprocate. Good communication reflects that we need each other, that we’re better together. It’s a recognition that others know something we don’t. We communicate to help them with hope that they will communicate to help us. Bosh learned a key purpose of communication writing, “Communication should help you get the best out of people. It should not be about making them feel worse.” He sums up his learning noting, “Know your audience. Be honest and to the point. If you want to earn the right to be heard, remember to listen.”

Sweep Away Your Ego.

We can be our own worst enemies. The danger to our ego is that it is tough to see in ourselves. Our ability to improve depends on a constructive balance between agency and arrogance. We need enough confidence in ourselves to try but not too much that we think we have things figured out. We need to find that sweet spot. Ego becomes a problem when we take confidence too far to the arrogance side. When we think we are good or entitled, we close ourselves off from further improvements. It’s good to want to be the best. It’s not constructive to think that you are the best. Finding that fine line is tough especially when you are very good at what you do and are recognized for it. It’s easy to let the praise of others go to your head. It’s easy to buy into the hype of your own amazingness. If you aren’t able to work to keep your ego in check, life will “help” you by knocking you down.

One of the rewards of being good at something is that you’re promoted to the next level. What worked at the last level may not work at the new one. You may go from being the best to just one of the pack. Your ego will resent this. You need to lean into this cycle and learn to appreciate the new opportunity for improvement. Each level we rise to confirms that we don’t yet have it figured out. There’s always more to do. There’s always more to learn. Ego can also become a problem when it fuels a focus on oneself. When we feel like we’re the center of attention, we lose perspective. The best way to keep ego in check is to maintain a constant awareness of it as well as to work to focus on helping those around you.

Leaders Lead.

“A leader is just the person who steps up and does what needs to be done—who becomes what the situation requires.” At its essence, Bosh sees leadership as situational. Something needs to be done and someone needs to do it. Leaders are those that do it. Sometimes others see your leadership potential and call you to step forward. This conversation, alone, can serve as a great boost to one’s confidence. Leaders make things better by being a part of it. Bosh views leadership as an honor and not a burden. Bosh writes, “The true test of leadership isn’t who puts up the best stats. It’s who teammates turn to when things aren’t going well… A real leader steps up when things are at their worst.”

“People keep their eyes on a leader—how they walk, how they carry themselves—even when it’s not game time.” “Leading by example is a hugely underrated thing.” Leading is about developing an external focus. It’s about helping others do the best that they can. It’s about being more concerned about the team and the mission than about personal status and recognition.

This, too, was a fundamental belief of Bill Walsh. He felt that leading by example was the only way to go. Walsh writes, “I never asked anyone to do more than I was willing to do, nor what I wasn’t willing to do.” He believed that his efforts were contagious. They will ultimately mirror what you do for better or worse. Walsh notes, “Your staff sees your devotion to work, their people see them, and on through the organization.” It’s one thing to exhort and encourage others to give 110%, but what does this mean? Walsh asks and answers, “What does total effort and 100 percent commitment and sacrifice look like? The leader—head coach in my case—is the one who answers that question by example for the entire team: you demonstrate in your behavior what it looks like. Just talking about it, exhorting those in your organization to ‘give it all you’ve got,’ is close to meaningless.”

In reference to his father, Coach Walsh observes, “He showed me what a man does when he has a job to do: He goes out and does it.” “He taught me the connection between hard work and survival, between survival and success.” “He paid a tremendous price for his willingness to work.” “The majority of people out there don’t know what it (hard work) is. They need to be shown, and you’re the one who must show it.” “You’re the one who shows them what all-out effort really means, what hard work looks like.” “You cannot do that if you’re invisible, cooped up in your office instead of being out there with your team. A leader’s great work ethic must be seen to be perceived, must be perceived if it is to be the organization’s norm.” That’s what leading by example looks like.

Take care of yourself.

When Bosh moved from playing in Toronto to Miami he played several seasons with LeBron James. James was the marquis, franchise player, of their team. Bosh had a front row seat to the preparation that James brought to his game. Bosh was impressed by the lengths to which James and other veterans with career longevity went to in order to protect their bodies. It wasn’t just basketball skills that were worked on, but recognizing that their body was their machine and for them to perform it had to last. The attention spent on little things like stretching and recovery was substantial. Hours each day spent outside of practice, games, and travel were devoted to caring for and maintaining their bodies. Bosh observed, “The true greats—the ones who sustain greatness year after year, the LeBrons and the Tom Bradys—put in something extra… They got me to see that my body was my asset…. Your body is your greatest asset… You have to protect it. You have to invest in it. If you don’t, the value of that asset is guaranteed to decline over time.” Bosh began to take pride in doing the little things to take care of himself. Once again, he relied on seeing what others did to guide him. He saw the work not as daunting, but a responsibility to himself and his team. Bosh writes, “The important thing to realize about taking care of yourself is that it’s something no one else can do for you, because no one else has the stake in it that you do… no one is as invested in your long-term durability as you are yourself.”

Bosh concludes, “Sleeping right. Eating right. Exercising. Those investments in yourself don’t stop paying off when you stop playing the game—they will pay dividends for your whole life. So put that work into yourself, and be proud of it. None of it is ever wasted.”

Don’t Let ‘Em Get To You.

Criticism is a cost of playing the game. Bosh acknowledges, “If you’re getting criticized, take a second to appreciate it—it means you’re doing something right.” If you’re in the arena performing at any respectable level, you will generate attention. With the attention comes criticism as surely as day follows night. It’s just a part of the world. Should you continue to progress to higher levels, the attention, scrutiny, and criticism only increases. “A big part of being great is how well you bear that burden… If you want to be successful, you’re going to have to get used to it.” Getting frustrated by it or crippled by it takes your power and gives it away. You can’t complain about it or whine about criticism being unfair. It’s pointless to try to argue against it and prove you’re right. Those efforts take you off your game and cede control to others. You can choose to ignore the criticism or seek only that from select, credible sources. Take comfort in the fact that most criticism is worth exactly what you paid to receive it, zero. Pick and choose feedback from those you respect and use it to improve yourself while ignoring the rest. Bosh invites us to ask, “You have to think. Is this critique valid? Who’s giving it to me? What are their motives? What’s their relationship to me? If it’s a good critique, how can I act on it to become a better player?” Control your circle of influence and inputs as best you can.

The Name on the Front of the Jersey is What Counts.

Bosh recalls a phrase he was introduced to early in his career that he deeply internalized. The phrase was “play for the name on the front of the jersey, and they’ll remember the name on the back.” One of the ironies of a team sport is that the more you give of yourself to the team, the more individual recognition you may receive. A team is about merging more than one individual together. It’s about giving up me for we. The best groups are able to set individual egos and aspirations aside in service of the team’s objectives. The best team’s are built around trust. Teammates can count on each other. The way to learn to become being a good teammate is to watch how great teammates behave. Teammates help each other get better. Being a good teammate is one of these skills that transcend sports and remains useful in every area of life. Bosh writes, “The ability to be a teammate. To be of use to others. To want others to do well… and to help yourself do well by helping them.”

Winning and Losing: Not Too High, Not Too Low.

In life, no one enjoys a 100% win streak. Losing is part of the journey. It doesn’t mean you have to like it, it just means you have to learn to deal with it. Bosh relied on advice received from a teammate encouraging him to “Don’t get too high, don’t get too low. Stay in the middle.” You’ve got to roll with the punches and take the good and the bad in stride. It’s fine to celebrate wins and feel the sting of a loss. Just don’t let the emotions linger. Move forwards. There’s always a next something for which to prepare. Bosh writes, A major win and a major loss. Do you know what I did after both these things? … I got back to work.” Bosh learned that the highs of wins are temporary noting, “if you make chasing that high into your identity, it’s going to let you down.”

Do The Work. Do. The. Work.

Too many of us want what the rock band Bastille puts so well in their song “It’s a Quarter Past Midnight.” We want “The bodies on the billboards and not the stories behind them.” We want the results of something and not the effort. Bosh realized the opposite early in life. He realized that in the stories behind success is where the secrets lie. The athletes he admired came from somewhere. They had done something to get where they were. If he could figure out the trail of bread crumbs they followed to reach the top, the path was possible, too, for him. It was their stories that would provide the avenue of actions that would take him to his aspirations. If he knew what others had done, he could copy and find his way forward. This wasn’t daunting or depressing but empowering. It gave him confidence that his future was in his hands. The stories of success of his heroes held the key to his own. Bosh writes of admiring Kevin Garnett, “Every time he dropped a clue about what he did to get to the top of the game, I followed it religiously.”

Bosh and other high performers understand, appreciate, embrace, and internalize what the rest of us seek to ignore. Achievers accept what Michael Matthews notes in The Little Black Book of Workout Motivation writing, “Many years ago, the legendary golfer Gary Player was hitting balls on the range while people looked on in awe. “Man, I’d give anything to be able to hit a golf ball like you,” someone in the gallery called out. Gary walked over to the man and calmly replied, “No, you wouldn’t.” “Yes, I would. I’d give anything to hit like that.” “No, you wouldn’t,” the Hall of Famer repeated. “You wouldn’t be willing to do what it takes. You have to rise early in the morning and hit five hundred balls until your hands bleed. Then you stop, tape your hands, and hit five hundred more balls. The next morning, you’re out there again with hands so raw you can barely hold your club, but you do it all over again. If you do that through enough years of pain, then you can hit a ball like that.” The man was dumbfounded. Not only was Gary right—he certainly wasn’t going to do that—he couldn’t believe the pro had to work that hard to make it.”

Thomas Edison is credited with writing, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Chris Bosh was wise enough to stare square at the opportunity which was studying the success of those that came before. He benefitted from learning and putting into action what worked for others. Doing the work isn’t just the secret to making progress, it’s also deeply satisfying. Bosh offers, “When you really put in the work and get to watch it pay off, it feels so good.” It motivates you to work harder to see how much further you can go. Bosh reinforces the joy of effort by quoting Jerry Seinfeld, ‘Your blessing in life is when you find the torture you’re comfortable with… it’s work, it’s exercise. Find the torture you’re comfortable with and you’ll do well.’ Hard work isn’t something to be avoided, it’s to be welcomed. On its own it makes our lives satisfying. It’s a lifelong journey. The work never ends. “Never cease chiseling your own statue.” Plotinus

In his conclusion, Bosh encourages us to, “Put in the work even when you don’t want to, even when your body and mind are screaming at you. When someone offers you the easy way out, take the hard way.” Bosh has earned his wisdom at the altar of high performance. He had the awareness to learn from others and embraced personal responsibility for his development. Letters to a Young Athlete is an encouraging and actionable read. Thanks to Letters to a Young Athlete, we, too, can benefit from these lessons that Bosh has distilled through decades of sweat and sacrifice.