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Jim Craig

Hope for the Best, But…
The Great Ones prepare with a purpose

The images are timeless: the clock ticking down, the wild celebrations in the rink, the goalie wrapped in an American flag, and legendary sportscaster Al Michaels screaming the now-iconic line, “Do you believe in miracles?” The 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s defeat of the Soviets is the greatest upset in sports history. Disney even got in on the act with the release of its blockbuster movie Miracle in 2004, which won an ESPY as the best sports movie of the year.

Thirty years ago today, on February 22, 1980, that famous game took place, which captured America’s heart and made Olympic history. It would come to be known as the “Miracle on Ice.” But as Jim Craig, goalie for the team, will tell you, “What we did wasn’t a miracle. It was the result of hard work.”

Recently, I had the opportunity speak with Craig about his experience with the 1980 team for a new book we are working on together The insight he offered gave me a whole new perspective on that famous game, and on what US Olympic Coach Herb Brooks did to get his team ready.

“Brooks ran every practice preparing us to beat the Soviets, the best team in the world,” Craig told me. But even before Brooks began preparing his team, he prepared himself.

Apply this Characteristic: Write down one or two traits about your competition that you find intimidating or challenging. Then consider a specific course of action you can take to meet and surpass those traits with your own team. Consider carefully what habits you can change on a daily basis to grow stronger. The focused preparation and conditioning that become a part of your regular routine will build you to a higher level of success. For more than a year before the team roster was set — even before he was named to the position of Head Coach — Brooks analyzed the Soviet team, studying their style and figuring out what had made them so dominant. He watched game reels and even traveled to watch them play in Moscow and on the road. As the gold medal winners in five of the last six Olympic Games, the team from the USSR was unquestionably the best team in the world.

Before long, however, Brooks discovered that the Soviets’ dominance wasn’t due to a secret technique. Instead, he realized that their success was owed to the fact that they could out-skate their competition at the end of the game, when the stakes were the highest.

From that moment on, his coaching philosophy shifted as he focused most intensely not on hockey skills, but on conditioning for his team.

“Coach pushed us harder than any of us had ever been pushed,” Craig explained. “But he did it because he knew that the great strength of that Russian team was that its players were in incredible shape at the end of the game. They blew people away in the third period. We took that away from them by being in better shape. We worked every day in practice to be ready for that third period of that one game.”

Brooks’ non-traditional approach to preparation was intense: The US team worked out before games, when other coaches insisted their players should rest; they worked out after games, when other teams were celebrating a win or consoling each other over a loss. When the moment finally arrived all that practice made sense. As the Americans came out of the locker room, trailing just 2-1 to start the third period of that game 30 years ago today, the Soviets looked into their opponents’ eyes and they saw no fear.

The rest is history.

Tips from the Great Ones

Even though Al Michael’s line was a fantastic one that truly captured the emotion of the moment, as Jim Craig observed, the greatest moment in US Olympic history really wasn’t a miracle.

craig3Brooks did not push his team to simply practice the skills they already possessed. Instead, he found where the competition was stronger, and focused his team’s training on besting that strength. They didn’t just work to match the next team they would face, but they drove themselves to the point of exhaustion in order to beat their biggest competitor. Great teams understand that victory over their toughest competition is the result of careful and meaningful preparation.

The lesson is easily transferable to whatever your own goal may be. Do you prepare with an eye towards the biggest opportunity you can imagine? If you hone your thought-process and develop your practice habits around taking on your greatest opponent, imagine how easy it will be to win against lesser competition along the way.

How does your team prepare? Do you do the homework to find out exactly what it is that makes your competition so tough, and do you follow that up with the necessary work to face it head-on?

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. - Darrell Royal (Hall of Fame football coach, University of Texas)Greatness is not achieved simply by reviewing what you already know but by tailoring your work to fit the needs of each situation, and by understanding what is necessary to succeed in every competition. Take the time to consider exactly what kind of preparation each scenario calls for, and then pursue that goal with dedication and focus.

There wasn’t any other way of beating the Soviets. Many other teams were just as good at puck-handling and skating as they were. The only way to defeat them was to meet their level of endurance, and then to go past it. Before Brooks prepared his team to do just that, no one else had been able to match the Soviets’ conditioning. Afterwards, every member of that American team knew that the late nights, aching muscles, and burning lungs had all been worth it.

Remember, Greatness isn’t something that happens by accident. It comes about because of long hours and intense preparation. The road to success is not always comfortable, but the result of that work is truly Great!

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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