Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Going out on Top: Pia Sundhage & Tony La Russa

One of the hardest things in life is to know when to leave and how to leave with honor and respect. This weekend Pia Sundhage stepped down as the coach of the US Women’s Soccer team. No one forced her out. The team had just finished winning its second Olympic Gold under Sundhage. She had rebuilt the team and restocked it with young talent and a new style of play. She leaves to fulfill a life long dream coach her native Sweden’s national team and prepare for the Euro-cup. She had reached the pinnacle of success and knew it was time to move on and take up a new life challenge.

To leave at such a moment takes a rare and powerful self-knowledge and brave discipline. Her action reminded me of Tony La Russa’s decision to retire from baseball last year after a magnificent job of managing his underdog St. Louis Cardinals to the World Series victory. After three world championships and 33 years of managing, the 67 year old La Russa stated very clearly that he believed he did not have the energy and commitment to come back for another grueling season. He knew he had not only reached the zenith of his career and profession but also that staying on would be  permanent aftermath.

Leaving when on top is incredibly difficult. Every athlete and professional faces the question of when to move on. Successful people rely upon the equation of SKILL+EFFORT+JUDGMENT to succeed. Over time all of them can erode due to the stress of competition and work, the costs of aging and the ever-increasing intensity of younger competitors.

Most of us continue on because we need the money and enjoy the satisfaction that comes with mastery of expertise and the fulfillment of working with colleagues. Most of us will continue on past the peak of our achievement for all these reasons. Athletics seldom gives people that option. Few  professions are as brutal at exposing limitations as athletic competition where even slight erosions of the skill-effort-judgment matrix can lead to plummets in success. It’s hard for anyone to step down especially if our identities are linked to our professions and in athletics most players are pushed out or fade away.

But to be the best! To achieve the top honors and do so consistently puts someone at a different level of competition and stature. To climb to the top of the greasy pole and leave, that take courage. La Russa and Sundhage’s decisions much like John Elway’s famous decision to leave football after his second Super Bowl win, reflects a clear eyed and honest assessment from a position of strength. They decide not to slowly fade away or lose their edge or outstay their ability to motivate themselves or a new generation of athletes. They quite self-consciously walk away heads high and draped with honor and garlands. 

La Russa sums up the logic of both their decisions, "There isn't one (factor) that dominates (my decision). They all just come together telling you your time is over. We went through the season and I felt that this just feels like it's time to end it and I think it's going to be great for the Cardinals to refresh what's going on here. I'm looking forward to what's ahead. I'm ready to do something different.”
They both had accomplished what they set out to do and that was enough.

Now they could find new challenges.

At 52 Sundhege is much younger and now moves on to fulfill a dream to coach the Swedish national team. Four time Olympian Christie Rampone put it, “But I know she’s done everything she can here.”
Neither spent a lot of time explaining why, and that makes the decision all the clearer. They were not being run out of the game; they are not quitting; they were not leaving their cupboards bare. But the fit between maximizing what they could accomplish and working with a team that responded to their style and won occurs in rare windows of time. High-level coaching demands not only tactical excellence but managing complicated and talented and often fragile players and stars and daily facing the emotional black holes of insatiable fandom and media.

We have all seen athletes and coaches who got it right. They looked inside and saw that they had reached the perfect moment, the apex of their achievement and profession. They knew in their minds and hearts that not only had they won glory and achieved greatness but that if they stayed, the relentless toll of athletic endeavor and the expiration date on their bodies and skills, not matter how hard they practiced, would only lead down hill.

Michael Jordan left professional basketball after his perfect shot at the buzzer to win his sixth championship. Lance Armstrong retired after his seventh Tour de France. They both epitomized these perfect moment decisions. Larry Brown left coaching after leading his underdog Kansas Jayhawks to the NCAA title. I could go on but many athletes and coaches get it right. The problem is leaving is very hard. Leaving at the top even harder because you know you could still contribute and everyone else wants you to stay.

The sheer joy of playing and the adulation of the crowds, the intense ecstatic satisfaction of elite competition and the immense money as well as continuing fame draw them back. Many athletes or coaches figure out the negative trajectory of their talent and energy versus the rising competition and got it right. They know their own limits facing the emotional and cognitive costs to fight through the conditioning and rigors of the season. In an act of honesty they knew they did not have the commitment or stamina or skill to continue, so they stepped down. The first decision was the right one. The results of the “comebacks” are painfully predictable.

We suffer through the third act of Michael Jordan’s comeback or the third act of Magic Johnson’s comeback or the third, fourth or fifth act of Larry Brown returning to coaching. They seldom ever achieve that epitome of greatness. Instead their continuing play slides into very good to good to painful to watch. They never regain their glory and people wish they would just stop deflating their greatness. In Lance Armstrong’s case, his hubris lead him to try again and lose everything.

Sundhege and Russo leave at the perfect moment—on the moment of a great and glorious victory. Both came to the realization that it was time. Like the ancient Greeks counseled, they left at the moment of maximum glory and achievement. Such self-knowledge and self-discipline is rare. They should be honored for this.

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