ReThinking with Adam Grant
Life lessons from sports with Jody Avirgan
February 20, 2023
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking. My guest today is sports podcasting pioneer Jody Avirgan.
He ran ESPN's 30 For 30 podcasts, developed FiveThirtyEight podcasts, serves as a podcast judge for the Webby Awards, and previously worked on WNYC Radio as well as shows like Freakonomics, Marketplace, and 99% Invisible. Never heard of them.
He was also an elite, ultimate Frisbee player. He once made it onto SportsCenter, which is not something we disc junkies get to see every day. Jody's the host of Good Sport, a terrific new podcast from the TED Audio Collective, which is about how sports can make us think differently about every part of our lives.
I've been a fan of your work for a few years now, and I, I love the way that you draw lessons out from sports that apply to every walk of life.
[00:01:01] Jody Avirgan:
[00:01:01] Adam Grant:
And I guess the, the place I would love to start the conversation is how did you become so obsessed with sports?
[00:01:06] Jody Avirgan:
Well, it's funny, I mean that word obsessed because, you know, when I worked at ESPN for, for a long time, but I worked in this pocket of ESPN, 30 for 30, which is really kind of like, “let's use sports stories to try and tell larger stories and draw larger lessons about life.”
And you know, we love sports, but really we love the lens of sports and that's really kinda how I think about sports, and I suppose I'm obsessed with that, but there were moments, you know, in the ESPN Cafe or whatever where I'd just start talking to a producer on like SportsCenter or something and I'd be like, “Oh wow. Like you're really into sports, you know, you're really obsessed. You know all the stats, you know all the twists and turns.”
You know, I really love watching sports. I have my favorite teams. I played sports my entire life. I mean, a big thing we talk about in the podcast is how kind of I learned all my big life lessons through playing sports and now also through kind of engaging in sports and watching it and sort of thinking about it.
But, um, I'm not actually kind of a deep sports obsessive in the sense of like, I'm not a stat head and I'm not kind of like organizing my life around watching games. And, you know, I think the work that I've done tends to reflect that. It is largely, you know, sports stories, hopefully for people who don’t, who aren't obsessed with sports and sports stories that hopefully get at something a little bigger.
[00:02:22] Adam Grant:
You, you do that beautifully. And you know, in many ways your work reminds me of Mitch Albom, who was my hometown sports columnist growing up. And I remember reading about the Fab Five in the Detroit Free Press. And one, loving the game, but more importantly, two, feeling like there was so much to learn about teams from the way that he wrote about basketball and watching you carry that torch is, is pretty exciting.
[00:02:46] Jody Avirgan:
I mean, I think that’s where a lot of this stuff connects with so much of the work that you do. Like, the stuff I like thinking about the most and the stuff that I've learned the most from is really just about that. It's about teams and I always play team sports, so I like thinking about kind of… Humans are really fascinating on their own, and they're particularly fascinating when they have to work with other humans. And sports teams are a really great, really great venue for that.
[00:03:07] Adam Grant:
I think so too. So tell me about your personal experience in sports. I understand ultimate Frisbee was, uh, was probably your peak.
[00:03:16] Jody Avirgan:
I have a very healthy, I think, attitude towards what ultimate Frisbee means in the larger culture. I mean, I think I, I say this in the first episode, but I'm like, “Look, let’s just get the cards out on the table.”
The sport that most sort of dominated my life and the thing that I kind of obsessively devoted myself to in my teens, twenties, and well into my thirties, was this outsider sport that, you know, some people listening will be like, “Yeah, I get it. You know, it's a real sport.” And some people will be like, searching for another podcast to listen to and that's fine.
But you know, all I can say is like, as seriously as you can take anything, that’s how seriously I've taken Ultimate, but I also understand it's a sort of outsider sport and some people don't think it's a real sport or just kind of don't have the sort of… That’s changing, I think, but you know, just don't have the, the context for that.
[00:04:02] Adam Grant:
Well, you may not know this, but you are currently in conversation with the one-time, part-time handler and part-time cutter for the University of Michigan Intramural League Championship Team.
[00:04:14] Jody Avirgan:
Okay. Well, there you go. So let's just turn this into an ultimate Frisbee podcast.
[00:04:19] Adam Grant:
It could be. No, I, um…
[00:04:20] Jody Avirgan:
I played the University of Michigan many times, uh, when I was in college.
[00:04:23] Adam Grant:
I, I, I'm a big Ultimate fan. I guess I got introduced to the game during my diving days. Um, before diving practice, our coach would often have us warm up by playing ultimate Frisbee, and I eventually learned how to throw a forehand. And—
[00:04:35] Jody Avirgan:
[00:04:35] Adam Grant:
Once I retired from diving and got to grad school, I felt like I needed some kind of sport for, you know, exercise and entertainment and started playing rec league Ultimate and never got nearly as far as you did, but still love it.
[00:04:46] Jody Avirgan:
Right. Look, we could do this for the next hour, but you know, one thing I'll just say is because it's a sort of club sport generally, and a sort of an outsider sport or whatever, like after high school, obviously there was college to play, but then after college, you know, all the guys that I played football with in high school, you know, maybe a handful of them played in college; none of them played after college.
It was just like, “Oh, it's over.” And for me, you know, it's like, “Oh, there's another level, there's another level, there's another level.” And that's a really kind of wonderful thing to be able to carry into the real world, to just have sports get harder and harder. And I'm very thankful for that.
[00:05:18] Adam Grant:
I guess the place I wanna dive in is I wanna talk about the fights we have about sports and what we can learn from those—or maybe not learn from those—about arguing. As I was diving into your latest work, I was immediately reminded of this exercise I do in class where I asked my students to name their emotional triggers. “What are the events that just cause you to fly off the handle?” And it sets up a discussion about emotion regulation and how it's often helpful to, to have your teammates know what your triggers are.
[00:05:45] Jody Avirgan:
[00:05:45] Adam Grant:
In order to not push those buttons. And also to understand when you do push them by accident. “It wasn't me, that’s actually you,” and I will never forget I had one student raise his hand and said, “Well, my biggest trigger is inaccurate sports knowledge.” I was like, “That’s… that is really specific.”
[00:06:01] Jody Avirgan:
That's the guy I ran into at the ESPN cafeteria, probably.
[00:06:06] Adam Grant:
Yeah. Exactly right. The, I mean, the… It, he just loses it if somebody quotes a statistic about a sport that's incorrect. And yeah, I recognize that a little bit because one of my emotional triggers is feignedknowledge, which is when someone pretends to know something that they don’t.
And I wrote a whole book about how much it bothered me, but why do people get so upset about inaccurate sports information? Why do we have such stupid arguments about that and…
[00:06:29] Jody Avirgan:
[00:06:30] Adam Grant:
What, what do we take away from all this?
[00:06:31] Jody Avirgan:
I think, you know, no surprise, my answer will be that largely I feel like that's reflecting something that that person would probably just carry into a lot of different places.
And you know, there's this particular venue here where you can get heated and it's built around kind of passion and you know, really great ways and then in really, so toxic ways, B ut you know, I would say more than anything: I don't think sports is fully unique to that kind of vitriol.
And in fact, you know, one of the episodes that we do this season is about this sense that I've had for a while, but certainly has ramped up in the last four or five years that kind of the way we talk about everything is starting to feel like the way that we've talked about sports. We go into some of the details of what that kind of arguing looks like. But then also there's a really fascinating sort of concrete history about how particularly the, the worlds of politics or political media and the worlds of sports media are really intertwined and they've learned lots of lessons from each other.
And it's not a coincidence that when you see a politician kind of take on the language of “my team versus your team. And no matter what you say, it's wrong because you are on the opposite team. Then that's my starting premise. You know, and this is a zero-sum game, so to speak.” When you see a politician talk that way and you feel like, “Oh, this feels like kind of how the person you were describing earlier talks about sports,” it's not a coincidence, right? I mean, those are all media lessons that we've learned and sports has, you know, I think this is one of the lessons that sports kind of has taught in a bad way to the rest of the world, which is kind of like you can be divisive, and you can gin people's emotions up. And you don't have to really be reliant on kind of necessarily rational argument as long as you just keep escalating and keep arguing and keep driving a wedge. Um, and we see that throughout sports media, but I would say we see that and, you know, the stakes are obviously much different, but we see that throughout political media and politics itself too.
[00:08:22] Adam Grant:
I, I actually think you can learn a lot about somebody's integrity by how they approach sports.
[00:08:26] Jody Avirgan:
[00:08:26] Adam Grant:
So, one question I love to ask people is if your team could win on a bad call, would you want it to happen?
[00:08:33] Jody Avirgan:
[00:08:33] Adam Grant:
And my answer is always no. And maybe that just means I'm not a big enough fan to care enough, but I can't imagine ever thinking that, you know, it's worth tolerating an injustice or some unfairness in order to get the result that I want.
[00:08:45] Jody Avirgan:
[00:08:46] Adam Grant:
And that seems to be another element of this, right? People complain about bad calls that hurt their side, but not the ones that helped their side.
[00:08:52] Jody Avirgan:
It's this funny thing that in the episode that we did about all this, you know, one of our guests sort of said this and it got me thinking about how, like, at some fundamental level there is more in empiricism and sort of agreed upon share, a shared sort of set of facts in sports than there is actually in kind of much of the rest of the world.
And so yes, you can complain about a call, and you can feel aggrieved, but at some level you go and say, you know, that was either correct or it wasn't, or that was inbounds or out of bounds or like, there was a score at the end. And you know, we've gotten to the point in say, politics where first off, there aren't those sort of regular checks, right?
Like you can be on TV, and you can mouth off about how this team is terrible and this athlete's a bum and they're gonna lose on Sunday or whatever. And then Sunday comes and they either win or they lose, and you kind of have to test what you said against that. Whereas in lots of other parts of the world, like those kind of tests and that sort of sense of, like, “Well, what I say has to then get measured against something real,” has completely dissipated, or people are just completely ignoring it.
And so it's this funny inversion whereas like, it may have been the sort of origin or in many ways or the sort of driver of a lot of this kind of discourse, it still actually retains more sort of like empirical guidelines or you know, strictures than a lot than, say, politics where you can basically just make it up or ignore whatever set of facts or just choose your own set of facts. Whereas you can't come out of a sporting event and be like, well, “I choose to believe that the score was actually 94 to 87, not, you know, 112 to 103.”
[00:10:22] Adam Grant:
Yeah. You don't see that happen very often.
[00:10:24] Jody Avirgan:
[00:10:24] Adam Grant:
Jody, it's interesting to me that you sort of see sports as partially responsible for the divisions that exist in our society, because I had seen sports more just a convenient vehicle for an expression of human nature. Right?
Because we know that some degree of outgroup prejudice and in-group favoritism is present in every single human culture.
[00:10:44] Jody Avirgan:
[00:10:44] Adam Grant:
There seems to be probably an evol—evolutionary adaptation for it that, you know, if you don't favor your own group, you potentially don't build the kind of community that allows you to survive. And I think that, that hard-wiring, or at least the predisposition exists and it seems like, you know, sports gives us a relatively safe outlet for it.
[00:11:03] Jody Avirgan:
No, and I think at the end of the day, I agree with you. Well, first off, I should say all the sort of dynamics that I've been describing in a kind of negative light are also some of the things that make sports the most powerful thing, right?
It's, as you were describing, we bond together. It's a shared experience. It's like, maybe like sports and the weather is like one of like the only two things now that you can actually just kind of go into any room and probably engage with someone on. All those things are wonderful, but like everything in life, they also have a downside when they're taken to extremes or when you see people who are operating in bad faith.
So I'm not necessarily saying it, it's the origin. It is as much reflection as possible as, as it is origin, and like, you see that actually in very concrete ways, like in this episode about how we talk and argue in sports and sports media and political media. You actually see the kind of back and forth like in something like… There’s this show called Pardon The Interruption on ESPN, which I love, but it is two people sit across from each other and they yap at each other about sports. I think it's wonderful. I think it's all the imitators who aren't as authentic that’s, that are the real problem.
But you have a show like PTI, Pardon the Interruption, in the media cycle. You have all these political shows who are saying, “Oh, we gotta do what PTI is doing for us.” And they've adopted all of these, you know, specific techniques even from like the way the graphics work to the formatting stuff. So it flows back and forth in very kind of like nuanced, hard-to-parse cultural ways, and then also in very concrete ways in terms of how the media ecosystem builds itself.
[00:12:28] Adam Grant:
In some ways, it's become a chicken and the egg problem.
[00:12:30] Jody Avirgan:
[00:12:30] Adam Grant:
There’s a vicious cycle, and we don't necessarily know what started it, but clearly these dynamics are self-fueling at this point.
[00:12:37] Jody Avirgan:
[00:12:37] Adam Grant:
So one of the things that, that I think is, is more encouraging about sports is what it teaches us about identifying and developing talent.
[00:12:44] Jody Avirgan:
[00:12:44] Adam Grant:
I thought your episode on talent hotbeds was fascinating.
[00:12:46] Jody Avirgan:
Yeah. You know, a lot of the episodes that we do are just sort of coming from this little intuition or this little question, you know? And so it's like, doesn't it feel like every argument is a sports argument? Or in this case, like, what’s up with all these places that seem to produce, over-index, so to speak?
Did I use that correctly? You can tell me. Uh, but you know, it seem to over-index for producing, like, great athletes. There's all these famous parts of the pockets of the country. Like all the swimmers are from Palo Alto or, uh, there’s a town in Florida that's referred to as Muck City; it's Belgrade, Florida, but it produces, like, these incredible wide receivers over and over and over.
This tiny little town. There's quarterback hotbeds. We profile in our episode a ping pong hotbed: this community center in Milpitas, California that has just produced, like, dozens of Olympians coming out of this small little community center. And so, you know, the sort of throwaway explanation is, oh, there's something in the water, you know, but the question is, what is that thing in the water?
What did someone put in the water? What is the water? You know, all those things. This is water. I don't think we came up with a formula, necessarily, but I did feel like I learned a good amount about what it takes to build ahop it. But then to your point, really, the, the thing to think about is opportunity and what does it mean.
I don't think it's that the, the raw talent is innately higher in these particular pockets. I think it's more that for some reason more doors have been kept open for longer, giving more people a chance to walk through them. I think so much of how we develop athletes, how we develop colleagues, how we develop ourselves is about kind of, “Can we keep those doors of opportunity as open as possible and sort of let people's thinking about what they could be, be as expansive as possible for as long as possible?” Because, you know, people take their own paths towards walking through those doors. And so, what I really learned from looking at some of these hotbeds, it's really that people have set up these systems to provide opportunity for people.
And it's not that everyone there could turn into an Olympian or a professional athlete. Ping pong coach kind of puts it in formulaic terms. He's like, “I gotta find 500 people, 50 of them are gonna be really committed, 10 of them are gonna be really, really good, and one of them is gonna be an Olympian.”
But the question is, you know, how do you just keep that funnel? It's open for as long as possible because that person who ends up being the Olympian may not be at the front of that line when you have those 500. Right? And everyone kind of takes their own path to that moment, and you have to just accommodate for that.
[00:15:14] Adam Grant:
I think you're onto something really important here because when I started listening to just your analysis of this ping pong hotbed, I thought, “Oh, it's a genius coach who has a better system,” and that's not at all what you discover, right? I mean, the coach is a part of it, but I think the way that you zoom in on opportunity is extremely powerful.
I guess I was struck by the small-town pattern that you hit on. It reminded me of some research by Jean Cote and colleagues, which shows that if you're studying NBA basketball players, Major League Baseball players, NHL hockey players or professional golfers, athletes from small towns end up being overrepresented among the elite.
[00:15:47] Jody Avirgan:
[00:15:48] Adam Grant:
And that's the exact opposite of what I would've expected.
[00:15:51] Jody Avirgan:
[00:15:51] Adam Grant:
I would've assumed that a larger town, you know, there's just more sheer opportunity. I'd love to dive in a little bit further to try to figure out why that is, because I think in the research, the effect is clear, right? We know there's an advantage of coming from a small town. What we don't understand are the mechanisms and there's a lot of speculation about them.
[00:16:08] Jody Avirgan:
[00:16:08] Adam Grant:
And I think you, you actually uncovered a few of the factors that are, are probably important. So, talk to me about what those ingredients are in these small towns that lead to great talent.
[00:16:17] Jody Avirgan:
Well, and one, and one thing actually about the small town thing. I mean, it, it occurs to me that even within like large city, like New York City basketball produced point guards throughout the eighties and nineties, you know, and just like that was a, a real thing was these brilliant point guys coming from New York City. Talk to those point guards and they don't talk about being from New York City, they talk about being from Queensbridge or from Red Hook, Brooklyn or whatever.
Like it's small, and it's a hotbed, right? And you have this kind of drive and this talent. So what are the ingredients? You know, one of them certainly is these things cycle on each other. I mean, this happens in, like, Muck City, this small town in Florida. There was a Super Bowl a couple years ago where, like, the best receiver on each team was from Muck City.
If you're a 12-year-old in this town in Florida and you're just seeing two kids from your high school at the Super Bowl, it just sets some sort of bar. I, you know, I'm convinced it just sort of, sets some sort of trigger. And I think that maybe that has a little to do with the small-town dynamic of like, “Oh my gosh, someone from my town made it.”
Now, the next generation sees that. The next generation sees that. Certainly, like, good coaching is a big part of it. And you know, the guy in Milpitas, California, he's a great coach, but he gets coaches from India and brings them over, he gets them green cards, he works with them, he sets them up with housing because you know, tho—those, he finds the best coaches and that really pushes people. Um, a ton competition at all levels.
Actually, we talked to Bomani Jones who's a really great thinker about sports in this episode, and he actually mentioned the New York City basketball example. And you know, he was saying that one of the reasons he thinks that that was particularly important or one, one of the big factors in new, in the rise of New York City basketball was that you just could get on the train and you could go to another place and find incredible competition within like 20, 30 minutes.
And now we have like these AAU systems where, like, 18-year-olds are flying around the country and they're playing each other and they're finding that really good competition. But I also just think, like, being able to find really good competition…You grow when there's, when competition is just, just beyond your grasp, right? And being able to find that consistently and conveniently is a huge part of this. The one thing that I hadn't really thought about that really jumped out at me in this episode, particularly talking to this guy Rajul, who runs the In—Milpitas Community Center, the Indian Community Center in Milpitas, is he invests in the kids in every sense, you know?
So obviously he's like training them in ping pong. For kids who can't afford lessons, he’s giving them free lessons. He's working with the parents, but he's also setting up other programs at the community center. He'll do a Tae Kwon Do program to bring in a kid, and then maybe that kid wanders over to the ping pong table.
He talks about how he goes to the local farmer's market, and he sets up a little booth and he just sort of spreads the word, and he gets to know the parents. He gets green cards for his coaches. In talking to him, I realized, like, “Oh, you know, it's a community center. This guy works at the community center and that’s, like, not a coincidence.”
Like, he has worked his way into the sort of DNA of that community. And moreover, I think, has realized that if you're a coach, if you're a leader, if you're trying to nurture someone's talent and give them opportunity, you have to not just invest in them as kind of a product. Uh, you have to invest in them as a real human being and get to know them.
And all the best coaches I've ever kind of talked to or admired, they're the ones who invest in the people that they're coaching as, as human beings, fully rounded human beings, and that really brings out the best in them.
[00:19:44] Adam Grant:
I like the Dean Smith version of this, where he told his star basketball players at UNC that he would do what was best for the team during the season, but what was best for the individual in the off-season.
[00:19:55] Jody Avirgan:
I love that.
[00:19:55] Adam Grant:
And that meant if you had a shot at being, you know, a high draft pick, he would encourage you to leave.
[00:20:00] Jody Avirgan:
[00:20:00] Adam Grant:
And go to the NBA early, even though that would end up hurting the Tar Heels the next season.
[00:20:05] Jody Avirgan:
I think some of the best examples of this are, you know, Steve Kerr is really, I think, really good at this. He comes outta that. Phil Jackson. The Warriors have this like, you know, people throw that word “culture” around a lot, but I think it really does matter. But when you talk about kind of what was special about this season, sometimes people will just be like, “Oh, you know, it was, we had a two-day break when we were on the road and we all went out to dinner,” or “We all went hiking together,” or you know, “Coach would have us over on Friday nights just to be, you know, have our kids play with each other,” or whatever.
I did a piece, um, for 30 For 30 where I worked at ESPN about the Miami Heat taking a photo in response to the death of Trayvon Martin, where they all put up their hoodies and, and sent out a photo, and it was kind of this big, I think, watershed moment in modern athlete activism, and particularly you had LeBron James and Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosch, like some big, big, big stars kind of stepping out there and, and taking a political stance in a way that hadn't really happened for a generation, I would say.
And so one of my questions going into it was kind of, I wanted to get a sense of like, “How hard was it to make this decision? What led to this?” And journalistically, I was like, “Oh, maybe we'll get a story of a really tense locker room conversation where some people didn't wanna do it, and some people did. And you know, they, people were realizing like, ‘Oh, this, there's risk here, you know, if we take this stand. It'd be easier to play it safe.’”
And over and over I talked to them, and they were just like, “No, we didn't, we didn't actually think about this that much. It just felt natural.” And over and over, people would just, and even, you know, LeBron James would just talk about how like, “No. Because our locker room, our culture was such that we just, we were always talking about the real world. We were always talking about each other's kids. We were always kind of invested in each other as people. And so then when this big thing happens in the world to a kid, it's gonna be natural that we're then gonna talk about, ‘Well, what if that was my kid? What do we feel about this?’ And we took this step.”
It was almost like they just didn't even think about it. In this weird way, they just, it just felt natural in that way and it was such a reminder to me that, you know, especially that team, I think in the sort of history of the NBA is often thought of as like, “Oh, it's a super team.” It was like, put together with all these various superstars, but, but like really that team's success was about actual genuine kind of culture and, and humility and bonds between these people as, as real human beings.
[00:22:21] Adam Grant:
Yeah, which didn't come overnight.
[00:22:23] Jody Avirgan:
[00:22:23] Adam Grant:
The, the super team was not successful in their first season.
[00:22:27] Jody Avirgan:
We didn't do an episode about this this season, but it's on the list. But I mean, I'm very fascinated, and I like asking athletes of all stripes: who's actually the person who, who brings you all together? Who's actually the, the star in the locker room? You know, they call it “glue guy”; I guess is the cliche. And that team is such a good example of that cuz there's this guy, Udonis Haslem, who's been on the Heat forever, is kind of at this point the, like, keeper of Heat culture as they say. But you know, you walk into a locker room and it’s, like, three of the most famous basketball players in the world, and all of them without hesitation would be like, “No, no, no. That guy, you see that guy over there sitting in the corner, you know that like not many people wear his jersey? Like he's the one who makes it all tick.” And I, I love that.
[00:23:05] Adam Grant:
Yeah. I remember talking to Shane Battier about the glue guy role he played on that team and there's, there was this incredible moment when I think LeBron had to guard Kevin Durant.
[00:23:15] Jody Avirgan:
[00:23:15] Adam Grant:
And he was trying to figure out how to shut him down, which pretty much everybody in the league had struggled to do. And he knew that Shane had spent a lot of time studying stats, and he just kinda went over to him and said, “Hey, hey Batman, what should I do?” And from his look at the data, Shane said, “You know, make him shoot over his left shoulder.”
[00:23:33] Jody Avirgan:
[00:23:33] Adam Grant:
So LeBron does, he misses it, and that then opens the door to a whole season of conversations where Shane can start feeding his stats to elevate LeBron's game. Funny part of it for me was Shane saying, “You know, if, if LeBron had forced him left and he had scored”—
[00:23:49] Jody Avirgan:
[00:23:49] Adam Grant:
—“he probably would've tuned me out.”
[00:23:51] Jody Avirgan:
[00:23:51] Adam Grant:
“I got really lucky that the stat, which might have been a 5% improvement in defense, happened to pay off the first time he acted on it.”
[00:24:00] Jody Avirgan:
Yeah, but I mean, I think what you're really describing is trust, right? And at the sort of underneath culture is trust, right? And do people trust each other? Do they trust that the other person has their interests in mind as much as anyone else’s? And good teams, good workplaces, good civil societies, you know, or basically it's all about kind of trust and cohesion.
[00:24:21] Adam Grant:
There’s a level of humility required there too, right?
[00:24:23] Jody Avirgan:
[00:24:23] Adam Grant:
So you see it with Shane being willing to dive for loose balls, you know, study the stats, do a lot of tasks that are, are really not only unmeasured but unappreciated.
[00:24:33] Jody Avirgan:
[00:24:34] Adam Grant:
And you see it in LeBron, right?
[00:24:35] Jody Avirgan:
[00:24:35] Adam Grant:
Saying, “I don't know how to shut down a player who's right now vying for MVP against me.”
[00:24:41] Jody Avirgan:
[00:24:41] Adam Grant:
He might be better than me.
[00:24:42] Jody Avirgan:
[00:24:42] Adam Grant:
And so I need some new tools to be able to beat him.
[00:24:45] Jody Avirgan:
Well, and you see it in Steph Curry who I really think is kind of like just a wonderful example. As famous and as lauded as he is, I think weirdly undervalued as a leader. We just don't really realize what we have on our hands I think sometimes with him. I think we do with LeBron, and rightly so. I think we saw it last year when they went to the finals and they won the finals. There was one game where Steph did the kind of like, “I gotta put the team on my back. I'm gonna score 40-some points and just, like, will us to victory.” And I remember watching it in real-time and being like, “Okay, he just flipped the switch, and if the Warriors are gonna win, he's just gonna do that three more times.” And no, he comes out the next game, he takes a step back, he empowers Draymond Green, he brings other people into the fold.
‘Cause he just, I think he's both has that intuition, but also I think he's done, I know he's done a lot of thinking about this stuff and he just realized like, “No, I'm not gonna get three more wins by being everything on my shoulders. I need to empower trust. I need to, you know, bring people into, into the fold.”
There's a, a cliche that I kind of like, or a thing that I’ve sort of bring up over and over, especially I've coached a number of sort of like, I guess you can call 'em all-star teams, like national teams going to like a world championships and you're trying to pick like the 15 best players from across the country or whatever.
And the thing that I always say in tryouts there is “Your job is to make your teammates look good.” Right? And if you just have that, it's your singular focus: A, that's what we're looking for on this team, and B, that will get noticed. Right? And I think a lot of people fear that doing all those things you were describing with Shane Battier won't get noticed, but I think that's not on you to make sure. That’s the mark of a good coach.
A good coach will notice that and look for that in a team. And I, you know, and I just think that that's a lesson that applies in so many parts of the world, which is like, if you can just make the people around you look good, you will look good as a result; you will get your moment in the sun. You know, you will get your validation. We all deserve that too, right? We all have egos, we all are kind of the main characters in our own lives. Like we should get that, you know? But I think a lot of the, just, try and make others look good is such a great just sort of thing to keep front of mind.
[00:26:52] Adam Grant:
I, I think that's at the very heart of, of what I would call being a giver as opposed to more of a taker. And I think that's, that's something we don't see covered enough in, you know, in players like Steph Curry. Obviously, everybody respects Steph Curry as an extraordinary player, and you assume that his teammates will give him the ball because he is that good. In psychology, that would be called expert power, right? “I, I defer to you, or, you know, I, I trust you or I'll follow you because I know you’re exception.” But I think what you're describing is also a form of what's considered to be reverentpower, which is “I will follow you because I like you.”
[00:27:26] Jody Avirgan:
[00:27:26] Adam Grant:
“I respect you as a human being. We have a strong relationship, and I trust you.” What have you seen from your time as an athlete and a coach, and also from studying all these different sports about how people earn that trust?
[00:27:39] Jody Avirgan:
Probably the hardest thing to do, and it's the most ephemeral thing, right? You can lose it more easily than you kind of can build it, I would say. But I do think a lot of it has to do with this kind of what I was saying, you know, what we were discussing before about bringing your full self to a project, right?
And I think when people open up and connect with each other and really invest in each other and get to know each other as real people, then that colors the way that then we see the decisions you make in whatever project we're working on together, whether that's a sports team or a, a workplace or, or whatever.
There's a number of episodes of sort of circle around this idea, but that like, you know, the best thing you can do when you're trying to build a team is let people feel like they're fully themselves and they're bringing their full selves to it. It's not just “Show up, do your job”, kind of get whatever sports-y thing out of it, but more like this is a place for…
What's the, I'm about, I think, I've never said self-actualization out loud in my life, but it's kind of that, right? It's, it's like, it's, it's sort of that, you know, this is a place where I can really learn something and grow as a person, not just kinda, like, play this sport. It's funny, that's like something that I've thought about a lot with this series and just sort of my thinking about sports that I think to some people, the idea that, like, sports in the real world reflect each other and collide and combine, that’s messy to them and they don't like that and they'd rather do the kind of like, “Sports is just fun. It should be over here.”
That makes so little sense to me because I'm kinda like, “Wait a minute, you're telling me that the thing that is really fun to do, that like keeps me in shape, that like gives me a chance to maybe like hoist the metal at the end of the of a season will also teach me like, how to be a better human and how to like trust others and how to build teams? And like is a place where I can also like, figure out all these things about the real world, which I'm gonna have to go back to anyway at some point?”
Like, I'll, I'll take it all. Like, I love the messiness. Like, it just feels like what a gift, you know, that this world can kind of do all these different things for us. And so that's really sort of the spirit of, of the show or a lot of kind of what I'm thinking right now is just sort of like really embracing that you can kind of use this world to, to learn all sorts of lessons and puzzle, all sorts of things out.
[00:29:51] Adam Grant:
Let’s go to a lightning round.
[00:29:51] Jody Avirgan:
[00:29:52] Adam Grant:
If you're ready for it.
[00:29:52] Jody Avirgan:
[00:29:53] Adam Grant:
Got some rapid fire questions for you. First one is, what has been your greatest life lesson from ultimate Frisbee?
[00:29:59] Jody Avirgan:
Yeah, there is a cliche called “Get comfortable being uncomfortable”, and a lot of athletes kind of do that, and I just, I think that that's one of my strengths is I am not phased that much. Sports really taught me that, and then I went to live radio right after college and it was just like sort of the same thing, like, “This thing is gonna happen. We're gonna have to figure it out. We're gonna make decisions on the fly and then we're gonna move on.”
[00:30:19] Adam Grant:
Building on that, what is something that you've learned in the radio/audio/podcasting world that you think everybody should pick up?
[00:30:26] Jody Avirgan:
Interesting. Well, I mean, one of the things I love about the radio-audio world and podcasting world is it is still the case that largely speaking, like it is very entrepreneurial. A lot of people do a lot of different things. You kind of do it all and you have to think like a producer first and foremost.
I came up at, at a time not that long ago, where it was kind of expected that you would be, like, doing research and you know, developing stories, doing research, doing reporting, cutting the tape, doing hosting. You know, I love that, that ranged-ness of thought, and I kind of think that there's still that spirit in, in this world.
Whereas, you know, you look at the world of film or whatever in these industries, where it’s like, been much more regimented and you know, you have, “Well I'm an editor and I don't touch the script, you know, I'm just a cog in the wheel. I do this one specific specialized task, and then I move it down the line.”
[00:31:14] Adam Grant:
Uh, who's a coach that we should all learn from who's not well known? I think you've got one in table tennis. Are there others?
[00:31:19] Jody Avirgan:
Oh gosh. Um, well, I'm currently very infatuated with this guy David Thorpe, who is a basketball coach. He's pretty well known. I mean, he works with some NBA players. He's on a podcast called True Hoop, which I just really, really love and they break down basketball.
But more than anything, they just talk about kind of, you know, great teams and cohesion. And when he talks about when he watches the games, he gets super frustrated because the cameras always look at the court and he's like, “I wanna look at the bench.” You know, I wanna see how close are they sitting together? Are they like, have their hands on each other's knees? Are they high-fiving each other when they come off the court? Like he just looks for that kind of like, is this team cohesive? He just talks about sports in a really compelling way. So he's my current favorite coach.
[00:31:59] Adam Grant:
And is there a sport we should study that we don't know enough about? Ultimate obviously being one, is there another?
[00:32:05] Jody Avirgan:
So ultimate Frisbee was in the, um, World Games this past year and one of the other sports that the people I talked to who were there and watching other sports were really into was tech ball, which is this sort of table tennis combined with soccer and, and often feels like combined with like karate or something.
‘Cause you know, people are kicking up high and trying to kick the ball across. We do an episode about kind of which sports break through and how, like everyone's really into F1 right now or whatever, and you know, I'm not. But you know.
[00:32:34] Adam Grant:
Unrelated note, why are so many people into pickleball now?
[00:32:37] Jody Avirgan:
Your first explanation has to be pandemic related. And so I think it's probably like, it's something you can play in small groups. It's something where you're not sweating and up against each other. It's something you can pick up fairly easily. So it feels like something new that you could do in the context of this time when it all felt like we were languishing. You know?
And there's probably specific things like it repurposes, right? Repurposes equipment that's already there. Sometimes those little things really do have a huge effect. Like, I think one of the, the reasons that, like, Premier League Soccer took off in this country in part is because it's just on at a time when other stuff isn't on, and just that little sort of nuts and bolts explanation has a huge part of it.
And so I think pickleball, that like the equipment's really light and you can do it on the tennis court that you could probably already have walked to within a couple minutes, like that has a big part in it.
[00:33:26] Adam Grant:
What would you say is, is the most underappreciated sign of potential in an athlete?
[00:33:31] Jody Avirgan:
Here’s a very specific thing that I like seeing and I think tells me a lot, which is, who are the players who immediately after a play is done, go over and talk to another player and sort of debrief? Figure it out, puzzle it out. And so I love looking for that specific thing. Not the player who just puts their head down and walks off and get some water, but the player who immediately, on the field for 15 seconds after something happens, has a little conversation.
[00:33:59] Adam Grant:
Which, which sports cliches do you think are relevant to other parts of life?
[00:34:03] Jody Avirgan:
[00:34:03] Adam Grant:
And which ones do you think we should leave on the field?
[00:34:06] Jody Avirgan:
There's a reason that good teams will warm up the same way every single time in practice because it means that then when they go to a big game or an away game, or the conditions are different or whatever, they have this little protective bubble of routine that they can walk around in and it's like, “We're gonna do the exact same warmup no matter what, whether it's a practice or the championship game.” And it just gives you that little sense of calm and so forth. So I really love thinking about that bubble of routine. I think you can apply that in a lot of different parts of our life.
But I once had a, a teammate talk about how, like for all teams, there's one basic sort of cycle that that they operate on, which is kind of imagine a sort of three stages in a circle that sort of feed into each other and it's like the team has fun, so then they work hard, so then they play well. And then when they play well they have fun, and when they have fun they wanna work harder, and then when they work harder, they play better, and it just goes round and round and round and round. And that's pretty, pretty simple. But it's a nice sort of little metric.
The sort of insight that I, beyond that was, um, him pointing out that not every team enters that cycle at the same spot. And the real problem is when you have a team that thinks it's a “have fun” team, when actually it's a “work hard” team. Or often you have a team that's actually a “have fun” team, but they just yell at each other and they wanna work really hard, and they never get in on that cycle ‘cause they're banging up against the wrong entry point.
And I think about that so much. It’s kinda like, what is this, this collection of people or even my own personal entry point into this cycle? And am I kind of trying to bang, uh, into, you know, bang down the door of something or should I find another way to get in on that and then let that sort of natural cycle take over?
[00:35:47] Adam Grant:
What about on the worst cliche list? Which one would you like to ditch?
[00:35:52] Jody Avirgan:
The worst one. I mean the one that, the one that the one, and it's so classic, but it really, I think is, can be problematic. You know, the whole “There's no I in team thing.” I mean, it's like, clearly there's an I in a team, right? Like it's a collection of individuals, and we should honor that. And like, the best teams, as we were saying earlier, the ones where people feel they do get to be I, they do get to be themselves.
[00:36:17] Adam Grant:
I like the way you characterize that, Jody. It reminds me of Marilyn Brewer, the psychologist who talked about it in terms of optimal distinctiveness and said, you know, at a basic level, everybody wants to fit in and stand out. And I think in a great team you have that sense of belonging, but you also have a unique role to play. And you're able to say, “I make a difference here. I have a contribution that's not totally replaceable.”
[00:36:40] Jody Avirgan:
Yeah. And also like, the season's gonna end. The game's gonna end. You're gonna get older, you're gonna retire. And it's like, what are you gonna walk away with? Well, you're gonna walk away with yourself. Right? And hopefully, you will have learned something about yourself and made yourself a little better in addition to kind of helping the project of the team. You always have to realize that that's, that's really gonna be the lasting thing out of all of this.
[00:37:01] Adam Grant:
I just, I wanna go back to something that we didn't talk about yet on the, the talent hotbed discussion, which is—
[00:37:06] Jody Avirgan:
[00:37:06] Adam Grant:
It, I think, you know, when you think about these small communities that produce disproportionate numbers of great athletes, something else you, I think put your finger on that's, that comes up a lot in the research is the idea of not being forced to specialize too early.
In a small town, nobody gives up on you when you're eight years old and says you're never gonna make it because there's not necessarily somebody waiting to take your place. Nobody pigeonholes you in one slot and says, you know, you're too, too slow to be a wide receiver, or you're too weak to be a running back.
Talk to me about that a little bit.
[00:37:42] Jody Avirgan:
I think the best hotbeds, you know, that's the sort of… Keep your foot in that door of opportunity for as long as possible because when someone sees a door closed or has a sense that a door is not open for them, they, pretty quickly, they don't need you to tell them that, right?
They learn that lesson, and they'll cut themselves off and they'll limit themselves. Rajul, the ping pong coach, we talked to, table tennis. Sorry, Rajul, I apologize. The table tennis coach, we talked to, uh, he, you know, he talks a lot about how like some players don't come along until they're 13, 14 and then all of a sudden they just accelerate and they push past the pack, you know, and the kid that you thought was maybe gonna be an Olympian at 11 just sort of stays stuck in second year.
He said, and I think this is largely the case, that the differentiator often when you're talking about those sort of differences between, you know, you're really, really good and you could be in the Olympics, it's the mental game. And that is something that's often takes a long time to come together. I mean, some people just have it, so to speak, and just like have mental resilience from age eight.
But like, age 8 to 15 is a pretty tough time for your brain regardless. So when you combine that with sports, like it's no surprise that sometimes people don't put it all together. And often that last piece of the puzzle is that sort of mental resilience and that ability to kind of stay calm under pressure and take coaching and, and all those things that are, that can take a while to, to figure out.
[00:39:07] Adam Grant:
Well Jody, your, your work makes us better.
[00:39:09] Jody Avirgan:
[00:39:09] Adam Grant:
So, I'm grateful for it. Excited to tune in for the whole season of the podcast. Thank you for joining us.
[00:39:15] Jody Avirgan:
Yeah, yeah. I should say sports is fun too. I know we've been very serious. You know, we've been overthinking it; It’s really fun. It's great. I cry. It makes very fun to watch, very fun to play and I want to kind of honor that too. And I think we have a little bit of that in the series as well.
[00:39:33] Adam Grant:
Talking with Jody got me thinking about how much we overuse the word team. Not every group is a team. People come together for all kinds of reasons, but in order to be a team, you actually have to share a goal and rely on each other to achieve that goal.
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington-Rodgers. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Our fact checker is Hana Matsudaira. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.
I, I want to do a, a deep nerd dive into Ultimate, but maybe we'll save that for the end if there's time.
[00:40:20] Jody Avirgan:
Bonus. I think, I think, I think they call that bonus episode material.
[00:40:25] Adam Grant:
Yeah. Or the, the part that everyone else skips.