The importance of humility and 89%

In the summer of 1984 I was 10 years old and I went to a month-long sports camp. During that month I learned what would turn out to be two of the most valuable lessons of my life.

144 boys ages 10-13 attended the camp, and we were divided into 12 teams of 12 boys. Teams were named after NFL football teams, and we were the Colts. We played the other teams in six team sports: flag football, basketball, softball, lacrosse, floor hockey, and soccer. After three weeks of playing three games per day, tournament week begins. Each team plays in every tournament, which are all single-elimination (you lose, you’re done), and the championship game for each sport is held on the last day of camp.

On the first day of camp, our team’s coach sat us down and told us what kind of team we were going to be. He told us that if we gave him 89% in every game we played, we’d win a lot of games. We looked at each other quizzically. Why not 100%? Or 110%? Aren’t those the percentages every other coach uses to motivate his/her team to play hard??? Yes, they are. But our coach told us that giving 100% all of the time was not possible. It sounded good, but it just wasn’t realistic. Rather, he told us that if we committed to give 89% in every game, and we stuck to that, and we made it our mantra, then that’s the best he could expect of us. So, for instance, if you’re playing basketball, he doesn’t expect you to sprint back on defense 100% of the time. If he expected that, you’d inevitably tire at some point and jog back once, and then he’d be upset with you. But if you and he are on the same page that you’re going to give it your all 89% of the time, that’s a more realistic goal – one he should have no problem holding you accountable to, and one you should feel very able to commit to.

So before every game, three games per day for three weeks, we’d chant “89!!!!” (loudly) as a team. Nobody knew what it meant, and we agreed to keep it to ourselves. But the cheer helped reinforce the concept, and within the first few days of camp we were all rallied around 89%. It was really cool, and one we all came to appreciate, because committing to 89% gave us each an opportunity to know when we needed to give ourselves a quick break, but also set the bar high for all of us. (If you think about it, it’s nearly impossible to truthfully give it everything you have more than 89% of the time.)

Our coach also told us that everybody in camp takes stock of the other teams based on their records. “The Redskins are 2-12, they are not a good team.” Or, “Holy cow, the Saints are 12-2, they are awesome!” But he said the only way people know any team’s record is because the kids and the coaches tell each other their records (they weren’t posted anywhere, so that knowledge was only communicated verbally). Of course, if you had a really good record, the other teams would try harder to beat you, so by the nature of being a good team, you risked getting worn down by tournament time by having to play against every other team’s best effort, plus you’d inevitably lose more games by having to battle against those best efforts.

Therefore, our coach told us, when we started winning a lot of games (he gave us confidence by telling us we would; it was assumed from the get go and we all believed it for no better reason than he told us we would), we would never tell anybody our record. He committed and we committed that when somebody asked our record, we would simply say, “I’m not sure. We’ve won some and lost some.” That way, other teams would assume we were average at best, and therefore we probably wouldn’t get their best effort, so we’d give ourselves even better odds of winning more games. And, most importantly, he talked to us about the importance of humility. He told us it didn’t matter if we won a lot, that we were there to learn teamwork and effort, and if we focused on those things and gave each other 89%, wins would be the byproduct of our efforts, but never the focus. He told us, “If we commit to 89%, we’re going to win a lot of games. I promise you. But we’ll win them with class, and we won’t brag. That’s for people who don’t expect to win. We expect to win, but when we do we’ll never be arrogant about it because it doesn’t matter anyway. All that matters is that we give 89% and have fun. That’s why your here this month anyway. So be humble. Low key. Let other good teams brag. But not the Colts!”

Well, our coach had us bought in fully to the power of 89% and the importance of humility, and darn if he wasn’t a genius. Over three weeks we won more games than any other team in camp, and everybody was shocked. We were the number one seed in four of the six sports’ tournaments. Across camp, kids and coaches were saying, “The Colts?!?! Really?? We had no idea you were that good of a team!!!” The Colts were in three championship games (no other team was in more than one), and we won two of them. I’m convinced our success was due to humility and the power of 89%.

Those lessons have stuck with me for the last 28 years, and I’m posting this story here because I think they are just as relevant in business and every other aspect of life as they are in sports, and in one way or another, the people I know who are the happiest and the most successful almost all live by those same two general ideas, whether they are conscious of it or not.

I love remembering that truly special summer, so thank you for indulging me this post, and hopefully it provided something meaningful to your day.