Coolers, Closers, and Cleaners
I recently finished a book titled by renowned trainer Tim Grover. He is widely known for his work with elite athletes, most notably Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, and considered an authority on performance, motivation and mental toughness. I highly recommend the read. Grover categorizes athletes into one of three groups: Coolers, Closers and Cleaners. Coolers are good. Closers are great. Cleaners are unstoppable. What separates them is not physical prowess or talent but their attitude and mental makeup; how the individual views and reacts to situations.
To paraphrase: Coolers generally stay in their comfort zone finding a role they can perform well in. They’ll avoid the spotlight and don’t want the responsibility of leadership; they’ll go along for the ride as long as someone else is carrying the load. Coolers worry about the competition and how they measure up; they are very talented but not someone who will carry a team. Closers study the competition and plan an attack accordingly; they aren’t afraid of risk as long as it falls within what they think is a good chance of success. Closers love the show, limelight and all the praise that goes with success; this is why they show up for the big game…but also why they don’t maintain a high level day in and day out. They will take on responsibility and carry a team if asked but aren’t necessarily built to sustain it; they like taking credit and hate taking blame. Closers get to a high level; true greats of their sport
Cleaners are a different breed. They don’t worry about the competition; they make the competition worry about them. Cutthroat and cold blooded. Cleaners are never satisfied. Praise and adulation do nothing for them because there is always more to do. The thrill of winning is short-lived before another conquest is sought; losses are just signals to work harder and get better. In fact, they’d rather take on an insurmountable task and lose rather find something amenable because their competitive nature is do what others cannot. They lead by demanding everyone get on their level or get off the bus. They are ALWAYS in the zone. These are the legends of their particular domain.
The book was fascinating to me for two reasons. One, using examples of athletes I’ve watched helped put the concept into a context I was readily able to understand with perspective. The makeup of those who succeed and those who dominate is strikingly clear and hold serve across nearly every domain. The other piece was drawing parallels to the athletes I’ve personally coached and trained in the martial arts and the competitive landscape.
On one end there are what I call the bucket listers. Students who have trained for a bit, watched others compete and get the itch to try it at least once…and usually once is enough. They attend practice when they can while juggling work and life; not exactly what a coach would called dedicated but it’s dedicated for the amount of bandwidth they have to commit to the task. As a coach these individuals are easy to train with very little maintenance. No questions are asked, mostly because they have no point of reference and don’t even know what to ask. The competition comes and goes, an incredible amount of pride and happiness exists with the accomplishment as well as a realization that competition involves a lot more than they are equipped to give. The important piece is understanding where these students are and everyone walks away with a positive experience.
In the middle are what I call the casual athletes. People who are good, sometimes even very good, because they caught the bug and went in whole hog training their butts off for an extended period of time. These are the same people who no matter what they do are all in or all out; martial arts, painting, golfing…doesn’t matter. They become fanatical about something and get very good very quickly. They start to compete and do very well, often times winning lower level championships and begin climbing the ranks. However, the early success often convinces them it’s always going to be as such and the once obsessive dedication to practice and the art, the very thing that make them so good, begins to wane. Soon the competition is stiffer and they run into opponents who are not only as skilled but are also still driven and hungry.
The classic signs start to appear: bumps and bruises (things they’d previously train through) become excuses to skip practice, training methods are questioned, an entire bio of the opponent is requested, and rather than always being ready a camp is needed before a bout. This is usually where the athletes goes all out because their interest is no longer strong enough to rededicate themselves to training; this thing they loved is now hard and no longer fun. These are the toughest athletes to coach in my opinion. You see all sorts of potential left on the table and causes you to question if you pushed too hard or maybe not hard enough.
Then we have the other end of the spectrum. The killers. Those who compete because it’s in their nature to compete. Training is treated like a job; 2-3 times a day, every day. Unlike the others, they possess a killer instinct that drives them to train hard day in and out. The opponent is immaterial. Just tell them what weight to be at and what time to show up. They don’t want to win, they want to destroy the other person; the desire to hit him so hard his girlfriend in the front row dies.
These athletes are fun as hell to coach because they are almost robotic in their approach. Tell them what to do and they do it, no questions other than how many or how long. In fact, they always want to do more to the point a coach has to pull them back to prevent injury and overtraining. The biggest trial for a coach is keeping this athlete challenged; they adapt and learn so quickly finding different ways to push them can be difficult. Their intensity scares away many training partners. A coach must be very in tune to the session and who is involved to prevent injury or ruining a capable partner.
At the end of the day possessing a better understanding of who you are and your mental makeup can be a tremendous advantage in any endeavor you choose to embark; competition being but one. Self-reflection should be a daily practice to take stock in where you have been, are right now and see yourself going. Greater awareness of your strengths, weaknesses, fears and desires will only aid in plotting the next path. Coolers, Closers and Cleaners exist in every industry. As you read this you probably thought of some people in your life and work with who fit one of these bills. The important question is which one are you?!