Focus on the fundamentals
Spring, 1995. San Francisco. It’s a wet Saturday morning, and any sane person would wake up, look out at the weather, and swiftly decide to get back into bed for a couple more hours.
Jerry Rice isn’t one of those people.
Right now, Rice is feeling pretty good about life. He’s the star wide receiver of the San Francisco 49ers, and he’s coming off the back of winning Superbowl XXIX a couple of months earlier. In that game, he scored three touchdowns and caught 10 passes for 149 yards, despite separating his shoulder.
The 1994 season was one in which Rice racked up just under 1,500 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. He became the all-time leader in touchdown catches, in his tenth season in a league where the average career length is just 3.2 years. He’s already had a career that marks him out as one of the best.
But Rice isn’t resting on his laurels. On that wet Saturday morning, he’s up and out at 7am. He’s lifting weights. He’s doing drills. He’s sprinting up a notorious local running route known only as “The Hill”. All told, he works out for 4–5 hours. And he repeats this workout 6 days a week. All summer long. With a separated shoulder.
And when he comes back for the 1995 season, it’s his best ever. Rice makes 122 receptions for over 1,800 yards and 15 touchdowns. After that he plays another 9 full seasons, playing almost every game, before retiring at the age of 42, having set a number of records that look unlikely ever to be broken. ESPN names him as the #2 NFL player of all time, and in 2010 he’s inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.
This looks like the classic tale of hard work leading to huge success. But it’s not. It’s much more interesting than that.
Yes, Rice worked hard — but he worked on the right things. His success came from a laser focus on the fundamentals.
Specifically, Rice makes sure that a) he’s in great physical condition; and b) he can run his routes inch-perfectly. These two things combined mean that he can play as many downs as possible, in every game of the season, for 20 years. And on every play, he’s exactly where he needs to be, when he needs to be. A perfect wide receiver.
Rice isn’t the only athlete to recognise the power of focusing on the fundamentals. The San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich does the same. Spurs Assistant Coach Ettore Messina says:
“[O]ne of the biggest things in coach Popovich’s philosophy is the “we can’t skip any steps” principle… At the beginning of the training camp we went over the fundamentals of offense and defense. Passing, catching, pivoting, sliding, moving without the ball — it was as if we were a junior team. That’s one of the major messages coach Popovich sends out to his players: techniques are much more important than tactics. You have to master the fundamentals.”
The result? The Spurs have won five championships under Popovich, and he holds the record for the most consecutive winning seasons in NBA history.
All from a relentless focus on the fundamentals. And the great news is that this doesn’t just apply to sports: you can do the same in your own career, and achieve huge results.
In fact, it’s much easier in a non-sporting context. You don’t have to work nearly as hard as Jerry Rice to see huge benefits. Think about it: he’s competing against other professional athletes who are also running routes, lifting weights, doing whatever they can to get better.
But your own colleagues or competitors: what are they doing? What percentage put any meaningful effort into improving their own ability? How many really, truly, deeply, have mastered the fundamentals of what they do? If you look closely, you’ll probably find that it’s actually not that many people.
That’s fantastic. It means that there’s a huge opportunity for you to stand out — if, and only if, you focus on the fundamentals.
(One other aside: think again about Jerry Rice’s workout. Note that in all his off-season workouts, he didn’t actually play a single down of full-contact football. So the way to get better at football isn’t repeatedly playing football, but rather mastering specific skills. Yet how many of us, when asked how we were making sure that we improved at our jobs, would say that we get better by doing our job over and over again?)
Here’s an example from outside of sports. In Talent Is Overrated, author Geoff Colvin describes how Benjamin Franklin would take great essays, and write down the key point of each sentence. Then he’d re-write those sentences in his own words, and compare them to the original. He’d cut out each sentence, and put them in a drawer, leaving them for weeks until he had forgotten the original content, and then try and put them back together again to practice structure. He’d re-write essays in verse, and then re-translate them back into prose, again comparing them to the original. Again and again, he practised specific essay-writing skills. Over time, this deliberate practice turned Benjamin Franklin into an incredible writer.
And one more “knowledge-worker” example: me. Personally I’m not an essayist (although I play one on the internet). I’m an accountant. So what would my training scheme look like if I were to focus on the fundamentals?
Well, like many other professions, all accountants have to pass a series of exams to become qualified. But having passed them all, most people stop learning, never again consulting their textbooks.
Here’s an obvious win — I can take a few exercises from each of my textbooks (literally titled “Fundamentals of Accounting”) and run through them periodically. If I do one chapter from each of my textbooks at the start of each workday, that would only take about 15 minutes, but it would mean I could run through all of those textbooks in about 3 months — and then I could just start again from the beginning, always repeating these exercises and staying sharp.
The result: I would be able to run quickly through a trial balance and a list of adjustments, and create a balance sheet and profit and loss account, just using a paper and pencil. I’d be able to calculate variances, overhead allocations and absorption rates in my head. I could test myself on any number of technical definitions, and get the answers write every time. I can already do all of these things to a good standard, but if I practised, I would truly master them. I would have testable fluency in the basics.
(In fact, I could go even more fundamental, and run through all the maths exercises on Khan Academy to make sure that my mental maths ability is as sharp as it can be.)
That sounds incredibly simple and easy, and it is. But it’s a big win, because no-one else bothers to do it. It takes humility to admit that you need to brush up their skills at such a basic level.
That takes care of the conditioning aspect — the accounting equivalent of Jerry Rice’s hill sprints. But as well as running and lifting, he was also doing drills, and practising the exact routes he needed to be effective in the 49ers offense.
The equivalent for me would be:
- to understand every aspect of my company’s balance sheet and income statement deeply, and how they interact and affect each other
- to do the same with all our industry competitors
- to be technically fluent on our accounting system and know every function, report, shortcut and display
- to be a real Excel pro: again, understanding the majority of functions and formulae (not just the five common things that every accountant uses), know all the keyboard shortcuts, and be able to automate common tasks using macros or VBA
Again, none of these are particularly difficult or time-consuming: 30–60 minutes per day would be more than enough to master every one of these in fairly short order. It wouldn’t be five hours of intense workouts like Jerry Rice, but it would easily be enough to accelerate my ability far beyond where it currently is.
If you’re like me, it’s exciting to realise how little work this would be, and the huge impacts it could have on your career. I can’t wait to get started.