The NCAA tournament Sweet Sixteen is set, and diehard fans are immersed in players’ stats: points, rebounds, steals, assists, blocks, and more. Each of these numbers has the potential to help propel a team to the next round (not to mention, determine whether your bracket is a slam-dunk or a brick).
That said, as you settle down with your favorite snack and beverage to watch the next March Madness game, NBA player and Hall of Fame motivational speaker Walter Bond suggests you scrutinize players for one more crucial quality that can determine their ultimate success: whether or not they think like sharks.
“When I say ‘shark,’ I don’t mean someone who ruthlessly goes after the ball and seeks individual glory, often at the expense of others,” says Bond, author of Swim!: How a Shark, a Suckerfish, and a Parasite Teach You Leadership, Mentoring, & Next Level Success (Wiley, 2019, ISBN: 978-1-119-57356-2, $24.00). “In nature, sharks are smart, adaptable, discerning creatures that cultivate mutually beneficial relationships with other fish. Not coincidentally, these are the same qualities that often help young players bridge the gap from ‘good’ to ‘great.’”
In his own career, Bond says he quickly learned that success isn’t just about technical skill; it’s also determined by what goes on in the mind: your attitude, your words, how you handle mistakes, your resilience and adaptability, how you choose to work with others, and much more.
“These young athletes who are competing in the NCAA tournament are in an incredibly high-stakes, high-pressure environment—and if you look closely, you’ll see that many of them do an amazing job of managing themselves as individual players and as teammates,” Bond points out. “They embody what I call the Sacred Six principles, which are essentially a blueprint for operating with integrity and working toward consistent improvement in every area of life—including performance on the court. Each principle is inspired by shark behavior.”
In Swim!, Bond uses an engaging business fable to teach the lesson that “big fish” aren’t ruthless loners; instead, they work with and develop others, constantly seek out opportunities to improve themselves, admit their mistakes, and don’t allow the past to define them.
Here, Bond shares his Sacred Six shark-like traits that can set you on the path to success, no matter what field you’re in—or court you’re playing on. (“Look for these qualities as you watch the tournament,” he says. “You might be surprised by how strongly they correlate with bracket advancement.”)
- Sharks never stop moving forward. Some species of sharks need to keep water flowing through their gills to avoid drowning, which means they can’t stop—and they certainly can’t swim backward. They seek progress at all times. So should we.
“My college coach used to say, ‘I see you’ve been working,’” says Bond. “This was really impactful after I had made a mistake. The message was, You are changing your behavior—and because of that change, you are improving. Learning to ‘fail forward,’ or use mistakes as a launch pad for improvement, gave me an edge over players who reacted with blame or self-criticism. Just as forward movement gives sharks life, the progress I made infused me with even more motivation and passion.”
- Sharks never look down; they always look up. Sharks keep their eyes on the water ahead of and above them, ready to react when prey appears. They don’t waste their time or energy on what’s beneath and behind them. Likewise, it’s important for us to keep our eyes—and attitudes—pointed in a productive direction.
“In most situations, your attitude is the only thing that can stop you,” says Bond. “That doesn’t mean you’ll never lose a game or have a disappointing practice—you will. It doesn’t mean teammates will never make mistakes that affect you. They will. Even so, your job is to focus on what you can do, not what you can’t, and stay vigilant for opportunities. In basketball and in life, you never know when you’ll be able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.”
- Sharks are always curious and learning. Sharks can grow up to a foot a year, and their development isn’t purely physical; they are always paying attention and learning. In fact, many sharks don’t attack potential prey indiscriminately. They observe and investigate before striking to make sure it’s a creature they want to eat. Likewise, we humans should always be growing and improving.
“My coaches helped me identify and address my weaknesses as an athlete, but I knew that no matter how much skill I had on the court, I would never reach my potential if I didn’t operate the right way, every day,” says Bond. “That’s when I really started to dive into the fundamentals of peak performance. It’s a journey of self-improvement I’m still on to this day. I’m constantly examining my choices and motivations: how I use my time, what I want to accomplish, what opportunities are in front of me, how to address my frustrations, etc.”
- Sharks always respect their environment and recognize other sharks. Sharks don’t typically perceive other sharks as threats, and they seldom attack one another. In other words, there’s room in the “ocean” for multiple leaders, mentors, and success stories—no need to feel threatened or intimidated by another’s accomplishments or position.
“Some species of sharks work with others to take down larger prey,” says Bond. “They tap into the strengths of their fellow sharks to achieve a common goal—and so should we. This can be a tough lesson to learn as an athlete, because everyone wants to be a superstar. But few people reach the top without plenty of help from others. So, look for those in your field who are getting it done or are better than you are, especially those who influence others by proactively recognizing and coaching them. They can help you achieve long-term success—not just sporadic wins.”
- Sharks are always flexible. A shark’s skeleton is made of flexible cartilage that enables it to change direction swiftly and efficiently. Sharks are highly adaptable, too—they can survive in warm or cool temperatures, swim in shallow or deep water, and eat many different types of prey depending on what’s available. All of these things are instinctive for sharks, but for humans, changing and adapting to new situations can be extremely difficult.
“A reluctance to change is what causes many people to stop moving forward,” says Bond. “But remember: It’s not your past decisions that define you, but your next decision. As an athlete, I used the off-season to unlearn bad habits and develop new skills. I now do the same thing as a leader: I regularly take time to evaluate what’s working and what’s not, and how I might need to change. I’ve found that often, the next ‘right’ decision lies close to home; for instance, choosing to change my attitude or to accept constructive criticism.”
- Sharks always elevate their suckerfish to new levels. First, a brief science lesson: Many sharks live alongside one or more remoras, or suckerfish. The suckerfish find and eat microscopic parasites on the shark’s body, providing a potentially lifesaving service to the shark. In return, the suckerfish receive transportation, protection, and meals from the shark. Each creature brings value to the other. In the human world, “suckerfish” are those who need direction, coaching, and guidance, and “sharks” are the empathetic, people-focused leaders who provide those things.
“We all start out as suckerfish—that’s certainly what I was as a young, ambitious basketball player,” says Bond. “But as I improved on the court, I was always happy to advise the athletes coming up behind me. I knew that the more energy I put into helping them become better players, the more value they would bring to our team. Now, as an author, speaker, and business coach, my mission is to share what I’ve learned to help others achieve next-level success. I truly believe that you aren’t successful unless you take others with you.”
“As I’ve watched the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, I’ve seen players living out the Sacred Six in real time,” Bond concludes. “I am so impressed not just by their athleticism, but by their resilience, perseverance, and team-focused mindsets. Talent and skill are always going to be important factors in determining which team wins the championship trophy, but don’t discount players with a shark-like mindset. They are often the driving force behind bracket-busting upsets—and some of the greatest sports moments of all time.”
Walter Bond is the author of Swim!: How a Shark, a Suckerfish, and a Parasite Teach You Leadership, Mentoring, & Next Level Success. Walter is also a renowned business coach, motivational speaker, and former NBA player. His time in the NBA taught him the fundamentals every team needs to be successful, and today he shares his knowledge with global audiences to help entrepreneurs, business leaders, sales teams, and employees get to the next level. Walter has keynoted conferences in numerous countries for brands such as 3M, Hilton, and Allianz.
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