Alan Stein is a speaker and author, after spending over 15 years as a basketball coach. He has coached some of the top players and now brings what he learned from the world of sports to the world of business. The same skills and strategies that help basketball players be the top of their game can help top performers in the corporate world too. Alan believes in the power of doing sports throughout childhood and the traits and qualities they can instill in young people. He is also the author of Raise Your Game: High-Performance Secrets of the Best of the Best. In this episode Alan talks about finding your passion, letting go of what you can’t control and the power of self-awareness.
You grew up playing sports competitively and reached a high level. And you coached for many years. Are you still coaching?
Alan doesn’t coach anymore. Now he can be found on the sidelines watching his 3 children compete. Many of the traits that have helped him in his life have come from doing sports as a young person.
What are some of those traits that you learned from sports that have helped you in business and life?
Passion. Finding something you love and being able to spend time doing it is really important. That was the first lesson sport taught Alan. Learning to be coach-able. Having the discipline to go in and get reps done. All the little things that can add up and can have a profound impact on your performance. Being a good teammate. That when you sign up to a team sport you are a part of something much bigger than yourself.
You mention passion and when I’ve seen you speak, that passion really comes through. You seem to love teaching people and helping them be better.
Alan wants to be a servant leader who fills other people’s buckets. Sport was always just his vehicle to do that. It wasn’t just the sport that gave him so much enjoyment, it was the ability to be around other people and help to make them better with what they were trying to do.
I grew up playing tennis, which is a very individual sport. In your book, you talk a lot about teamwork and I realized that I’ve been on a very individual path with both participating in an individual sport and working for myself.
It has been Alan’s experience that people, especially in sport, tend to gravitate to one or another. He tried to get his kids to experience both so they could see what they liked. Even if you are a solopreuneuer you still work with other people and teamwork traits are important. A family can also be a team. We ebb and flow from one to the other throughout our lives. Sometimes you’re the player, sometimes the coach and sometimes you’re on a team.
Part of being a good teammate is being a good leader.
There are traits that we all should be working on regardless of our specific scenario. The traits of being an effective leader and being an impactful teammate. They have such high utility and can be applied to any area of life, personal or professional. They are important skills and can be reinforced through sport. Alan encourages his children to play different sports so that they can work on those skills. They will learn things through a sport that they won’t learn at school and that is hard to teach as a parent.
What about emotional intelligence?
That is another skillset which can and should be developed through sport. Emotional intelligence is about the ability to be aware of and manage your emotions and the emotions of others. Be able to read other people, know when and what to say and how to show somebody that you care about them. The best leaders and coaches all have very high emotional intelligence.
How do you think you can develop emotional intelligence?
It is a skillset and like any skillset, can be improved with purposeful practice and repetition. Repetitions is the oldest and most effective method of leaning in existence.
I think one of the biggest things that I learned through sports was losing and dealing with those emotions of loss. And getting back up, looking at what I did right or wrong and then going back out there.
Some of that is grit and resilience. But also have some self-compassion for yourself when you do lose, or make a mistake or don’t perform well. Being able to forgive yourself so you can move on but also learning a lesson from it so that you become better moving forward. No matter what happens in life, it is important to find a way to take from it and use it to inch forward. Rather than it being something that makes you regress and move backward. We hold that power. We can’t control what happens but we can control how we move forward. You choose that. If you want to be a high performer you will consistently choose something which serves you and helps you move forward. Alan recognizes that it isn’t always easy to do, but that is what you have to do if you want to be the best you are capable of.
Managing the emotional part really makes the difference for someone who is going to be a high performer. If you let your emotions get the best of you, they will get the best of you.
If you’re sitting in traffic, which nobody enjoys, what are your options? To let your blood pressure rise, get frustrated and honk your horn? Putting yourself in a negative mood just because there are more cars on the road doesn’t help you move forward or serve you in any way. Why do we consistently make choices that don’t serve us? You have a choice for how you respond to that. Maybe you make some phone calls or listen to a podcast.
This line really struck me from your book - ‘Control the controllables.’ You have a choice to be able to have control over the things you can control. You can’t control the traffic but you can control the thought pathways that you choose to go down and how you choose to respond.
The number of things we have complete control over is actually pretty small. However, there is a significant power in the things we do have control over. These are primarily your effort and your attitude. These are incredibly influential and impactful. Many times it is not easy to make that choice. A lot of stuff happens in life which is challenging to deal with. But we always have that choice.
One quote that gives Alan comfort is - ‘This too shall pass.’ Our moods are important too. When we are in a bad mood we are going to react to things more than if we are in a good mood.
I was talking to a client who hadn’t slept well because she was traveling. And I said to her ‘be gentle with yourself.’ I know that if you haven’t slept the quality of your thoughts are going to be poor. Sometimes you have to ride that wave and be gentle with yourself until that negativity passes.
It takes high self-awareness to be able to recognize that. Many times people identify with their thoughts but really we are separate from our thoughts. We can often see in a friend when they are in a bad mood and give them space. It’s harder to do that with ourselves.
You say something in your books something which I love - ‘self-awareness is one of the highest predictors of performance and the least utilized criteria.’ It is not being taught, it is something we have to seek out on our own, which is something high performers tend to do.
People who are not self-aware, don't know that they are not self-aware. Self-awareness can be looked at different levels. At a surface level, it’s just about knowing who you are, what you stand for and what your goals are. It is also having the courage to look at the darker stuff -what are you scared of, what are your insecurities, what are the things that give you the most shame and guilt. This can be uncomfortable but is crucial to get the full overview of who you are as a human being.
It is important that the way you see yourself is in alignment with the way the rest of the world sees you. This is not about pandering to other people but that you see yourself accurately. An example would be if someone asked you if you were a good listener and you said yes but then they asked 5 friends and they all said no. That would be a lack of self-awareness.
The last level is being able to look at your emotions and understand why you’re feeling that way. When you get frustrated in traffic because someone cut you off, there’s a deeper reason as to why you’re frustrated.
I love how you talk about the unseen hours. With social media, we see so much outward success but we don’t see the unseen hours. What have you seen or observed or practiced yourself in the unseen hours?
Most of what we do is in the unseen hours. When you’re working on your self-awareness, that’s unseen hours. When an athlete is in a gym practicing a move over and over again, that’s unseen hours. The relationship you have with your significant other is heavily predicated on the inside work you do to be the best version of yourself during the unseen hours. Most hours are unseen but they are the ones that dictate how well we do when we are seen.
Sometimes we try to cut corners as we live in a fast-paced world and want everything now. I think it’s actually slowing us down in terms of our performance.
Mastery takes time and it takes a lot of reps. Social media can be great but it encourages us to play the comparison game. We have plenty of opportunities in the unseen hours to get better at anything we put our mind to. We have to be willing to put in the work. If you can find alignment between what you love and what you’re good at then it doesn't always seem like work.
If you don’t have that passion it can be really difficult to put in the work. You are likely to just quit.
Absolutely. That is why you have to find that alignment. Find what you love, find what you’re good at and then find the place where those two things overlap.
I’m curious about your journey. You were in youth sports and coaching for 20 years but you recently made a pivot.
Alan’s passion in the youth sports arena was starting to wane so he decided to make a change. In teaching and coaching, you have to be all in. He decided to make a pivot into the corporate space as a speaker and author. He now has a passion back for what he is doing. The things that you love and what you’re good at will change over time.
Some people might be feeling like they need a change but don’t know what the new thing is. What was your process for going through that? Was it an ‘a ha’ moment or were there lots of little moments which added up to the new direction?
For Alan, it was both. A few years ago he was in Germany speaking at a basketball conference and he realized that it wasn’t exciting him as much as it should. Then a friend asked him to give a keynote at a corporate retreat after somebody had dropped out at the last minute. He was asked to give a speech on leadership and when he stepped offstage he felt alive and invigorated. He knew it was what he wanted to start pursuing. If you don’t know what you want to do, it is worth considering what you would do if you could take a month off from work. What would you do with your time? Whatever it is you would be doing is probably close to what you should be doing.
So I’m curious about the difference between the talk in Germany and the talk at the corporate retreat. Was it the audience? Was it the content?
It was both. He realized that a good portion of his time in the basketball space was filled with 15-18-year-old teenage boys. They are very narrow in what they like to talk about. It’s mostly basketball and girls. In the corporate space, Andy is around peers who are teaching him as much as he is teaching them. This has invigorated him. The content that people want from him has also changed. As a coach, people wanted to know how to run faster and jump higher, but Andy has always been interested in leadership, teamwork and building a winning culture.
So, how do you jump higher?
One. Strengthen the major muscles in your body. It’s not just the legs that are needed for jumping. You need core strength and even the upper body is involved by providing momentum. If you can produce more force against the ground, it will propel you higher.
Two. Practice jumping. Practice the skill. And practice it in the way you want to use it
What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Find what you love. Find what you’re good at and find where those two things intersect.
From a coaching standpoint: Every coach should look in the mirror every morning and say ‘it’s not about me, it’s about them’.
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