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Better Together: Level Up!

"Make friends who force you to level up" is a quote that I saw recently that reminded me of a leadership principle that I learned decades ago and have lived my life. That principle is simply surround yourself with those who can push you to be your absolute best. In today's language the term "level up" has been used and probably overused to describe rising up to the next level. Many talk a good game when it come to 'leveling up" but few actually know how to get there, let alone help others to get there.

I recently watched one of my heroes Michael Jordan talk about the late Kobe Bryant (feels weird to say that still) and he shared about their relationship. He talked about their relationship and how many thought they were enemies but in reality they were friends who were cut from the same cloth. They were definitely competitors and never missed an opportunity to compete against each other, but the one thing that they did share was this drive to be the best at what they do. There was a level of respect that they had for one another. MJ shared how once he realized that for as much as Kobe was always asking him questions and picking his brain, he recognized that Kobe just wanted to be the best he player and person he could be. His response to that was this drive to be the best big brother to Kobe he could be. That's what great leaders do!

We all need people who push us to go for more. Encouragement sometimes is not enough, we need to be challenged. How that challenge comes can take many forms. There are direct challenges that come from who are close to you and then there's indirect challenges that come from those who are in your line of work or field of interest. Most people have something inside them that makes them want to respond to challenges. It's a competitive spirit that wants to be on top, wants to be the best. Some naturally exude it but many have to have it pulled out of them.

The recent death of Kobe Bryant has brought to light the mentality that he operated under. One of the most memorable stories that I remember was about his high school team after they lost in the playoffs. He refused to let his team settle for anything less than a championship the next season so he took it upon himself to lead by inviting his team to extra workouts with him including my favorite workout 1v1 to 100. As crazy as it sounds, Kobe was being the kind of teammate that makes those around him better. He made them better by challenging them to do better.

I have a friend that once told me that he is always encouraged and challenged by me. At first I didn't know how to take that but as I asked him to explain more, he revealed that he simply meant that not only did I lift his spirits, but I made him want to push himself to do more. The more that I reflected on that, the more it made sense to me. All of my life, I have had people who knew how to motivate me to do more by challenging me. Not only did I respond to the challenge but I also learned to challenge others in the same way. It spoke to the competitor in me. It is one of the driving forces behind "The SportMentor". Challenging each other to be the best through encouragement and through competition.

Competition isn’t always about proving who’s the best but it’s more about doing our best. When two true competitors meet up both of them understand that its not only about pulling the best out of themselves but out of each other. “As iron sharpens iron so does one man to another" is an old bible proverb that is rooted in the fact that with iron it takes two abrasive objects in conflict with each other to make both sharp. The goal is for both to live up to their full potential. Both must be fully invested in the process.

In life, it works the same way. For you to reach your full potential, you have to have something or someone that is actively pushing you to give your best. I work with college students at the University of Minnesota and the basic point of what I do is to come alongside them and help push them to become all they were intended and dreamed of becoming. I choose to use sports as a tool to help them see what it looks like.

I have met a group of guys who share the same love for the game of basketball and desire to get the most out of life. What I love about spending time with each of them is that they understand the need to always have goals to push towards and love to put in the work that's needed. Our sessions are always intense, whether we are playing 1v1 or we are doing skills and drills. You will find us pushing and encouraging each other to do our best. It's a great way for us to learn how to make each other better at life. The talks during and afterwards are just as life-building as the workout themselves.

I recently had a conversation with one student that I met on one of my first weeks on campus full time. Jacob is a guy who gets after it on the court. I could see right away that he loves to compete and push himself to be his best. I asked him how that happened and he shared with me a story about how a friend pushed him to level up. This is what he shared with me.

He was a big brother for me and he was confident in himself and his skills made me want that confidence and he taught me preparation leads to confidence

His friend wouldn’t let him settle for mediocre. He challenged Jacob’s mentality when it came to basketball workouts. It was a challenge to really put in the necessary work to realize the potential that lived within him. He modeled the mentality that he wanted Jacob to have in their times together. Jacob responded to the direct challenge that was placed before him. It transformed him and gave him the relentless drive in everything he does on and off the court. That inspires me every time we step on the court together and leads to some great times of challenging each other to go for it in life.

Another friend at the U, Tyson is a student leader in our organization. When I first met him, I was impressed with his drive to lead. He doesn't sit around waiting for things to happen but he knows how to go after it. Our friendship started away from the court but it moved there when he told me that he wanted to get after it on the court. He's been a good guy to journey with as we like to challenge each other in life. I wanted to know how else pushed him to level up, this is what he said:

My roommates, by modeling consistent drive, paired with consistent action, to go deeper in their faith. Their “no excuses” attitudes about quiet times, going to church, and pursuing purity has shown me the need for the same attitude in these areas, and I’ve improved in these areas as a result.

What I have enjoyed about our relationship is that we aren't afraid to challenge each other. Too many times we have those friends that do a good job encouraging us and being good "cheerleaders" for us, but that just isn't enough to get through those hard times. For me, I learned a long time ago that I don't need friends who just make me feel good. I need people that will not let me settle for less and will push me to bring the best out of me.

I just recently started living full time in Minneapolis. The last year has been one of me commuting back and forth from Chicago. At the beginning of the fall semester I met a guy on the courts that impressed me. I could tell he was solid and had a few ups too, the kinda guy that I like ballin with. The kind that ain't afraid of hard work and could challenge me.

Mitch and I talked a little then and I suggested we connect when I arrive on campus full time. Fast forward to the beginning of the second semester I went to the gym for some pickup ball and in walks Mitch. We recognize each other and team up for an epic undefeated run. Afterwards we decided that it would be cool to workout together regularly and chase that dunk dream. Needless to say it's been a fun ride so far as you can see by the video to the left.

It goes beyond basketball and spills into life. As we've been getting to know each other, we've discovered more things in common that we're both chasing. It's been good to push each other. We all need people in our lives that make us better and are there when it counts. I asked him about having friends who force you to level up and this is what he said.

Ok, well for me, my friends are always there for me in the tough times to support me, and equally important they are always pushing me to be better and “level up” as a man. The people that do this for me are people who I have a strong bond with and can share anything that is going on in my life. The friends that do this are worth more than money can buy.

I agree with all that he said. I am so grateful for those kind of people in my life. At the time that I am writing this, I am in the middle of a trip back to Chicago to see some friends before I attend a conference. I got to have breakfast with a brother and ministry partner who's been that for me. Kyle and I served together in youth ministry. His first day on the job as our new high school pastor he comes walking into my gym to play some pick up ball with us. He was giving me some great passes for what I found out later was a guy who played soccer in college. I could tell he was someone that I would enjoy working with and getting to know.

Since then he hasn't disappointed me as not only have we had fun but have built a brotherhood that allows the both of us to not only challenge each other to level up as men and fellow ministers of the Gospel but has allowed us to be there for one another as life deals what it deals. I wouldn't replace him for anything and am super grateful to have him in my life.

I understand that not everyone has these kind of people in their lives but I believe that we all can if we look for it. These types of people are all around us. My friend Andy and I enjoy such a relationship. Whether we're ballin up or studying the bible together, being there to encourage and challenge one another has made it such a good friendship. At dinner last night we talked about the value of such friendships. I asked him about friends who force him to level up.

He shared about a group of brothers that he went to college with. Like us, they all shared a love for sports and a common faith in God. He shared that these guys were the kind of guys that made him a better athlete and man. Even though everyone has moved on into life after college, the bond is there and for him it has inspired him to be that same kind of friend and person for those in his current world. I get the benefit of that in our friendship and those that he works with do too.

The importance of surrounding yourself with the right people is something that can determine the direction that you go in life. One of my first days on campus this semester, I walked into the gym and saw this dude getting after it working on his game. I watched for a while before getting into my own workout. I thought to myself who goes after it like this on their own. I sometimes think that I am the only one who does that but I know better and when I run across someone like me, my interest is peaked. I got the chance to talk to him and as we talked, I discovered that he was a freshman who gets it. Mark and I ended up talking for 45 minutes about life, basketball, work ethic and faith. It was clear that we needed to get together so I asked if he would be willing to workout with me. We've been working out once a week since then. It's been great feeding off the energy that both of us bring to each session. We go hard with each workout, challenging and encouraging each other to go for more.

In a recent conversation, I asked him about the importance of friends who make you level up, who are those people and how do they do it. This is what he had to say:

For me, those people have been my immediate family (mother, father, brother), some of my closest friends, my extended family, and you of course. All of those people have at one point or another pushed or inspired me to by my best, and it has been integral to my journey.

Surrounding yourself with those who are going to inevitably level you up is one of the most important and essential aspects of improving oneself to become the best they can possibly be. There is a famous quote that comes to mind when I think of the concept of “leveling up” through one’s interactions, and it is that, “you are the sum average of the 5 people you spend the most time around”(-anonymous). Whether people (myself included) realize it or not, those people closest to you in your circle have an incredibly large imprint on your life.

Mark is so right! It's a principle that I have lived by most of my adult life. It can be said another way "you show me your friends and I'll show you your future!" How do you find those people? It's as simple as taking a look around you. When you know what it is that you are striving for, you start to notice those who are doing what you want to do. Those are the people that you need to make friends with. For me, I've always paid attention to those that show some talent. Besides the obvious wanting to compete with them, I love to get workouts with them. When they share the same mindset, the grind becomes that much more powerful, effective and enjoyable. They should have the same mindset you do, the desire to get better.

Whether it's workouts on the courts with Jacob, Mitch or Mark or doing life together with Tyson and Kyle, there's one constant, it's a two-way relationship. It's about encouraging and challenging one another to "level up" I realized a long time ago that I do not know all there is to know about life. You can learn from anyone and being open to receive wisdom from those you are with is a sign of a self-aware leader. The biggest mistake that most people make when investing in others is forgetting to let someone invest in them. We all need to have people in our lives that force us to "level up" Mark says this so well...

You can inspire and change them as best you can, bringing them to the light and such, and that’s great, but someone also needs to do that for you. Some people can get pretty far in this life going on there own, but no one can make it all the way In this life and into the next one all alone. You need great people in your life pushing, supporting, and truthfully inspiring you to become your best self so you can accomplish what you were put on this earth to do. And the beautiful thing is that as Christians, we have that in our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is truly wonderful, and a blessing. With that close circle of uplifting, humble, spiritual go-getters, there is no power—other than yourself— that can stop you from achieving all that God has in store for you.

Amen to that! There's an old African proverb that says "If you want to go fast, go alone, If you want to go far, go together! You need a circle for people who both encourage and challenge you to "level up"! You know All of us are destined for great things, sometimes we just need that swift kick in the pants to get us going. We all have moments in life where we are stuck and don't know how to move forward. Guess what, you're normal! If you want to be great and live up to your full potential you need to "Make friends who force you to level up!"

Stay Forever Strong!



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