I am a big fan of American Ninja Warrior. On the surface, it offers a thrilling display of athletic achievement that inspires me to push my own limits. It also offers up a continuous stream of lessons that we can apply to life both on and off the course.
Lessons from American Ninja Warrior
American Ninja Warrior’s “USA vs The World” competition is a little like the (modern-day) Olympics (on a much smaller scale): an international athletic event created to boost network-television ratings. The most recent competition, filmed after the 2015 ANW season (Season 7) aired this past Sunday night.
After losing to Team Europe last year, Team USA won this year’s competition in an epic battle that saw several lead changes and came down to the last heat on Stage 3 of the course. You can read a good synopsis of the competition and see some clips from the competition here.
For me, the win for Team USA was secondary to the bigger lessons learned from Joe “The Weatherman” Moravsky’s (he is a meteorologist)run on Stage 2 of the Mount Midoriyama course.
His run was a lesson in what it takes to be “battle ready.”
From the Sidelines to the Starting Line
In the USA vs the World competition, each team had 5 members who were seated in a designated area on the course as they waited for their turn to run their designated heats.
At one point during Stage 1, the camera panned over the crowd of spectators and the ANW hosts, Matt Iseman and Akbar Gbaja-biamila, pointed out some of the ANW fan-favorites, the way an announcer might point out Spike Lee at a Knicks game, or a celebrity in the box seats at the US Open. Among those in the crowd was Joe Moravsky(Twitter), who competed for Team USA last year.
Stage 2 was already in process when Iseman announced that Geoff Britten was being pulled due to a 103-degree fever, and that Moravsky, the designated alternate, would compete in his place.
The camera panned to Moravsky, now wearing his Team USA uniform, as he entered from the sidelines and exchanged fist-bumps and hugs with his four teammates — Isaac Caldiero, Ian Dory, Drew Drechsel and Kevin Bull — before taking his seat in the empty white chair. As he settled in, we could see him take a deep breath in an effort to center himself.
Minutes Later …
“Minutes” later, The Weatherman fist-bumped his teammates again as he headed out to run Stage 2.
Before we continue: a little reality fact-check for you skeptics.
American Ninja Warrior is filmed months before it airs on television, and I am well-aware that the apparent tension of this moment could have been created in the editing room, rather than in the actual competition. I realized that perhaps my theory was resting on an assumption created by editors rather than by actual circumstances.
So I did a little fact-checking. Via Twitter, I asked Moravsky to confirm the timeline:
@reneefishman literally five minutes!
— Joe Moravsky (@NinjaWeatherman) February 5, 2016
There you go. Five minutes from the stands to the starting line.
Five minutes. Just to be clear, this wasn’t like a baseball game where he was in the dugout or the bullpen, already in uniform with the expectation that he could possibly be inserted into the game.
One moment he’s in street clothes, cheering on his team. Five minutes later, he’s in uniform facing down the Rope Jungle on Stage 2.
If you wanted to test whether someone is “battle ready,” this is the way to do it.
It’s Not Always About the Points
Moravsky took off at the sound of the buzzer and never stopped, completing Stage 2 in 1:23.69. His time was 11 seconds faster than the time posted Dreschel, who had won the second heat on Stage 2 with a time of 1:34.46.
Some perspective: in the Season 7 finals, only eight athletes completed Stage 2, and none did so in under 2 minutes.
As amazing as his time was, Moravsky’s record-setting pace was not fast enough to win his heat. Sean McColl completed Stage 2 in 1:19.86, giving the 2 points to Team Europe.
That doesn’t diminish the contribution Moravsky made to his team. What Joe Moravsky gave Team USA in that moment was far more significant than the 2 points: He gave them momentum.
Joe Moravsky came out and delivered when his team needed him the most. His run energized Team USA and the crowd; lifting morale and providing positive momentum after the loss of a strong teammate.
When you can take your team from this:
A full discussion of the leadership qualities on display in this competition — by Moravsky and his teammates — are beyond the scope of this post. A core element of Moravsky’s leadership qualities here come from his being “battle ready.”
So let’s look at what that means, and how it differs from being in “game shape.”
“Game Shape” vs “Battle Ready”
Todd relates this concept to the similar concept of getting in “game shape.” He applies this concept to our creative work, inviting us to consider what regular activities we need to engage in to ensure we are in a position to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.
Although many people seem to use “game shape” and “battle ready” interchangeably, I believe they are distinct. In Joe Moravsky’s run, I saw three essential elements that taught me how to elevate from being in “game shape” to being “battle ready.”
What it Means to Be in Game Shape
My sense is that when most people talk about being in “game shape” they are referring to their physical preparations. For an athlete, that might mean training at the gym. For a speaker, it might mean having your speaker bio and materials available. For a real estate agent, it might mean having your listing presentation ready.
American Ninja Warrior’s obstacle courses require a mix of strength, speed and agility. Veteran Ninja Warriors build replicas of the obstacles to train on them, and cross train extensively to ensure they have the right mix of body awareness, grip strength, speed and power.
In Ninja Warrior, as in life, physical ability is only half the battle — if it’s even half. This sport is hard. The ANW course has humbled decorated Olympic and professional athletes from all sports, as well as Spartan Racers, marathoners, triathletes and iron-man champions. And, new obstacles are introduced each year, so athletes must be able to handle the unexpected.
This just shows how mentally tough Joe Moravsky is; to walk out and perform like this with only a few minutes notice. — Matt Iseman
Some of the best Ninja athletes have fallen on obstacles after the briefest lapse in focus. Ninja Warrior competition is a great example of Tony Robbins’ philosophy that everything we do in life is 20 percent mechanics and 80 percent psychology.
Mental toughness includes the ability to perform when the spotlight is on you. It is an essential, yet often overlooked, element of being in “game shape.”
The Qualities of Being “Battle Ready”
In three seasons of Ninja Warrior competition, Moravsky has demonstrated that he possesses the physical combination of strength, agility and speed, as well as the essential element of mental toughness. Joe Moravsky was clearly in “game shape.” With this run on Stage 2, under these circumstances, he showed us what it takes to elevate from “game shape” to “battle ready.”
The Weatherman’s run showcased three qualities that are essential to delivering when it counts the most.
(1) Mental Agility
It’s one thing to bring mental focus to an important race or meeting when you have time to prepare. It’s another thing to be able to do it on a moment’s notice. To perform at the level he did, Moravsky had to get centered quickly. He didn’t have the liberty of weeks, or days, or even hours to mentally prepare.
He had five minutes.
Five minutes to let go of whatever thoughts and emotions might have been percolating within him. Five minutes to clear himself so he could get in the zone and bring total presence to his race.
No amount of physical training would have helped him here if he wasn’t able to get in the zone so quickly. Keep in mind, this isn’t like a marathon, where he could take a few miles to get in a groove. The entire thing was over in less than 90 seconds. He had to be in the zone before the starting buzzer.
Watch his run, and you will see on his face that he is in the zone, fully present to what’s in front of him.
This is mental agility — the ability to shift gears quickly and to let go of the thoughts and emotions and other distractions that don’t serve us in the moment so we can be present to what’s right in front of us.
(2) Purpose-Fueled Urgency
Matt and Akbar commented that Moravsky brought a “sense of urgency” to his run, which he did. As Kimber Lockhart argues in a different context, urgency alone isn’t enough — and can be destructive, without a sense of purpose.
Many Ninja Warrior athletes are known for going fast; athletes like Drew Dreschel have built their brand around speed, and it’s thrilling to watch. But urgency untamed by purpose and mental focus can lead to errors that cause a competitor to hit the water, ending a run prematurely.
What Moravsky displayed on his run was a potent combination of urgency and purpose. He moved fast, but never appeared to be rushing. He appeared to be deliberate and methodical in plotting a path through the obstacles and navigating them one at a time.
The Weatherman projected a calm and confident demeanor throughout his run. He did not underestimate the challenge presented by the obstacles, nor did he shrink back from them. He showed respect for the course in the way that he navigated through the obstacles calmly and methodically. He hit the buzzer and walked through the gate like it was just another day at the office, celebrating only with a pump of his fist and only the slightest hint of a smile.
Success on Ninja Warrior can easily inflate the ego, but Moravsky remained humble and respectful of both his teammates and his competitors. At the same time, he acknowledged what he was able to do. The ability to straddle that line — to own his performance without allowing it to become bigger than he is — is the hallmark of confidence.
Applying “Battle Ready” to Your Life
“Battle ready” doesn’t necessarily mean we are going out to fight. For me, the concept of being “battle ready” is less about a physical opponent or competition and more about wielding control over my inner demons. It’s about cultivating a mental and emotional state that allows me to bring my best work into the world.
We can condition mental agility, purpose-fueled urgency and confidence just like we condition our physical strength. When we up our games with these essential elements, we, like Joe “The Weatherman” Moravsky, can take the world by storm.
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- I would love to link to a clip of his run here, but cannot find the episode or the clip online. Try NBC on demand. ↩