Sally Jenkins, THE RIGHT CALL: What Sports Teach Us about Work and Life

Sally Jenkins, THE RIGHT CALL: What Sports Teach Us about Work and Life

Zibby is joined by Washington Post sportswriter and New York Times bestselling author Sally Jenkins to discuss The Right Call: What Sports Teach Us About Work and Life, a love letter to the extraordinary coaches and athletes she has interviewed and the actionable principles of excellence they embody. Sally discusses what it takes to be a star athlete (it’s a combination of talent, discipline, preparation, resources, and lots of self-care!) and reveals the qualities of the best coaches. She also touches on pain, stress, and discomfort – all things that athletes endure and leverage.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sally. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Right Call: What Sports Teach Us About Work and Life.

Sally Jenkins: Thank you. Glad to be here. .

Zibby: You’re welcome. I found your book so — first of all, I was watching the French Open yesterday with your book right next to me and heard the announcers mention the book The Right Call. My husband was sitting right there. I was like, “This is the book.” I grabbed it. They were talking about it. I thought it was so great. Congratulations on that.

Sally: Thank you. I have a lot of friends in tennis. There’s some tennis in the book. Billie Jean King and Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova are in the book. I think my tennis friends were anxious to give it a shout.

Zibby: I loved in the book when you said something like Chris Evert was asked if she was good-looking enough. She said not bad or close enough or something funny.

Sally: She said just missed.

Zibby: Just missed. That’s even better.

Sally: Isn’t that a great line?

Zibby: Yes, that was a great line.

Sally: Chrissy’s very funny, very salty, dry, hilarious, surprising sense of humor. It’s my favorite thing about her. She’s great, every bit as great as you would hope she is, but in none of the ways that you expect. She’s a very surprising person, very funny, very self-aware and self-deprecating and not at all haughty or great in the conventional sense.

Zibby: That’s good to know. I idolized her as a kid. I had the Chrissy Evert book when I was five and she was — I don’t know.

Sally: I think we all did. I did too.

Zibby: I shouldn’t have said it like it was anything unique. She was my hero for a long time. I love tennis.

Sally: A worthy one as it turns out. Some of them aren’t always.

Zibby: It’s true. You never know.

Sally: They can disappoint us in the end sometimes.

Zibby: Yes, true. Your proximity to basically all the greats of every sport is amazing. I know you’ve done years and years of Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on all of them and then included so many mentions in the book. My husband is a huge sports fan. Not to keep talking about him. Every single person you mentioned who I didn’t know — I know a lot, but not all. I would be like, “What about so-and-so Dungy?” He’s like, “It’s not Dungy. It’s Dun-gee.” Then he was hysterical laughing. He really appreciated it.

Sally: It’s a good gig. I’ve met a lot of people and had the chance to talk to a lot of people. Here’s the thing about The Right Call. The book is basically an attempt to look at all those really interesting but very, very divergent people I’ve talked to, whether it’s Tony Dungy or Chris Evert or big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton or Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer, or Jill Ellis, the World Cup soccer coach, and just see where their habits and their thinking and their methods intersect. That’s what I tried to do. Then I tried to unpack all those in chapters that focus on, what were the seven core values that they all subscribed to no matter what they do? Is there anything in that that you and me can take home? Athletes, they awe us. They dazzle us. They’re our idols as kids. We revere them, but we don’t always know exactly why they’re so important to us or even whether they should be. That’s the other question. Should these people be so important to my kid or to me? I really tried to get at what matters about them to all of us, what should matter about them to all of us.

Zibby: And what they teach us too. One of the big takeaways from the book that I got is how much discipline and practice all of that matters. You can have talent, but that is not what makes the best athletes in the world. Talent is just one thing. It is not luck. It is diligence and relentless practice and drive to achieve and improve constantly. It’s just hours in the pool for Michael Phelps, even when you talked about how he practiced so much, the visualization of all the things that could go wrong. Then his googles did fall off in the Olympics. He was prepared for that. I feel like that’s one of the main things. It’s visualizing, practicing, rehearsing so that when you’re in it, you don’t have to focus on, am I making a decision? It’s just instinctive. You know what to do.

Sally: The messaging system, the mail system between your brain and your body and back to your brain again, that mail system has gotten incredibly efficient because of all of the diligence that you put in. Diligence is a great word. I wish I had used it in the book, actually, because it’s much better than discipline or conditioning. Diligence is what they have. That’s a quality anyone can apply, truly. You can acquire diligence for yourself. You can build your habits to be more diligent yourself. The biggest thing that frustrates athletes like Michael Phelps is the idea that they were born with some genetic, freakish gift. I don’t know any athlete that’s not really frustrated by that idea because they know how much work they’ve put in for how many years. They know what really built their careers and their greatness. To sort of act like they got some fortunate kiss from God really shortchanges them. It cheats us too, again, out of understanding what we really can learn from them.

Zibby: You mentioned, I think it was Patrick Mahomes who built a whole football training facility in his backyard with his bonus so he could practice more.

Sally: That’s a little much. He signed a $250 million contract. Here’s this guy in his twenties. His idea of fun was to build half a football field in his backyard so he could get a little extra work in. He lives the game. His father was a major leaguer. He grew up watching how great athletes practice and how they live their careers. That’s what he wanted to do with some of his bonus money. I’m assuming he spoiled himself in a couple of ways.

Zibby: That wasn’t it.

Sally: One of the things that you really notice about these guys is they don’t overdo it either. I think it’s important to stress this, especially for kids or younger athletes, but also for anyone trying to do anything in an office. This notion that you have to be hard-charging twenty-four/seven is really, really misplaced and really, really wrong. Athletes get a ton of rest and a ton of recovery. Mahomes may put in a field in his backyard and do extra work, but he also takes months off. They get a lot of massages. They do a lot of self-care. Every guy in the NBA now does yoga or Pilates. It’s a funny story that’s not in the book. When Mike Krzyzewski became the Olympic basketball coach for the USA program — Mike was the head coach at Duke. He coached really high-level players, but he hadn’t coached NBA-level players who do this for a living. He said, “Guys, I’d like to start training camp with two-a-day workouts. We’ll work out in the morning, and we’ll come back in the afternoon because we have a lot of basketball stuff to install.” The LeBron Jameses and the Kobe Bryants looked at him. They said, “We can’t do two-a-days. The afternoons are when we do our yoga and our Pilates.” Krzyzewski was like, “What?” They were like, “Yeah, that’s when we do our stretching and our yoga and our Pilates. We get our rubdowns.” He realized what real care these guys take of their physical resources, their mental, physical, emotional resources. They really martial their energies quite carefully. They’re very cognizant of not — Tom Brady, the great quarterback, talks about inputs and outputs and would keep very, very careful score of what was a drain and what was adding. I think it’s important. Any of these concepts that we talk about with the book, conditioning, practice, discipline, they need to be seeded with the idea that you build in a lot of recovery and a lot of refreshment into all of that stuff.

Zibby: Interesting. Actually, the physical can be the break from the mental, like with Bob Iger who’s walking three miles after work. I’m like, what am I doing with my time? Oh, my gosh, all these people are so active.

Sally: Iger’s taking long walks or sometimes twenty-mile bike rides just to get his head out of Hollywood, I guess. For me, quite honestly, being a desk-bound person, the exercise is a pretty critical break for me. Building that stuff into our day, actually, you become more in command of your schedule rather than less, which was a lesson I got from a really interesting guy named Dana Cavalea, who was the performance coach for the New York Yankees for many years. Cavalea has a side business working with CEOs or executives. The first thing he does is help them really get a grip on their schedule. Cavalea said once you start building in the things that are really, really good for you, you’ll be amazed at how other people kind of come around to your schedule rather than you always being reactive to other people’s. When you establish a small handful of non-negotiables and you just start saying, “No, I can’t do that at that time,” people are more flexible than you might realize. You’re not the one who always has to be making the change, which is a lesson I’m still trying to learn. I talk a good game. I talk a much better game than I have, than I possess for myself.

Zibby: I was thinking, in a way, books and reading have the same practice element that some of the on-the-field training does too. I interviewed recently, Amy Newmark, who is the publisher of all the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. She talked about getting cancer. Because she has spent her life reading these essays, when she got cancer, she was like, okay, now it’s my turn. She kind of knew what was coming and knew what to do and knew so many had gone through it. She had gone through the mental practice when it happened to her. Not to minimize it, of course. It was terrifying. She’s still dealing with it and all of that. Somehow in life, we cannot do all these practice things. I think what some people do, like myself and big readers and everything, is we read the things that are coming next. We read to go over and over about how to get ourselves out of bad situations. We read about overcoming adversity or something so that we kind of have those tools even though we don’t really have them. What do you think about that?

Sally: I think that’s very true. That’s the story of my life. Yes, that’s very, very true. The other thing that happens is you find that some of these habits stick a little bit more than others just because they make you feel better or you find that you’re operating better in your life. I’m a much better preparer than I used to be. These athletes that I’ve been covering for so long, slowly but surely, had an effect on how I go about my own work and my own life. A great example is, it’s really hard and pressure-packed to write a thousand words on deadline in ninety minutes when a big game has just ended. The Super Bowl ends at nine o’clock at night. You’ve got ninety minutes. You’ve got to get all the way downstairs, interview the players, get back up. Usually, the game was only decided in the last two minutes or so or the last five minutes. It’s a really pressure-packed exercise. A thousand words, just for reference, it’s about five pages of copy. That’s really hard. I learned — I borrowed this very much from athletes. I learned to have stuff preprepared.

I would go back over all the things guys said in the week leading up to the game and pull out the quotes that I thought were likely to be useful or relevant afterwards and have them typed up and ready to go along with some observations, some pressure points in the game that I thought might be important. I wouldn’t necessarily use all of it, but having five hundred words when you’ve got to write a thousand, that are already prepared, now your job is half as hard. That was just a method that I took straight from watching athletes and coaches prepare for the big game. I started thinking, why aren’t you getting yourself as ready for this as they are? If you study, if you’re pretty sure what’s going to be important or who’s going to be important and you’ve got some material ready to go, you’re in a much better position to perform well under pressure and feel good about the job you did afterwards, as opposed to early on when I would bolt a Coke and a glazed donut and breeze into the press box and just kind of watch it on the fly. I wasn’t that bad, but you know what I’m saying? It’s a big difference. It’s just a big difference in how you feel and how you perform when it matters to you the most.

Zibby: Totally. You talked, also, about good leadership and how part of being a good leader is knowing when you’ve led your team astray. You gave an example of a coach who — I don’t remember who the coach or the team — somebody was running straight towards someone when they should’ve run away from them. The point is that the whole team got together after, and the coach was like, “Okay, you guys have to bail me out of this. I made, obviously, a huge mistake,” and owning up to it as opposed to covering it up or whatever and how important that transparency is.

Sally: If he didn’t have a real backlog of trust with those guys — it was Tony Dungy in the Super Bowl.

Zibby: Oh, same guy again. There we go.

Sally: He’d spent the whole week telling his team that they were going to kick away from this guy Devin Hester, who was the fastest, most blistering kick returner in the league. Then the day of the game, he kind of thought, I’m being weak to kick away from this guy. Maybe we need to go right at him. We’ll kick right to him. We’ll really hit him hard and send a message. Then we’ll have the upper hand for the whole rest of the game. He kicks off to the guy, and the guy immediately breaks it for a touchdown. He just had to call his team back together. He’d made a really critical mistake. He’d changed the plan right before the game after preparing all week to do something else. He second-guessed and self-doubted himself in the last second. He had to call his guys together and say, I told you we were going to have to weather some hardship here. This is one of them. It’s my bad, my mistake. It’s all on me. I need you guys to bail me out.

That moment was critical. They go on and win the game. It was really critical because it’s a real example of candor, which is another subject in the book. Leaders who are that candid with the people around them, with their constituents, tend to fare much better. It’s not just because people like them better for it or respect them better for it. Dynamically, what happens when you exercise that kind of candor is people are candid back with you, so you get better analysis. You get better information. Things aren’t as foggy because people are covering their asses or rationalizing their own behavior. They’re more comfortable in admitting their own mistakes. You get a much clearer picture, which enables much better thinking and decision-making. That’s the argument for candor. It’s not just because people will trust you. It’s because everything around it will operate better.

Zibby: So interesting, wow. When you were writing this book, how did you go about doing this without — in the beginning, you talk about your being clutched under pressure type of moment, choking when the athletes hadn’t choked. You were like, why were you choking? Tell me about writing the whole book and if there’s anything I missed in terms of what we should be taking away.

Sally: I choked like a dog. In the middle of it, I tried to give the money back.

Zibby: Did you?

Sally: I tried to give the money back. Books are hard. Books are so hard. They take a long time to write. There’s that thousand words that you write on deadline at a big game or at a tennis tournament or a Super Bowl. Books are thousands upon thousands — a chapter is ten thousand words. Ten chapters is a hundred thousand words. That is a marathon process. It takes months and months and months and every day at the typewriter. You wake up with it. You open your eyes in the morning. You have one fleeting moment of peace. Then you think, oh, god, the book. It feels like you’re just never going to get it done. Then as you get closer and the pile of pages — I’m a big printer because I have to see the pages grow. I have to see the stack. The stack starts thin. Then it grows. That’s the only thing that gets you through. It’s very discouraging. I cry. I called my agent and said, “It’s terrible. I’m afraid I’m going to have to give the money back.” She said, “Let me look at it. I’ll tell you if it’s really bad and I think it’s going to hurt your career.” Then she called me later and said, “You’re crazy. You’re just tired.” It’s a process. It’s a horrible way to live.

Zibby: I have a novel coming out in March. When I was a third of the way through, I was like, I don’t think I can do this. I did the same thing. I called my agent. I was like, “I think I should give it back. I don’t think I can ever do this. I told my whole story in twenty thousand words. Now I don’t know what to do.”

Sally: It’s the business we chose. I don’t know why we did this to ourselves. I just envy people who are finished at the end of a day. They don’t have to think about it over dinner or think about it again when they wake up in the morning. They’re just finished.

Zibby: I don’t know, though. Pros and cons. Yes, then there’s nothing hanging over their heads for a long time, but then maybe they don’t feel as accomplished at the end of it when they finally get it done. I don’t know.

Sally: I always think about this thing that Lance Armstrong told me once about cycling. I was trying to talk to him about what keeps a cyclist on the bike in the Tour de France. All doping aside, quite honestly, I don’t think there’s any substance that can help a human being stay in the saddle of the bike in the eighth hour of the day and get to the top of Mont Ventoux in the middle of the Pyrenees going up a hill that a car transmission has a hard time getting up. It’s just the most spectacular feat of endurance I’ve ever seen. I said to Lance one time — I was talking to him about what enables him to do that. He said, “You know, I’m the guy who can take it.” He truly had a sense that he had a higher pain threshold than others. That was his identity. I’m the guy who can take it.

Zibby: I think there’s something to that, though. My husband played professional tennis for twelve years and taught tennis and all this stuff. He’ll be like, “It hurts, my wrist,” and it’ll be broken, something ridiculous. I’m like, “Go to urgent care. What are you doing?” He’s like, “No, it’ll be better tomorrow. Maybe the next day.” I’m like, my left Achilles has been hurting for three weeks, so I better sit out. Athletes, do they not care as much? Do they not feel it as much? I don’t know what it is. Maybe I’m just a wimp.

Sally: They’ve learned something really, really deep. This is one of the things that I’ve come to really admire them for, really have deep regard. Athleticism is acquired. It’s grooved through lots of neurological combinations of practice and conditioning. They’ve made that messaging system in their brain and body really efficient. All those things that look intuitive on the court or on the field are actually micro-decisions. They’re highly alert, very reactive in the moment, but there’s a mountain of work behind it, a mountain of planning and preparation. The thing I admire about them maybe more than anything is they’re not as easily destroyed as we are. They have a tolerance for setback and reversal that we don’t. They don’t think about quitting in the middle. They just accept it as part of the process. Stressing the body and stressing the mind and stressing the spirit is a natural cycle in what they do, and so they’re much more comfortable with that. Comfort is not the only thing worth seeking. So much of our world today, everything we watch on TV, everything we listen to, is all about comfort. We’re sold comfort, comfort food, comfort clothes, comfort furniture, all of it. Athletes, they’re going right against that grain.

When I was working with Lance, I did It’s Not About the Bike with him. My father was a hall-of-fame sportswriter. I came home one day, and I said, “Dad, I need to talk to you about Lance. I’m not getting an answer from him on the most important question.” The most important question I had for him is, what’s the pleasure in sitting on that bike for eight hours riding up a mountain? Lance said, “I don’t understand the question.” I said, “What feels good about it? What’s pleasurable about that? What are you getting pleasurable out of it?” He said, “I really don’t know how to answer that question.” I told that to my father. My father said, “You’re asking the wrong question. He doesn’t do it for the pleasure. He does it for the pain.” I said, “Wow.” He said, “Go back and talk to him about the pain.” I go back to Lance. I said, “My father says you don’t do this for the pleasure. You do it for the pain.” Lance said, “That’s exactly right.” Then we started talking about pain. Pain is very clarifying. It demands a total immersive focus. It’s actually very simplifying and decluttering. You can’t think about anything else that’s bothering you while you’re trying to stay on that bike.

Diana Nyad, the endurance swimmer who swam from Cuba to Key West, spent three days and two nights in the water. Same thing. Had the same conversation with her. She’s the woman who can take it. She’s the woman who at sixty-four years of age could swim the Florida Strait through sharks and jellyfish and make it to the other side. Again, while she was in that water, nothing else matters. It’s actually a beautiful place to be in some way. The other thing Diana said about that was that, she said there is an incredible perceptual experience in getting someplace really far away under your own power with nothing else helping you. These are the types of experiences that athletes can turn you onto if you’ll let them. A couple years ago, I went — Diana now organizes marathon walks called EverWalks. I joined a group of people that she took on a long-distance trek from Boston to the tip of Maine. We walked twenty miles or more a day for about six straight days. Everybody kept saying, where are you going? We’re going to Maine. Why are you walking to Maine? Why are you walking? Are you raising money? We were like, no, we’re just walking.

Zibby: I don’t even want to drive that distance. I’m like, where is the plane?

Sally: It was one of the greatest trips I ever took. She was completely right. There’s something remarkable about working your way through discomfort and coming out the other side of it. That’s what athletes have to teach us. That’s what they have to show us.

Zibby: I guess there are just different forms of discomfort. Maybe stress is sort of like the poor man’s physical endurance tactic. I’m not willing to swim for five hours or something, but I can sit at my desk until two in the morning. It’s not the same.

Sally: Or you can scare yourself a little bit on your bicycle. Laird Hamilton, the big-wave surfer, said a really interesting thing to me that’s in the book. There’s a whole section about stress that I talked to Laird about. Stress is not even being able to see shore, and here comes an eighty-foot wave at you. Laird said something so fascinating. He said, “Your body does not know what’s stressing you. Your body doesn’t know if you’re stressed because you’re in the water and you have a wave coming at you that looks like a rabid dog or if you’re stressed because your sixteen-year-old daughter took the car keys and left the house about two hours ago and hasn’t come home yet.” He’s like, “Your body is not real attuned to what exactly is doing this to you.” Understanding that, you can start to mitigate some stress. You can start working with some methods to help yourself deal with stress better. One really good way is saunas or cold showers. Those two things trigger incredibly healthful cascades, chemical reactions. Particularly, as you work up towards being able to bear cold water more, you find yourself coping with stress better. It’s a trick. It’s a hack that Laird Hamilton uses quite a lot, immersion. Hot and cold therapies really help your body acclimate to stress.

Zibby: You also wrote in the book that when you have a moment of high stress, like when you’re going fast down a hill or something, that the brain hyperfocuses on what’s right in front of you. Maybe that’s the flip side of that.

Sally: There’s a great quote in the book that stress is nature’s way of helping us rise to a moment that matters. It’s a gift in some ways. It makes us more alert. It triggers the fight-or-flight response. It triggers certain things in your body, for instance, that can be helpful or not helpful. When your body reacts to stress and it turns on the fight-or-flight response, it sends blood from your small muscle groups to your large muscle groups. One of the things that happens is you lose fine motor control because there’s less blood in your fingers and your toes. Under stress, it’s harder for me to type. I have felt that literally. You watch the French Open, Carlos Alcaraz went into full-body cramps from the sheer stress of playing Novak Djokovic, the number-one player in the world, on clay in eighty-degree heat. That was anxiety that made him do that. He’s a very young player. He’ll learn to cope with it better. That’s what happened. All the blood rushed from his hands and toes to his quads and his back. It’s a fascinating response. Once you actually start exploring that stuff, then you can figure out how to deal with it a little bit better.

Zibby: Wow, this is all fascinating. I find this so, so fascinating.

Sally: Isn’t it? It’s a good job.

Zibby: Yeah. What are you doing after this? Not today, I mean. I guess today as well. I meant, what projects are you undertaking?

Sally: Let’s see. Literally today, I’m going to go try to run around the reservoir a couple times when we’re done city. I just finished a story that’s going to be coming out that I’m very, very proud of about Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. They’re very close friends after all these years. They’ve both been going through cancer together. It’s a story about how these two former champions have dealt with the very humbling experience of their respective cancers. I’m working on this controversial issue about the PGA tour of Saudi money coming in and basically trying to buy golf.

Zibby: You had quoted Pia Nilsson in the book. My mother is a huge golfer. She’s had many weekends with Pia.

Sally: She’s a great teacher.

Zibby: Thank you so much.

Sally: My pleasure.

Zibby: This was really interesting. I found your book absolutely fascinating and have taken a few nuggets that will really stay with me forever in terms of how I think about things from leadership to pain to all of that. Thank you very much.

Sally: Thank you. It was great to meet you. Thanks for having me and paying attention to a nice little book.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Bye, Sally.

Sally: Take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Sally: Bye-bye.

THE RIGHT CALL: What Sports Teach Us about Work and Life by Sally Jenkins

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