Actions speak louder than words. It’s a hard statement for a writer to accept. Words are our currency. Moreover, in the world of sports, it’s not the trash talk in the locker room that wins championships but the athletes’ on field exploits. Having said that, there are times in life and sports when inspiring words can spark meaningful action. Game-changing half-time speeches, heartfelt goodbyes from sporting legends, reflections on career failures- these are just a few types of examples where words matter. It’s no surprise then that some of the most motivating quotations come from the lips of sports’ all-time greatest athletes from Gretzky to Jordan to Ali.
These quotations were chosen not just for their inspirational quality, but also for their ability to transcend the realm of sports and speak to the very nature of life. Whether it was Jack Dempsey exhorting us all to get up off the proverbial mat or Muhammad Ali (perhaps inadvertently) touching upon the notion of delayed gratification, these sports greats struck a deeper chord. They revealed some truly fundamental concepts about what it means to be human.
In 1993, renowned college basketball player, coach and broadcaster Jimmy Valvano gave one of the famous speeches in sporting history at the inaugural ESPY Awards. “To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy.”
Actions do, indeed, speak louder than words. But words echo and reverberate throughout time. The worlds of sports is no different.
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"The more difficult the victory, the greater the happiness in winning."
Too often in today's world, people are given things without having earned them. They become entitled, thinking things in life are owed to them and as a result, they are never happy when given something. The ones who are happy and appreciate everything in life, are the ones who have worked hard for what they have and when something is given to them, they seize it and appreciate it that much more.
14 Tom Landry
"I've learned that something constructive comes from every defeat."
It's true in sports and it's true in life. You learn a heck of a lot more from a loss than a win and in life, you learn so much every time you come up short. Tom Landry coached a long time and even though he won many games and championships, winning 250 games and losing 162. His playoff record was 20-16, with two Super Bowls. He lived through it all, and we could all relate to this quote.
13 Bobby Knight
While we may forever remember Bobby Knight for his temper, there was a reason he was so successful as a coach. He had the attitude of a winner.
"Your biggest opponent isn't the other guy. It's human nature."
The ones who succeed most are the ones able to overcome their biggest enemy; themselves. As much as we are all guilty of passing blame whenever possible on someone else, the ones who take responsibility and own up to their shortcomings are the ones who overcome obstacles.
12 Michael Phelps
“You can’t put a limit on anything. The more you dream, the farther you get.”
Michael Phelps sure didn't put a limit on anything. No amount of success was too much for him, and it still appears to be his creed, as he's returned to competitive swimming, even after winning 18 Gold Medals and 22 in total. Phelps has done everything one could do in their craft. This applies to life, as many of us are afraid to dream, or pursue them, but for Phelps, there is no dream that is too big.
11 Mike Ditka
"You're never a loser until you quit trying"
Mike Ditka looks like just about the most intimidating football coach you could ask for, but there is a lot of wisdom behind those fierce eyes, his mustache and yes, even the sunglasses and cigar. Ditka led the 1985 Bears to a one-loss season with a Super Bowl, but went through rough times as a coach afterwards, particularly with the New Orleans Saints. But Ditka was a fighter, and always maintained the championship spirit.
10 Tim Tebow
Say what you will about Tim Tebow on the football field (and, believe me, there’s a lot to criticize), but you cannot deny the incredible grace and poise this man possesses off the field. Even as an entirely irreligious person, one can respect the humility and graciousness of this individual who inhabits a world that possesses neither in vast quantities.
“I'm just thankful for everything, all the blessings in my life, trying to stay that way. I think that's the best way to start your day and finish your day. It keeps everything in perspective.”
All too often those who have grown up privileged and talented forget to count their blessings and recognize all that they have- a problem that can seem endemic in the world of sports. Tebow provides a breath of fresh air.
9 Lou Gehrig
Lou Gehrig inspired not just Yankees’ Nation with ‘Baseball’s Gettysburg Address’, but an entire nation. The naturally shy Gehrig was so touched by the standing ovation he received that he almost wasn’t able to speak. With the fans chanting his name and some last-minute encouragement from Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, Gehrig stepped up to home plate one last time to address his adoring legions of fans. Sportswriter Paul Gallico would write,
"The clangy, iron echo of the Yankee stadium, picked up the sentence that poured from the loud speakers and hurled it forth into the world ... 'The luckiest man on the face of the earth ... luckiest man on the face of the earth ... luckiest man ..."
Gehrig reminded all of us about the precious gift of life and exhorts everyone to seize the day while they still can.
8 Wayne Gretzky
“You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”
Who better would understand the notion of taking shots than the man who possesses the NHL records for most goals and assists? But the inspirational nature of this quote is that it speaks to a lesson that transcends the realm of sports. Take a shot and remember that you learn a lot more from losing than you do from winning. The risk is worth the reward and you’re always going to remember and regret the shots you never took, not the air balls. That beautiful girl at the bar; that dream job you stumbled upon; that music festival half way across the world- these are all shots worth taking. Gretzky didn’t get to the front page of the NHL record books for his timidity, but for his calculated risk-taking.
7 Vince Lombardi
Like Jack Dempsey, Vince Lombardi understood that, both in life and sports, everyone was going to get knocked down from time to time. It is how one responds to their personal trials and tribulations. “It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up.”
Lombardi, the namesake of the NFL’s championship trophy, led his Green Bay Packers to five NFL championships over the course of the 1960s, including the first two Super Bowls in 1967 & 1968.
“Success is like anything worthwhile. It has a price. You have to pay the price to win and you have to pay the price to get to the point where success is possible. Most important, you must pay the price to stay there.”
6 Ray Lewis
Mr. Ray Lewis has been keeping up to date on his Eckhart Tolle, the renowned author of The Power of Now.
“The greatest opportunity in the world is found here today… We already know what yesterday has got for us. It’s already gone. Tomorrow, too far away. What about right now!”
Like Tolle, Lewis exhorts his comrades to ignore the past, which is unchangeable, and the future, which is out of reach, and focus on the here and now. Today is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present, indeed. Lewis recognizes that all of us, though particularly athletes, have to live in the moment. They have to forget that heart-breaking loss from last week and ignore that huge game next week with a division rival and focus on the match at hand. But this is a lesson that should resonate with and inspire everyone who is too easily trapped by the past and future. What about right now!
5 Jack Dempsey
Sports are all about pushing your body to its limits and Jack Dempsey certainly exemplified this type of perseverance. Dempsey, also known as ‘Kid Blackie’ and ‘The Manassa Mauler’, was a crowd favourite and was a part of the first million-dollar fight in the history of international boxing. Dempsey understood that in boxing, even a champion was going to get knocked down, though you can’t judge a man by how he falls, but how he gets back up.
“A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t.”
Weaker ones would lie cowering on the bloodstained mat, but champions like Dempsey found the will to return to their feet and keep battling.
4 Michael Jordan
Like Gretzky, Michael Jordan understands that while all sports fans will glorify that winning basket, very rarely will they recall those numerous failures that led to that final moment of grandeur. But that path to ultimate success is littered with prior failures and no one ever reaches the pinnacle of sporting achievement without stumbling over a few hurdles. Jordan is an NBA legend and yet he never forgot those failures that fuelled his drive to glory.
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
These sentiments are unsurprising coming from an athlete who was cut from his basketball team in high school and wound up, perhaps, the greatest to ever play the game.
3 Yogi Berra
Yogi Berra understood the game of baseball from multiple perspectives, whether as a player, coach or manager. He appeared in 21 World Series and emerged victorious in 13 of them. Most importantly, he recognized that a game is never over until that final whistle blows. And in the realm of sports is there anything more thrilling than that last-second buzzer beater, touchdown, slap shot or walk-off home run? Truly great athletes never give up, no matter how daunting the odds, and it is this firm resolve that lends more credence to Berra’s maxim to never quit.
“It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Ironic, though, coming from a man who quit school after the eighth grade.
2 Muhammad Ali
“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion."
The truly inspirational nature of this quote lies in the fact that all humans, even pristine physical specimens, can relate to the hatred of regular, taxing physical exertion. No one truly likes to work out. If you were offered the choice to eat all the bacon cheeseburgers you wanted and still have well-defined abs, would you really still hit the gym at six in the morning? Of course not. But the great Ali touches here on the psychological notion of delayed gratification: the ability to resist the temptation to succumb and indulge in an immediate reward in lieu of waiting for a greater reward. Ali understood that the pain and sacrifice was well worth his legacy as the greatest ever. Remember that the next time the snooze button beckons.
1 Jimmy Valvano
In 1992, Jimmy Valvano was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and, shortly before his death, gave a legendary speech at the first ever ESPY Awards. Valvano was there to announce the creation of his own foundation to find a cure for cancer and accept the Arthur Ashe Courage & Humanitarian Award. Jimmy V was a fighter to the very end and these were the inspiring words he left us with: “Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever.” Like actions, words can last forever.
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