The McDonald Journey: Focus on Your Strengths

Photo by Richard Mackson/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

I arrived at USC with dreams of playing quarterback in big games like the Rose Bowl – and then I saw Vince Evans. Vince, the starting quarterback, was much stronger, faster, and could throw the ball way further than me. He looked like a sculpted Greek god in a Trojan uniform and I was a skinny freshman who was ninth on a depth chart of nine quarterbacks.

After I got over the shock of seeing how athletic and strong Vince was, I made a choice. I decided to go to work. Did I go to work to re-mold myself into the image of Vince? Of course not. I focused on my own gifts.

I was a good student and so I made it my mission to know the playbook better than any quarterback on our team. I also spent countless hours in the film room with the coaches to not only learn our plays, but what other teams’ defenses would be throwing at us.

It paid off. On the first day of training camp, I scored the highest among all the quarterbacks when we were tested for our knowledge of the playbook. I might have started ninth on the quarterback depth chart, but I rose to first in that category.

The casual sports fan might think, “Well, McDonald has the brains to be a coach, but just knowing the playbook and studying film won’t mean squat when a massive defensive lineman or linebacker is bearing down on him during a game.” It is true that quarterbacks who are faster can use their legs to better elude an oncoming defender.

However, the difference in speed between someone considered fast on the football field and an average runner is only a couple tenths of a second. A cerebral quarterback, who knows the plays, and has relentlessly studied opposing teams’ defensive tendencies in the film room, can more than make that time up by recognizing a play on the field, as it is unfolding.

The other thing that I had going for me was my throwing accuracy. I was pretty good at pinpointing my passes and so I worked, worked, worked at getting better. I was constantly refining my footwork and my throwing mechanics until it all became automatic. I practiced these things until it was something I didn’t have to think about.

I also let myself be coached. I was a sponge for everything my coaches taught. I didn’t have to be spectacular. I just had to be consistently good, and specifically, perform the way my quarterback coach, Paul Hackett, wanted me to. His pet peeve was making poor decisions. So, I had to be smart with the ball in my hands – throwing to the correct receiver, throwing it away when everyone was covered, or even taking a sack, if necessary. And, for God’s sake, do not ever throw an interception!

I found my way and the coaches were paying attention to how much I worked. It showed them how badly I wanted the job. That meant a lot during my progression towards becoming USC’s  starting quarterback a couple years later.

We are all born with certain specific gifts. Yes, everyone! And, these are gifts that no other person possesses quite like you. The first step is to understand what makes you special. It will generally require a deep dive into learning about yourself. What do you love doing and what things come natural to you?

As you reflect on these questions (and many others), you will probably start to recognize qualities that are the easiest and most natural for you to perform. These are the things you should be doing the vast majority of the time!

Great things can happen when we unleash the power of our unique set of gifts onto the things in life that match our strengths. However, an honest assessment of our ability to be successful in our chosen pursuits will require that we also acknowledge that we can’t be good at everything and must also be prepared to shore up our weaknesses.

I spent a lot of time working on my weaknesses so that they wouldn’t prevent me from being able to play, but doing that was not what catapulted me from a ninth string freshman to a senior year All-American. My gifts in understanding the playbook and game film better than anybody and a focus on my accuracy as a passer are what helped me to stand out.  If I had just worked on my weaknesses I would have never risen to the caliber of player that I became and, quite honestly, I don’t think I would have ever gotten off the bench at USC.

An obsessive focus on your weaknesses can also carry the danger of creating a negative mindset where you start to doubt your ability to achieve anything in life. How can you think about the good things you can accomplish if you are only paying attention to the stuff that you are bad at?

Shoring up your weaknesses is important, but your primary focus should be your strengths. If you were engaged with something that comes easiest for you, then you will most likely be good at it. In addition, because you are good at it, you will receive positive feedback from others which creates good feelings resulting in a fun experience. Keep doubling down on your strengths and this positive cycle will continue to evolve.

If we match our strengths and gifts with our passion in life, then miracles can happen!

“The McDonald Journey” is a blog that includes excerpts or edited versions of chapters from “Thru the Tunnel,” a book by Paul McDonald and Jack Baric that tells true stories of sports and life to empower the spirit. “Thru the Tunnel” is available on Amazon.

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