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Kentucky Basketball: Embracing The Fear Of Being "Not Good Enough"

John Calipari has said that some of his best players had a fear of failure. Perhaps that fear is missing in this year's team.

Fear of not being good enough helped make Michael Kidd-Gilchrist good enough.
Fear of not being good enough helped make Michael Kidd-Gilchrist good enough.

Sometimes, success can be its own worst enemy. Success leads to complacency, to lack of intensity, to something not unlike mild apathy. Many of us know this feeling well -- we work long and hard to accomplish an objective, and then we sit back and rest on our laurels for a while and enjoy the rewards of our success. It's part of human nature.

Sure, there are the rare individuals for whom the challenge is the thing that motivates them, and no amount of success will ever satiate the need for more. These people are rare, and despite their general propensity for success, often don't lead particularly happy lives. As with everything, the best lifestyle balances effort and enjoyment. Stopping to smell the roses once in a while is never a bad thing, unless you move into the rose garden.

As it is in life, so it is also in college basketball. John Calipari has famously regaled us with tales about two of his best players, Derrick Rose and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who always worried about "not being good enough," so much so that they were incessant gym rats, putting in hour after hour of extra work in order to ameliorate their fear of failure.

Since most Kentucky fans, like me, did not really follow Memphis closely when Rose and Calipari were there, I really can't speak intelligently about how Rose was as a player because I wasn't following that team. I was following the Adventures of Billy Gillispie as the surly former UK coach angered media, fought with his boss, and generally made a mess of things.

I did, however, see Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and what he did at Kentucky. To be honest, when he got here, MKG (as we like to refer to him) wasn't good enough. He didn't shoot the ball well enough, he didn't pass it that well, and despite his good rebounding, he struggled to make the right decisions after he got the ball. In short, he saw himself correctly. What Kentucky had on its hands early was a good but unpolished player that tried hard.

What changed MKG from "not good enough" to the #2 draft pick in the 2012 draft was the understanding that he was not good enough to be taken that high, and to get there, he had to do something. So he instituted extra workouts, commonly known as "The Breakfast Club," and began to drag his teammates to them as well. To shorten a long story, the extra work paid off. MKG, and his fellow Breakfast Club members got better and better, and by the time the NCAA tournament rolled around, the Wildcats were indomitable, the best college basketball team in America.

The corollary to this story is the famous one about Josh Harrellson on the 2011 team, where he went from a liability to a major contributor because of extra workouts thrust upon him by Coach Cal after Harrellson inadvisedly called Calipari out on Twitter. Isn't it funny how sometimes the mistakes we make change our lives for the better? Who could have imagined Harrellson playing in the NBA when he came to Kentucky in 2008?

Calipari, as well as the players I've mentioned, learned the lesson. He has been trying to bring this experience home to the team this year, but so far has been largely unsuccessful. Even participants in the Breakfast Club of 2012, like Polson and Wiltjer, have declined to continue the extra work. So Calipari made it mandatory in hopes that the team would see the benefit, and therefore be positively motivated to continue.

So what we have seen is two players self-motivated by fear of failure, and one player motivated by his coach's edict. Both methods produced results, arguably in equal measure. I think it is safe to say, though, that this year's team isn't as internally motivated as MKG was -- that is to say, they don't fear failure. Part of that can be blamed on the success they had in high school, but maybe a little can be attributed to the success UK has had over the last several years. Kentucky fans have become superstitious about Calipari, consoling themselves with "In Cal we trust" whenever things go wrong. I suspect, but do not know, that some of this superstition has also rubbed off on the players, and they are waiting for Coach Cal to wave his magic wand and transform them into lottery picks.

MKG didn't believe in fairy tales or magic wands. Neither did Derrick Rose. They believed in themselves. They knew that they weren't up to the task, but fear won't let you wait for someone to act. Fear is its own motivator, arguably the most powerful motivator of all.

If the players this year have no fear of failure, and it doesn't appear that they do, then Calipari will have to externally motivate them like he did Josh Harrellson. He's doing just that as I write this. The fruits of that effort will take a while to see, but it should be in plenty of time for March.

The ultimate objective is for the players to internalize the value of the work when they see results, just as Harrellson did two years ago. Coach Cal is counting on that, and hopefully, it will happen.