Pau Gasol: Defeat Helps you Appreciate Victory

Inspiration as a tool to manage teams and talent

18/09/2014 Barcelona

Pau Gasol
Pau Gasol shared his ideas on success at a continuous education session for IESE Alumni

Pau Gasol comes across as humble, approachable and serene; both on and off the court, whether he’s winning or losing. He arrived at the auditorium, which was packed to the rafters, barely a week after the Spanish team was knocked out of the World Championships. The unexpected defeat by France in the quarterfinals at home didn’t seem to have dented his characteristically constructive outlook. “I make an effort to project a positive attitude and to be strengthened by situations that might be far from ideal. We all go through rough patches in our lives and our professions.”

Manage mistakes profit from defeat

No one enjoys defeat. But it’s part of the game and part of life and it’s important to turn it to our advantage, he says. “Experiencing defeat is an opportunity for growth, for learning and to emerge all the stronger; and it also makes you appreciate the value of success.” And it’s not just the national team he’s referring to. “The last few years with the Lakers have not been our best,” he admits. It is a surprising confession that simultaneously reveals both humility and ambition. Humility, because the statistics show that Gasol a player who has made his mark with the Los Angeles team, winning the coveted NBA ring over two consecutive years (the first Spanish player to do so.) And ambitious because, far from resting on his laurels, he channels his defeats into his drive to perform even better. “I use these moments to nourish the desire to return to the top.”

Everyone needs to learn how to cope with uncertainty and manage mistakes, as any executive with responsibility knows very well. Gasol understands this better than most because he plays in the elite where the demands are highest and the pressure can become unbearable. “Managing mistakes is important because it affects your ability to function.” This is something that he says he has learnt to do pretty well. “There will be mistakes, you will make them.” As a perfectionist, Gasol is very demanding of himself and is rarely satisfied. But he has developed a system of self-improvement that works. After “an initial phase of analysis and self-criticism” he moves on to the next challenge, treating it as an opportunity to do things better and compensate for previous errors.

Talent comes from work

Pau Gasol’s trainers, teammates and admirers all talk about his mental strength. Mental strength is an attribute that is generally shared, not just by those who reached the top, but those who know how to stay there and cope with the pressure. How does he do it? “Repetition helps you to perfect the mechanism so that you can do things automatically. And to achieve this you train and practice as much as possible.” In other words, talent itself is not enough. Underpinning it, both at the physical and mental levels, is hard work and training. “With Phil [his trainer], for example, we’ve worked on this a lot; thinking and anticipating what’s going to happen in games… this also helps you to have confidence and feel secure in your play.” Gasol speaks with great admiration and respect for Phil Jackson, the legendary NBA player, who is now president of the New York Knicks and was his trainer while he was with the Lakers. He sees in him all the virtues of a leader. “He’s a great trainer, he realizes what you’ve got and knows how to manage it.”

Leadership and teamwork

Jackson has the ability “to get the best out of each player.” And it’s not easy. Developing someone’s individualism so that they perform at their best, without compromising or detracting from teamwork, is a challenge shared by trainers and executives. It’s especially difficult to manage at the highest levels, whether in sport or business, where enormous talents - but also huge egos - come together. “I have a lot of self-confidence, I have an ego.” says Gasol. “But I understand that in order to be successful as a collective, all of the players, all of these egos, have to work together as one.” The key, he adds, “is to arrive at the common goal that everybody wants, which is to win the championship.” And sometimes “you have to sacrifice your ego and the way you play.”

Gasol Foundation: “privilege” and “opportunity”

Pau Gasol is clear about his need to devote his all to his passion, basketball. But there are other interests, such as the piano and medicine (which he had to give up), and a desire to make a contribution to “do something that might change other people’s lives,” - which something that he’s been committed to for years, and which he hopes to keep doing throughout his life.

Gasol has been on humanitarian missions to South Africa, Angola, Iraq, Chad and Ethiopia as a UNICEF ambassador, and he involves himself in a range of charitable projects and events. He is particularly committed to causes related to children; and together with his brother Marc, he founded the Gasol Foundation. “We have the chance to make a big impact on society and on the children who admire us. And this brings a huge sense of reward, of comfort and of being more complete as a person – which are sensations that I channel into trying to do more.”

Key player in IESE case study

Pau Gasol, both the man and the sportsman, is a source of inspiration to IESE Prof. Santiago Álvarez de Mon, who was behind the organization of last week’s Continuous Education session – Pau Gasol: a meeting with a global sportsman; and who has published a case study on Gasol as one of the greatest contemporary figures in Spanish sport.