Tom Brady and Tonya Harding – Are they So Different?

On the face of it, you might wonder who could be more different: Tom Brady, the Greatest QB of All-time, versus the most maligned skater in history, Tonya Harding. I’ve found that there is more in common between the two than immediately obvious. That their outcomes were so varied is the riddle that this article explores, and culminates with a framework to pull you out of unproductive states that are all too human. Spoiler alert: I don’t bash Tonya (or Brady), so if you’re looking for that, keep movin’.


The Spirit to Win


If you’ve seen the excellent series, Tom vs. Time, on Facebook you will see inside a man wholly bent on winning. Despite being 40 years old, wealthy, and with more Superbowl rings than any other quarterback, Brady is relentless, obsessed, and hungry. Since he’s started on the NE Patriots, they have never had a losing season. Of course, there’s more to this than just one QB, and if this were a sports blog I could go into that, but I won’t. Suffice it to say, he’s a big part of it.


If you doubt this woman had the same drive to win as Tom Brady, forget it. Harding began skating at three years old, and by the time she was 21 she recorded four firsts:

  • Score a perfect 6.0 score for technical performance
  • To complete a triple axel in the short program;
  • Successfully execute two triple axels in a single competition;
  • The first ever to complete a triple axel combination with the double toe loop.

Tom Brady was still trying to figure out how to start for Michigan by the time she was at the pinnacle of her career. Harding made sacrifices as great as Brady at a younger age than Brady. What would you imagine Tom doing at four years old? Tonya was on the ice.

Bumps – The Role of Systems

It is in the trials, the difficulties, that shake so many folks from continuing on the path to their dreams. How these two handled these trials is the at the crux of their divergent outcomes.

Harding started to falter shortly after 1991’s incredible successes. Kerrigan and others were coming up on her and as all careers experience, there were steps backward. However, Kerrigan continued on for three more years than Harding, continued to be adorned with roles on TV, while Harding did not. Kerrigan continued on, leveraging her fame to greater wealth, while Harding resorted to boxing to make her money. Harding’s guilt or innocence is irrelevant. I rewatched some of her later performances, and while I know little about the sport, even an average spectator could see that she started to come apart as the pressure of small failures mounted. Tom Brady is now synonymous with career longevity in addition to merely a great QB. The Facebook special is called Tom Vs. Time…not Tom vs. the Philadelphia Eagles (who, in case you’re living under a rock, they’re playing in this weekend’s Superbowl). Quarterbacks endure great strain on their bodies, and he seems to have pushed it further than anyone, and almost all of them cease to play before forty. Indeed, only nineteen have continued to play after that mark. However, Tom Brady is the first forty-year-old EVER to play in the Super Bowl.

He hasn’t just survived the lumps and bumps on the field. The ones that the world throws at you can be more vicious. Criticism, lack of care, and rough treatment define a system that is explicitly set against you. It is not your best interests they have in mind, but their system (team, squad, institution.) You’re a hunk of meat, and they’re trying to find a way to keep you out, to keep you down.

While Brady was a successful high school player he was only lightly was recruited by colleges. Brady was sent to the 5th string on Michigan. 5th string means you don’t get to play…ever.  On the precipice of being relegated to the sidelines forever, Brady sought out therapy to deal with the stress.  He finally got to start at Michigan and found a high level of success. Yet, once again, the next level’s system scorned him. The NFL drafting process was and remains a tough one, and there were several excellent athletes who shined far brighter than Brady. He went in the sixth round. There are only seven. This experience implanted a giant chip in this man shoulder that would have to be surgically removed. Think differently? Check out his commercial, and look for the number 199.

See it? It’s on his shirt. That was the number he was drafted. 199th. A nobody. Nobody expects much from this level of player.

Brady was a natural athlete, you say? A freak of nature? Not so fast.

Tom Brady is not a “great natural athlete”.  I know, how can I say that after blubbering about him just a moment ago?  Don’t believe me, because it’s his head coach – and possibly a fellow GOAT – Bill Belichick’s words. A quote:

“He’s not a great natural athlete.  He’s a very smart instinctive football player.  It’s not all about talent.  It’s about dependability, consistency, and being able to improve.  Again, if you work hard, and you’re coachable, and you understand what you need to do, you can improve.”

Image result for bill belichick
Coach Belichick Is Not Impressed

The Difference – Your Personal System Must Endure

Grit and Connection to Family

So, what separates them? We’re all looking from the outside in, so we can only guess. This is what makes studying excellence so difficult – it’s very subjective, and you never have all the data.  However, when I leverage upon my own experiences and what I know about troubling upbringings, I think some credit, perhaps the lion share of credit, should go to his family, friends, and network. I’ll call them his System.

I had an alcoholic father and mother. He was an unpredictable lion on the prowl for some reason to go off. Let’s just summarize by saying that that my dad coming to a school play was not a good thing.

But through that hardship, there was love among the five of us. My sisters and I banded together through these hardships and when they faded we were all stronger and found systems that were stronger and helped build us up. We were always told we were special, and throughout the illness, our parents fought for us. I had (and continue to have) terrific friends, a great aunt and uncle, and a few good teachers that cared. They were my System, and it worked for long enough for me to escape to the US Navy, a System that helped me greatly.

Not everyone is so fortunate to have such systems, which is especially impactful at younger agesHarding had an alcoholic mother and while close to her father, he was unable to reign in the abusive environment that young Tonya endured.  One wonders what would happen if her father, a more supportive figure, was more present in her life:

Harding says, “It’s my faith in myself and my father that comes back to me and makes me get back up off my butt and be something worth being proud of … I always wanted my daddy to be proud….In 1987, Al Harding and Golden divorced. According to The New York Times, Tonya told Sports Illustrated in 1991, “I remember [Golden] told me I was the only reason my parents had stayed together. That didn’t make me feel good at all.” But despite a tumultuous relationship with one parent, and unstable upbringing, and financial difficulties in the expensive world of professional figure skating, it seems that Tonya Harding has held on to the positive influences of her father — from his love of the outdoors, his lifelong time in the Pacific Northwest, and by making her own, more stable family. “My family, we are a loving family. I get my second chance in life to be loved and be happy,” Harding said to ABC on Truth and Lies: Tonya Harding.”

A friend of mine, Laura Zera, wrote a great piece on Harding, who she actually competed against when they were kids:

…Her mother, LaVona, was wound tighter than the revolutions of a double axel. I could tell she screamed at her daughter the way mine eviscerated me when she felt I hadn’t skated well enough. Which is to say, always. Our mothers were our full-time managers. LaVona dominated the household, despite her fifth husband’s best efforts to inject balance.

Brady’s life could not have been more different. He had an intact family from all reports and went to college. When times got tough, the early years, the foundational actions that build us and give us the foundation to build resiliency, appears only on Brady’s side. The Patriots became the ultimate System for him, along with his ever-growing and supportive family and friend network.

Surprisingly success, another difficult thing to manage, has not brought the Brady System down. The Athletic reports on his groundedness:

“Through all these years and experiences with big shots, they’re just like all of us,” Paul said. “They’re simple. And the Brady’s are just so humble and kind. When we read all the crap from the haters, it’s painful because it’s like you guys have no clue who you’re bashing. These people are special.”

Sacrifice and What The System Demands

The financial pressure in figure skating, along with time commitment present huge barriers for families. This would come to no surprise as anyone who’s had a child in sports. Even at the high school level, there’s a ton of expense and time invested in your kid’s activity. The level of the Olympics, the burning public eye, requires some sort of support system for the person trying to break in. It is not that everyone who makes it comes from an exceptional family, but that someone must care for the youngster and build that person up before the System tries to crush them. That is what systems do – their job is to filter for the very best. These systems are hugely imperfect. Indeed, they almost missed Brady himself.

Each System tried to keep him down – from High school through to the NFL suspension – nothing worked because he had a strength that comes from a super strong system of his own. Brady sought out family, he sought out therapy, he had the determination to win combined with a support network that he could come to in time of doubt. He believed in himself when no one else would.

The times of doubt and attack never cease. One would think that once a person finds success critics and the System would go away, but from what I see, the more successful you are the worse it gets for you. Brady embodies success, and he’s attacked. Brady has his family now, and even his father defends him against Deflategate. They’re close, as you can see here.

Tonya’s struggles with the Skating industry seem to be equally crushing. Again, from Ms. Zera:

“I don’t want to make it sound like figure skating is a terrible sport, but it’s brutal terrain for a young woman on shaky footing. If you have unstoppable talent, and the benefit of a strong support system, the odds of becoming a champion are one in 74 zillion. If you have a mother like mine or Tonya’s, your odds aren’t nearly as good. But that’s where Tonya was hovering—on the edge of the ultimate championship title. She fought her way to the top with almost no assistance and a good amount of resistance, and some of what she did was purely heroic.”

The difference between success and failure is tiny.  Richard Sherman says that people are sometimes an inch away from success and give up, or lose it. In 2013 Harding did exactly that in the infamous and sad Shoe Lace saga, where she claimed her performance was sabotaged by errant shoe equipment. They let her skate again, but the die was cast. When the judgment came down on the Kerrigan situation, Tonya was banished forever from skating, but she was done long before that.

The question that bugs me a bit is that, with her appearance alone, did Harding ever have a chance? If not, it’s a crying shame she had to put up with what she did. If only she had a system to protect and build her up….

What we can learn from the contrast of these two incredible people?

  1. Find that support network  – Outer System. That system of parents, friends, and family have your back.

  2. Believe in yourself when no one else will – Inner System. Sometimes even the best in your system will fail.

  3. Be Responsible for You – Reframe Experience, Oil for the Inner System.

We’ve covered 1 and 2, but let’s look at that word Responsibility and what actions you can take to help your inner system work better.

Responsibility is not Accountability…it’s far more Powerful

Responsibility is different from accountability. The latter tells you that you’re getting in trouble if you don’t do something.  Someone holds you accountable.  Harding is indeed accountable for her actions (assuming she’s guilty) and paid dearly for them. The responsibility I’m speaking of is specific. Christopher Avery, a well-known author on the topic, defines owning your ability and power to create, choose, and attract. Below the line (shown below) are modes that we can get stuck in when something tragic happens to us.

When thinking, reading, or viewing Tonya’s plight, consider this process. Did Tonya get stuck in any of these modes?

  • Blame: Looking outward and pointing at others as the source of your problems – They didn’t deliver their part of the project in time for me to complete my work.
  • Justification: Finding reasons in your environment for why things are the way they are – My computer wasn’t working well and it slowed me down.
  • Shame: An inward laying of blame or guilt for the situation – Why can’t I work harder and get this done?
  • Obligation: The sense that you have no choice but to get something done – I have to get this done because people are expecting it.
  • Responsibility: The target state of owning up to the situation and actively engaging from a positive position of power – I will complete the project because it gives me the opportunity to master this skill and opens doors to new ideas.

Now think about yourself and your experience. If you lost your keys, did you go into Justify (I’m distracted) or Lay Blame(who moved my keys?) ? It’s natural and normal to do this! The trick is in catching yourself before you slip and get stuck in below the line.

Avery has a “Catch Sooner” game, where he has a very open, empathic system to catch yourself when slipping into these modes, and a way to get above the line.  It involves putting tick marks on a little card next to the relevant item:

Caught it? Did I catch this feeling before I went below the line? (1000 points)

Said it? Did I say it?  I’m noticing now when it comes out of my mouth (10 points)

Hear it?  Did I hear someone else say it?   (1 point)

This should help us be mindful of our mental states relative to this process.

In this story, I’ve contrasted two elite athletes who had one major difference – the emotional support of the system around them that made the person whole and healthy. Without that, a person is like the Enterprise without shields.

HappyWisdom is all about people taking their life by the horns, and directing it in a system of systems that will toss us about like a dinghy on the ocean. We can only reframe our awareness and behavior, and if we do that successful, with an agile mindset, can we stay above it all and realize our best possible selves.

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