My Top 10 Sports Books of 2020

December 24th, 2020

From Phil Jackson’s (coaching) perspective on the Chicago Bulls dynasty to Kobe Bryant’s beloved legacy; here, I am counting down my top 10 sports reads of 2020.

#1 Eleven Rings, Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty

The hugely popular sports documentary series The Last Dance captivated the world as it was released by Netflix in April 2020, when the pandemic became a global concern. As sporting events were being cancelled rapidly and the future looked very uncertain, the sporting community appreciated reliving the Chicago Bulls dynasty.

After watching The Last Dance (twice), I was curious to learn more about the coach — Phil Jackson — as the documentary series largely centred around the star player, Michael Jordan.

In Phil Jackson’s Eleven Rings, he unveils his approach to mindfulness that storied his career, winning the most championships ever recorded in American professional sports. I found it interesting as Jackson distinguishes the differences in the players that he coached, such as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and other legendary basketball players. The book provides a broader perspective as to what was displayed in The Last Dance.

Jackson includes an inspirational quote at the beginning of each chapter and two of these messages motivated me throughout 2020.

“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”

Soren Kierkegaard

“When patterns are broken, new worlds emerge.”

Tuli Kupferberg

Whether or not you are a sports fan, I’d highly recommend Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty’s Eleven Rings, as many of the lessons are attributable to life outside of sport.

#2 The Mamba Mentality, Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant’s (and daughter, Gianna’s) passing in January 2020 marked one of the first tragic events of the year. However, Kobe leaves a legacy that will positively impact generations of athletes to come. His mentality was one of drive, curiosity, and passion, that led to his success on the court as well as in the business world.

The Mamba Mentality highlights some of his career milestones and the mindset behind these successes; fostering an environment for constant improvement. I think that one of the most valuable lessons that Kobe teaches us is to be a student of whatever it is that you are passionate about. To always be curious and ask questions. To embrace who you are and who you are striving to become. In a world of uncertainty, The Mamba Mentality reminds us that it’s the process that matters the most.

“The mindset isn’t about seeking a result — it’s more about the process of getting to that result. It’s about the journey and the approach. It’s a way of life. I do think that it’s important, in all endeavours, to have that mentality.”

Kobe Bryant

I think that there’s always something positive that can be gleaned from tragedy, no matter how difficult it is to see at the time. Kobe Bryant’s legacy is one that has touched the lives of many in a time that we needed it most.

#3 Mind Games, Annie Vernon

Annie Vernon is a highly decorated Olympic rower. In Mind Games, she delves into the world of elite sport by drawing on her own experiences and gaining insight from interviews with numerous professional athletes. The book covers many topics, including motivation, happiness, personality, confidence, competitiveness, pressure, coaching, and so on. It is certainly a must read for any young and aspiring athlete.

My copy of Mind Games is pretty much highlighted from front to back, but for the sake of time, I’ve included two of my favourite quotes.

“There are a million routes to success — and every athlete is unique.”

Annie Vernon

Sport is: turn up, get kicked in the face, go home, figure out why, fix it, turn up, get kicked in the face again.

“And the ability to take those face-kickings and analyze them logically and rationally without losing belief in yourself: that is resilience.”

Annie Vernon

The ending of the book also struck close to home for me, as a 22-year-old athlete (myself) that experienced a significant setback (injury) in 2020, while beginning to pursue an elite sporting career.

“Winding back the clock to that humid day in Japan, when that 22-year-old was about to represent her country for the first time (see page 160), there were so many things she had to learn about elite sport, and she had no idea about the adventure lying ahead. But something that 22-year-old Annie did know was that both the highs and lows are there to be relished. If we dare great things in life, then we will experience disappointments that are the flip side of achievement. And looking back now, I realize that the biggest feeling is pride.”

Annie Vernon

The pandemic has certainly challenged athletes. But what sport has taught me is that challenge and change result in the greatest improvements. While we may be limited as to how we are training due to restricted access of facilities and competitions, there is always time to work on the all-so-important mental side of sport. The book Mind Games offers a great resource to athletes.

#4 Fierce, Aly Raisman

In spirit of what was supposed to be an Olympic year (2020), I enjoyed reliving the past two Olympics (London 2012 and Rio 2016) through the perspective of the American Olympic gymnast, Aly Raisman.

I found it enlightening to read about how Raisman matured over the course of her gymnastics career, especially from her first Olympic Games to her last. She is open and authentic about everything that she experienced in her gymnastics career, including being a survivor of sexual abuse from USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Raisman is now a strong voice in the #MeToo movement.

Among many positive messages that Fierce provides about competing for yourself, one that stands out for me, having experienced an injury during 2020 and having to step away from running for awhile is the following quote.

“All this gave me a newfound respect and appreciation for my body and what it could do. Gymnastics was all I had known for most of my life. It had taken stepping away from it and coming back to realize what incredible shape athletes are in! It’s too easy to focus on how far away a goal is, but I learned that it’s important to appreciate how far you’ve come.”

Aly Raisman

#5 The Greatest, Jim Denison

The Greatest tells the story behind the trademark smile and slim build of one of the greatest distance runners of all time, Halie Gebrselassie.

What I found truly remarkable and what I could relate to as a runner in many ways, was that many of Halie’s triumphs came from places of uncertainty, injury, and difficulty. His historic run to 10,000m victory at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics came to fruition amidst enduring a foot infection that left him barely able to walk, let alone run. Halie’s optimism, determination, and calm demeanour, allowed him to persevere through the challenges that many athletes experience in elite sport.

The book is very insightful as Jim Denison captures Halie Gebrselassie’s career as well as his perspective on sport — that made him such a legendary athlete.

“Because really, running is about so much more than sport. It’s a vehicle for change and self-improvement.”

Halie Gebrselassie

A great read for runners at any level of skill and ability.

#6 Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, Kenny Moore

At 417 pages of small text unraveling the mind and legacy of Bill Bowerman, this book took me awhile to get through. However, it was well worth the time to develop a better understanding of how significant of an impact Coach Bill Bowerman and the global company that he co-founded (Nike) had on the state of running in America and around the world.

Bowerman’s training methodology is revealed in the novel and at one point, he discusses similarities in these beliefs with the four-time Olympic medalist, middle-distance runner, Sebastian Coe.

“His training system rested on the deceptively simple truth that all runners are different.”

Kenny Moore

I would recommend this book to avid runners as well as anyone that has read Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog (a memoir from the creator of Nike).

#7 Let Your Mind Run, Deena Kastor and Michelle Hamilton

Deena Kastor is an Olympic medalist and the current American record holder in the marathon. In Let Your Mind Run, she explains how her positive self-talk and mindset led to her greatest successes in life and running.

Like the majority of elite athletes, Kastor has suffered many injuries varying from minor to major. However, throughout the challenges that she faced as she logged countless miles during her running career, she speaks to the importance of the optimistic mindset that she cultivated overtime.

One of my favourite passages from the book explains that how we run symbolizes who we become through running.

“I wanted to define a win not be fear and ego but by knowledge and wisdom. I decided I had it in me to draw out the better sides of myself to make it happen. I would race to express everything I’d learned and all that I had become.”

Deena Kastor

From positive affirmations to perspective-building, this book is a great read for runners managing through challenging times.

#8 Gold Rush, Michael Johnson

Known for his iconic golden spikes and legacy in the sport of track and field, Michael Johnson provides his perspective on what makes an Olympic champion, in Gold Rush.

Johnson uses both his own experiences in addition to interviews with athletes like Usain Bolt, Sebastian Coe, Nadia Comaneci, and other Olympic legends, to divest the making of an Olympic champion. He assess the backstory of each athlete as well as their mindset.

As pretty well any seasoned athlete attests to — the process is key — which is one of the areas that Johnson focuses on in Gold Rush.

“That process of self-discovery and learning more about myself allowed me to make the adjustments necessary for me to achieve my best.”

Michael Johnson

#9 Unbelievable, Jessica Ennis

Continuing with the Olympic theme is Jessica Ennis’s Unbelievable, at #9 on my list. Jessica Ennis is a highly decorated track and field athlete, dominating the heptathlon (comprised of 7 events) for many years between 2009 and 2016.

What I found to be most inspiring was the resilience that Ennis displayed, having endured a potentially career-ending injury before what was supposed to be her debut Olympic Games in 2008. She acts as a good role model to athletes in her ability to balance a “normal” life with elite training.

One of my personal favourite remarks that Ennis makes came after discovering that her injury in 2008 meant that she would not be competing in the Olympics that year.

“It was probably not that professional but I needed the therapy. For one night only, I just had to get hammered.”

Jessica Ennis

Of course, she follows this with a positive message that she told herself, to get through the uncertainty of the time period in her life.

“I strove to keep perspective and I told myself that things happen for a reason, even if you have no idea what that reason may be.”

Jessica Ennis

Uncertainty has been a very common aspect that I’ve found in sport, business, and life. Her story may resonate more closely with track and field athletes; but, I think that the message related to perseverance that underlies Unbelievable can be used to inspire anyone, especially during the trying times that we’ve experienced in 2020.

#10 The National Team, Caitlyn Murray

The National Team illustrates the past few decades of women’s soccer in America and how each generation has contributed to closing the gender equality gap within the sport (and women’s sport as a whole).

I’ll admit, I bought this book in 2019 and didn’t get around to reading it until this year. While it may seem as though this book would have been better suited for a 2019 yearly reflection (after the US women won the 2019 FIFA World Cup), I would argue that it holds a place in 2020 that is just as resounding.

This year will be remembered for many worldwide events; the global pandemic, an uprise in the Black Power movement, a greater acknowledgement and concern for the climate crisis, among countless others. I think that the societal disruption, inflicted by the global pandemic, has forced us all to reflect on the most pressing issues that we face. One of these includes the inequalities that remain within society. The National Team describes the progress that has been made towards gender equality in sport (especially in women’s soccer) and the steps that we have yet to make.

“That’s where you can grow the most — under that intense pressure. At times during this process, it doesn’t necessarily feel as much like that because there are so many changes. But as much as it can be frustrating, it’s important to remain focused and positive about the fact that we’re trying to go somewhere.”

Tobin Heath

Sports may have taken a bit of a pause in the year 2020, but it has allowed us to take note of what has happened in the past, what this means for the present, and where we are going in the future.

Hopefully this list provides you with inspiration, motivation, and book ideas as we ring in the new year!

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