Such feats are easy to see and remember. But it’s not just what we see that makes Mahomes a unicorn. Much of his greatness is of his mind.
The ability to harmonize physical talent with mental acuity and emotional intelligence is what helps leaders like Mahomes take - and keep - teams or organizations to and at the mountain top in sports or any walk of life.
When the Chiefs had Tyreek Hill, the fastest player in the game, Mahomes could just throw it really far and Hill would just outrun everyone to catch it. Not this year. The Chiefs’ wide receivers struggled to get open and catch the ball. The offensive line made mistakes with penalties. Mahomes became impatient and frustrated at some of his teammates. He was angry at referees even when they made the right call on an off-sides that cost the Chiefs a winning touchdown. The Chiefs identity was offense and the ability to score nearly at will. And that identity was gone.
The Chiefs went 2-4 at one point in the season; finished tied for their most losses in the past six seasons; were seeded third for the first time in seven seasons; and played No. 1 Baltimore and No. 2 Buffalo on the road. Most “experts” and even loyal fans had given up on the Chiefs. Given this bleak backdrop, how did they end up in the Super Bowl?
Embracing the Invisible
Despite less physically gifted weapons, fueled by Mahomes’ and Head Coach Andy Reid’s leadership, the Chiefs adjusted mentally and emotionally to build a new identity. On top of the regular physical drills and practice, what they needed to embrace was in their mind. These are the invisible traits I believe transformed a lost season into a Super Bowl appearance and maybe a championship.
- Self-awareness, acknowledgement and a willingness to change – When the approach that produced three AFC Championships and two Super Bowl Championships wasn’t working, they didn’t just keep “doing what we do.” They were intentional about acknowledging that mid-season changes in strategy and execution needed to made and did the hard work to start to build a new identity while the train was still running.
- Accountability – While Mahomes has been super-human most of his career, he showed his humanity by openly displaying impatience, frustration and anger at times. He raged at referees after the off-side call overturned the potential winning touchdown in the regular season game with Buffalo. Whether it was some coaching by Reid or a self-induced epiphany, he quickly made up his mind that outside factors won’t determine the team’s success and the only way to avoid that was to seek 100% accountability from himself and his teammates.
- Empathy – It’s difficult to conceptualize tough 200-300-pound men who play a violent game could possibly need emotional support. But there is little more demoralizing than to think colleagues, especially your leaders, don't have your back. Mahomes and Kelce went out of their way to voice their support for much-maligned wide receivers Kadarius Toney and Marquez Valdez-Scantling – who both drew the ire of fans for dropping passes. The support must have helped infuse confidence because Valdez-Scantling (Toney has been on the injured list) caught critical passes in the road wins at Buffalo and Baltimore, including the clinching catch to unlock the doors to the Super Bowl.
- Mental toughness – In a sports context, most think of this when a player absorbs a big hit and gets up or when s/he plays injured or sick. While those are good examples, mental toughness is also about resiliency and determination when things aren’t going well. Remaining focused on the ultimate goal in a storm of adversity or chaos. Flexiblity and open to change – even if it’s different from the identity that brought so much success for so long – when the strategy and execution are no longer working.
- Leadership – Former Chiefs Offensive Coordinator Eric Bieniemy called Mahomes a “competitive prick.” We can all see his competitiveness in his other-worldly physical skills. However, what we can’t see are equally important to the Chiefs’ success. Such as Mahomes walking the fine line between holding himself and teammates accountable without damaging their confidence. The humility to defer to the defense and running game and give up a little of what he loves to do best – throw the ball to the moon. Setting examples with his work ethic. The self-awareness to course-correct when he falters physically or emotionally.