This week I had the pleasure of listening to Coach K talk. My friend Kevin invited me to a Citadel event where Coach K talked about his career, how to create team culture, and what it means to be a winner.
For those who don’t know who Coach K is, he has been the coach of Duke Basketball since 1980. In his tenure at the school they have won five national championships, and he’s also coached the US Team to two gold medals at the Olympics. He is a winner and leader respected not only by those in college, but by the best in the world.
I believe that the advice of the truly great transcends their particular expertise, and can be taken as a life lesson. This certainly stands true for Coach K’s advice. Here are some of the notes I took during his talk.
1. His Teams Do Not Have Rules, They Have Standards
A key tenet of Coach K’s philosophy is personal accountability. He wants his players to own their responsibilities, but he’s found that it’s hard to be accountable when the team has rules. At first glance this doesn’t make sense because rules are meant to govern responsibility, but Coach K made a distinction I had never thought about before.
You cannot own a rule, but you can own a standard.
With rules, you are either following it or breaking it. It’s black and white. With standards, you can be striving towards a goal and be held accountable. This was a really interesting distinction I had never thought about before, but it’s something I want to implement in my own life.
What are the standards that I want to hold myself to?
2. Duke Basketball has 7 core values
I would pay a lot of money to know what standards the Duke basketball team holds them, and I would similarly pay to hear what their core values are. Coach K did mention three, but I’d like to know what else they focus on.
Respect - players and members of the staff respect every person in every position. That goes from starters to bench players, and from coaches to locker assistants. Players know the names of everyone who does the laundry and cleans the locker room. These players are mostly one year from superstardom, so I found this value to be profoundly impressive.
Honesty - a team cannot function without honesty. You have to be able to trust each other to do what they need to do to succeed, and that trust translates on to the floor.
Confidence - this has nothing to do with the confidence on the basketball court, but the confidence to call out teammates or others if they see something wrong. This may seem like a given in teams, but there are lots of times the star player can get away with things other players can’t. Alternatively, players could band together to hide misbehavior from the coach. A team united is a team with the best chance of winning.
They have four more values, but Coach K didn’t mention them during the talk.
3. Coach K Does Not Get Up For Big Games
This may see counterintuitive for most, but Coach K does not care more about the North Carolina game than any others. He understands its importance to the fan base and history, but that doesn’t mean he prepares any differently or feels any more excited for the game than another.
He gave a story from his time at West Point:
My senior year of West Point I was the captain of the basketball team. West Point doesn’t have the same basketball culture as Duke, but everyone got up for the game against Navy.
There was a tradition for the younger players to salute the captain before the game and say, “Beat Navy!” I put an end to that. I told them they had to do it before every game and they had to say, “Beat Everybody!”
Because if you can beat anybody, you can beat Navy.
When Duke beat North Carolina for the first time under Coach K the bookstore prepared a flood of Duke > UNC bumper stickers. Coach K bought every one of the bumper stickers and told them they would never sell bumper stickers with another team’s name on it. That might sound logical, but Duke was not a stalwart of basketball yet and this was their first moment of intense pride.
Anyone that has played sports have heard coaches say that they should prepare for every game the same, but it’s normally lip service. Everyone knows you care more about playing your rival, and that everyone wants to bring their best.
It’s true, you should bring your very best to that game. Coach K forces his team to bring their best to every game. That’s a level of focus that is difficult to sustain over a season, let alone for a career. But it’s what separates the good from the great, and it’s why Coach K is one of the best.
4. When You Seek Excellence, Only You Can Be The Judge
As a consistently top-ranked team, there are plenty of people covering every facet of Duke basketball. It’s easy to let the noise get to you, but Coach K emphasized that the only analysis that matters is the team’s.
Not everyone can see the nuances of the team, or understand basketball at the highest level. When people correctly criticize the team, it’s often after the game. Anyone can tell if the game went well (or not) in retrospect.
Coach K believes that what separates you (meaning the best players at Duke) from others is knowing in detail what is going on during the game.
5. A Good Leader Changes How They Connect, Not Who They Connect With
Coach K’s example of changing communication is his texting habits. Recruiting has always been important to Duke’s success, because no amount of execution could outcompete talent and execution.
Because Duke recruits players in highschool they constantly have to adjust their recruiting styles to fit the 17-year-olds of the time. Coach K is 72 years old, and texts every single recruit using emojis and current lingo. I’m pretty sure most grandparents aren’t doing that.
He also follows them on social media, both to keep a watch out for them and to understand their lives better. He’s put a lot of time into his sneaker collection, which he claims his players ‘call fire’. Coach K constantly changes to be as relatable as possible for the players he recruits.
What he hasn’t changed is the quality of players he targets. He recruits for a few things:
Talent - they have to be a great player, that’s a given
Attention to Mothers - Coach K recruits players that have a great respect for their mothers. When their mom’s talk to them after the game, do they look at her in the eye and listen or do they roll their eyes and not pay attention? This is a leading indicator for Duke’s interest.
Coachability - This is similar to the point above. The players they recruit are often the best players in their county or state. Despite this, do they listen to their coaches and give them the utmost attention or do they ignore them?
Coach K doesn’t recruit players to work for him, he recruits them to join his family.
6. Coach K On Retirement
I thought he had a really great response to if he’s considering retiring, and it’s something that I hope to one day reach:
Why would I retire from doing something I love to do something that I don’t love as much?
While Coach K has found his calling in life, he also acknowledges that age is an issue. He’s had almost every part of his body replaced, his hips, his knees, etc. But it’s left him feeling better than ever.
Now that he feels healthy, he feels like he has more energy than ever. It’s something I’ve never thought about before, but as he got older he had to be more cautious about how he moved because he was in constant fear. Replacing his joints has alleviated that fear.
This learning lesson for me as I grow older: take care of your body.
7. Interesting Tidbits
This section doesn’t have a defining theme, but I thought it was really interesting to hear.
Coach K believes that Michael Jordan is the best player to ever play basketball… His opinion has a lot of weight for me since he is someone so knowledgeable and well-respected in the industry.
He believes that MJ and Kobe were on their own tier in terms of being assassins. In his words, “When they looked at you, you were dead. And then they killed you.”
Interestingly enough, he believes that Kawhi is the closest to the “assassin” gene that MJ and Kobe had. I was surprised that he didn’t mention KD at all, but Kawhi was his pick.
Thanks for reading my post on Coach K! I know it’s not my normal content but I thought that listening to a such a legend deserved a blog post.