The Power of Selflessness and an Empty Mind: Phil Jackson’s Coaching Philosophy

As an aspiring coach I am always looking to pinch ideas to use in my own practice that could potentially enhance both my performance as a coach and subsequently the performance of the team I coach.  I am currently two thirds of the way through Phil Jackson’s ‘Sacred Hoops’ and have found a flurry of ideas and philosophies I can transfer into my daily planning and practices.

Phil Jackson has won the NBA title twice as a player (1970 & 1973) with the New York Knicks and 11 NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers.  His record of success speaks for itself, however, it is the way he engineered this prolonged success that truly separates him from other coaches in the highly competitive world of the NBA with it’s focus on greed and selfish play; where players are more concerned with personal performance and success rather than the team’s success.

Jackson, in Chicago and LA, had to deal with two of THE major superstars in the history of basketball; Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.  He had to persuade them that they ‘had to find a structure that would empower everybody on the team, not just the stars, and allow the players to grow as individuals as they surrendered themselves to the group effort’. 

Simply, he encouraged complete selflessness.  In other words, what actions and decisions do I need to execute to ensure the team is successful?  This philosophy sits neatly with John Wooden’s outlook on team sports: ‘The star of the team IS the team’ and the ‘we’ before ‘me’ mindset.  Interestingly, before Jackson became the Bull’s Head Coach, Jordan, the sport’s greatest ever player, was the league’s top scorer in his first 6 seasons in the NBA.  How many NBA titles do you think he won during this period?  ZERO!  Why? An over reliance on Jordan.  Indeed, a mentor of Jackson’s, Red Holzman told Jackson to to tell Jordan this profound message:

 ‘The sign of a great player was not how much HE scored, but how much he lifted his teammates’ performance’.

Jordan took this message to heart and the rest, as they say, is history… 

In addition to this ‘we’ playing philosophy, Jackson believes the key to great performance is ‘not thinking’ and having an ’empty mind’ when playing.  This does not mean ‘being stupid; it means quieting the endless jabbering of thoughts so your body can do instinctively what it’s been trained to do without the mind getting in the way’.  He says that his biggest obstacle during his playing career was his ‘hyperactive critical mind’; over thinking decisions and second guessing himself which led to the loss of vital energy and concentration.  I can certainly relate to this as a (very average) half back in rugby union; is this call the right one? Should I change it at the last minute?  Should I pass, kick or run (not likely with my speed) the ball?

 He argues the challenge is to perform every skill, decision and activity with ‘precise attention, moment by moment’.  Jackson is heavily influenced by the thoughts and writing of Suzuki Roshi and his book ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’.  In this book Roshi states ‘If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything.  In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few’.

With these points in mind (or not!), from a coach’s perspective I think we have a couple of priorities:

1.  Encourage, through stimulating repetition, players to master the basic skills of the game (both technical and tactical) to ensure they can  execute them consisitently, to a high quality under fatigue and pressure.  In other words, over time, these skills should be ‘automatic’ and executed without thinking, therefore conserving mental energy.

2. If the player has now’ automated’ these technical and tactical skills  they can now just react to what is happening in the game using their high quality technical and tactical skills and play completely ‘in the moment’.

I am going to end this ramble with my favourite Phil Jackson quote I have discovered so far.  This will definitely stick with me and inform my future coaching philosophy..

‘The primary goal of practice is to get the players to reconnect with the intrinsic joy of the game’

So, if you have a few quid to spare, and you’re a coach who wants to bring the best out of his players, then you can’t go wrong by reading a bit of Phil Jackson to stimulate your (empty) mind!!

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