Win-Win Coaching -- Phil Jackson Part I
Phil Jackson is one of the most accomplished NBA coaches of all time. Between the Bulls and the Lakers, he’s got 11 rings as a coach to add to the two he won as a player. His book Eleven Rings details the development, journeys and personalities of those historically great teams.
The book also reveals Jackson’s secret to so much success – understanding each of his players, personally and deeply, and meeting them where they were.
That’s how he got them, eventually, to where he needed them to go.
Hearing each player’s own beat.
Yes, he wanted them all to buy into the triangle offense. But he knew that the team would mesh only if each player was allowed to be himself.
Jackson also got that he was the one who needed to adapt his coaching to each player, not the other way around. He explains in his book: “One of the keys to our approach is to give players freedom to find their own destiny within the team structure,” rather than trying to fit the players into a preconceived plan.
“Some players require a gentle touch, while others . . . need something more provocative to wake them up.” The key is to know the difference.
He had his share of difficult characters (more below on Dennis Rodman), and some (e.g. Kobe) required the patience of a saint to bloom fully. But Jackson chose to see each player’s potential, each one’s superpowers, and built on those strengths to overcome the challenges.
Particularly remarkable, especially for 1990s, was Jackson’s recognition that Rodman’s struggles to toe the line very likely resulted from ADHD. He saw Rodman’s difficulty with controlling his emotions and with sustaining attention, noting that the condition “caused [Rodman] to get frustrated and act out in unpredictable ways.”
Jackson appreciated the biological basis for Rodman’s behavior. Instead of taking the behavior personally, insisting that Rodman bend to his authority, he figured out what Rodman needed in order to give his best to the team.
He writes about how Rodman would amuse himself (ADHD brains get bored really fast) by intentionally breaking team rules, like no jewelry on the court. Jackson didn’t yell, didn’t lecture, didn’t call him out in front of the team.
He ignored. And the problem went away.
Another time, when Rodman was rehabbing an injury, Jackson sent him to stay with his agent and assigned a young trainer to go along and keep Rodman out of trouble. That proved an impossible task.
Rodman turned the trip into a joy ride all over Dallas and LA that (eventually) bonded the two so tightly that Jackson started taking the trainer on all road trips to be Rodman’s “buddy”. After getting to know Rodman, the trainer too saw behind his behavior, saw that underneath his insecurities and antics, Rodman was “one of the nicest human beings you will ever meet.”
Fans, peers and coaches might recall instead his defiance. His bad boy image. But Jackson writes of Rodman as “an inspirational model for people, young and old, who felt themselves to be on the outskirts of society.”
Who hear a different beat.
Jackson recognized the same nature in Ron Artest, along with the heightened sensitivity that is so often a part of ADHD.
He tells how Artest, to burn his excess energy, practiced jump shots endlessly, but always in a different style. When Jackson suggested that he pick one style, Artest got defensive, even though Jackson’s tone was helpful, not angry.
Jackson once again looked behind the behavior.
He didn’t take it personally. Didn’t engage. Instead, he found a way to bring out the best in that individual player.
He figured out that “the best way to communicate with Ron was to couch everything in a positive way – not just with the words I used, but with my gestures and facial expressions as well.”
Jackson left his ego at the door. He didn’t insist on his way or the highway, which at that point in his career he certainly could have. But his players – and his teams’ success – would have suffered.
Instead, he learned what made each player tick, by listening, by observing, by building relationships.
As a result, his players – and his teams – thrived.
Jackson writes of the many letters that he got from special education teachers calling Rodman a champion to their students with ADHD. They loved him because he was so successful despite the significant challenges that come with the condition.
Jackson also loved him for his equally significant strengths, which Jackson allowed to shine.