In his book, Eleven Rings, Phil Jackson helped clarify how to confront a team member that struggles with focus. There are two sources where lack of focus can occur. The first is on the competitive level. That concerns issues that pertain to the team and the game itself. In these situations, coaches generally have some degree of control. The second is external factors that do not pertain to basketball. These include the personal lives of the team members and coaches have almost no control over them. It was in this sphere where Phil Jackson’s philosophies were most relevant to a leader.
Losing Focus on the Team Level
Staying emotionally balanced as it pertains to each game on the schedule would be ideal. Unfortunately it is impossible. The idea rides on the assumption that competition or stakes of a game should have no consequence on the level of preparation and focus that everyone puts forth. Human nature is to react a certain way in front of a crowded gym in March versus a quiet gym in December.
Losing Focus on the Individual Level
With a combination of as many as fourteen or fifteen people in the gym (coaching staffs included) odds are that at least one person is physically present and not mentally present. And many times a coach will hardly notice it or when they do give a simple cue to get a player back on track. There are occasions though in which a player or coach’s external circumstances are so powerful that they become impossible to ignore. And that is essentially what made Jackson such a successful coach. He dealt with these circumstances in a case by case basis that was best for all team members.
Why Listen to Phil Jackson on Getting Players to Focus
Everyone that casts skepticism over his success as a coach points out that the teams he led also featured the best players of their era. It is true. Michael Jordan was good. So were Kobe and Shaq. And there were plenty of other great players on the rosters. There are also plenty of examples of teams and players with talent that never accomplished what Jackson’s teams did.
The problems of Jackson’s teams were well-documented over the years. Dennis Rodman getting bored and distracted. Kobe Bryant alienating teammates. Michael Jordan bringing the media circus with him (before and after baseball). Scottie Pippen acting out after being passed over for Toni Kukoc taking a last shot in the playoffs. Shaquile O’Neil coming to camp out of shape. Empowering the role players on these teams (Steve Kerr, Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, John Paxson, etc.) who were essential to putting them over the edge, but could have folded given the nature of their alfa teammates. Jackson’s résumé as a leader (not a coach) for all of these reasons is severely underrated.
Here were five quotes from Jackson’s book that resonated with me on why Jackson’s emotional intelligence helped him get the most out of his teams:
“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” – The Buddha
These kinds of analogies hit home with teenagers often. If the emotion is anger, sometimes that leads to an elbow to a teammate at practice or the opposition in a game. In either case, the anger no longer is just one person’s problem. It becomes the team’s problem.
“Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Negative energy is contagious. If a player or coach is engulfed by negative energy, it cannot simply be set aside and addressed after practice. Getting players to take time out of the action to reflect will at the very least help the team. Notice, it is taking time out to reflect, and not removing a player altogether from practice. A coach could lose the trust and respect of a player by dismissing them for being distracted. Hopefully through reflection, the player can improve their outlook on the situation.
“To increase his level of mindfulness, I developed a special form of sign language to help us communicate with each other during games. If he strayed from the system, I’d give him a look, and I expected him to give me a sign of acknowledgment. This is the essence of coaching: pointing out mistakes to players and having them signify to you that they know they’ve done something wrong.” – Phil Jackson
Jackson is referring to Toni Kukoc in this instance. Some players are shy and do not want to call attention to themselves and their emotions. That does not mean that you cannot help. In addition to the argument Jackson makes about growing from mistakes, a private system for that one player shows that you care.
“I don’t believe in using practice to punish players. I like to make practices stimulating, fun, and, most of all, efficient.” – Phil Jackson
If I asked who wrote the quote without asking for the source, you might assume it was a player-coach in a fifth-grade league. The word ‘fun’ is not typically associated with NBA practices. Players and coaches might mature, but at the end of the day it is still a game. They want to look forward to practice. It is an the escape from the problems of the world and a place where they feel safe.
“I discovered playing for the Knicks that when I got too excited mentally, it had a negative effect on my ability to stay focused under pressure. So I did the opposite. Instead of charging players up, I developed a number of strategies to help them quiet their minds and build awareness so they could go into battle poised and in control.”
Phil Jackson earned the nickname Zen Master for a reason. I love the idea of getting players to be quiet and reflect. At first it will feel unnatural. There may be giggling or looks that beg the question, “Coach you feelin’ all right?”. The fact that this is uncomfortable is exactly why it deserves consideration. Declining attendance in spiritual settings and the increasing companion of social media on phones are depriving young people an opportunity to think and reflect. It could go a long way toward helping them grow in their coping skills.