Ten Basketball Lessons from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits

I finally read Stephen Covey’s masterpiece The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It is a must read for any coach. Here are ten basketball lessons from 7 Habits:

1. Mission Statement

My team has utilized a Pyramid of Success that mirrors John Wooden’s for the past four seasons. The impact of it has reshaped our culture. I cannot go away from it. Everyday we begin practice with a quote that illustrates one or more of the values the Pyramid preaches. Practice ends when the coaches select one player that demonstrated a value from the Pyramid and why. The player that gets picked then picks a teammate and follows the same pattern. At our banquets and at the end of a career, players always point to the Pyramid. It is the single greatest reason that I love to coach.

In essence, the Pyramid is our mission statement. After reading 7 Habits, I see two clear ways that it can be enhanced. First, these are only words and phrases. There is no quick definition in what we mean by “Character” or “Toughness.” And that is partially ok as Stephen Covey would acknowledge. You and I can both be right with two totally different interpretations. Then again, we are a team and should have one unified voice. Covey gives examples of mission statements that range from ten to twenty sentences. If each value in the Pyramid has one sentence that format fits well.

The second way that the Pyramid can be enhanced is by giving the players a voice in the mission statement. The original values were derived solely by me. I do not want to go completely away from the Pyramid. That said player buy in will increase if they have a role in its creation. Thus, once the team is formed in November, we will spend a practice assigning one player and one coach a value. That person will define that value in a sentence (or a tweet). The next practice, another player will be assigned to work with that player on potentially editing. We will then put it all together and if the team has any grievances we can address them. Once that is over, we have a mission statement.

2. Be Proactive

Stephen Covey wrote this about proactivity:

“It means that as human beings, we are responsible for our own lives. Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. We can subordinate feelings to values. We have the initiative and the responsibility to make things happen.”

My favorite sentence is, “Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions.” Here are what proactive players look like:

  • Reactions are the same with a ten-point lead or deficit.
  • External circumstances and situations do not enter practice.
  • Principles are in place to manage surprises.
  • Teammates consistently hear positive when momentum is negative. “Let’s get a stop!” “Next play!”
  • They do not blame.
  • When others try to blame them, they acknowledge faults instead of hiding – even if they really were not at fault.
  • Choices made them who they are. Proactive players are not the product of other people’s moods, decisions, and labels.
  • Mistakes are viewed as opportunities to improve. It’s not that they are cheerful about committing a turnover, but the body language does not indicate they are demoralized either. When the folly occurs, these players nod their head as if to say, “Yup I did that. I can and will do better next time.”

3. Overcoming adversity

Covey wrote this about overcoming adversity:

“Nothing has a greater, longer lasting impression upon another person than the awareness that someone has transcended suffering, has transcended circumstance, and is embodying and expressing a value that inspires and ennobles and lifts life.”

As a teacher and coach, witnessing this process is the most rewarding part of the job. Every person has weaknesses. When I see people, particularly young people, battle despite circumstances it inspires me not to surrender to my weaknesses. On a synergistic team, the impact of this feeling is multiplied.

World War II Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl is someone whom Covey references throughout 7 Habits. In Frankl’s own book Man’s Search for Meaning he wrote, “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”  In order to rise above and respond in the optimal way to misfortune, “the why” as Frankl calls it, can originate from the individual or team mission statement.

4. Problems Equal Opportunities

Johnson & Johnson’s famed recall of Tylenol is still a case study in business schools more than three decades after it happened. The keys to the company’s survival were that they were honest, put the needs of others first, and they were decisive. I would also argue that their mission, proactive response, and attitude in overcoming adversity were essential.

Think about a time where someone had tremendous negative emotion. A moment where that person is at a nine or ten on the scale of angry, hopeless, or frustrated just to name a few emotions. If you have a chance to positively alter that person’s emotions, don’t you think they’ll remember you positively that way? Conversely, there is also an opportunity to not help or even exacerbate the problem. Don’t you think they will remember you for making it worse?  A problem therefore is simply an opportunity.

Coaching is easy when there are no problems. Everyone can coach in that environment, but it is not realistic. When it is time to deviate from a blueprint, it is easiest to accept it as an inevitable part of the job. In these moments, a good decision and more importantly trusting your mission statement will only enhance your brand long term.

5. End Backstabbing – Or At Least Overcome It

Covey said this regarding talking behind people’s backs:

“One of the most import ways to manifest integrity is to be loyal to those who are not present. In doing so, we build the trust of those who are present. When you defend those who are absent, you retain the trust of those present.” – Stephen Covey

This idea goes back to Ray Dalio’s principle of transparency.  Talking behind the backs of others happens most often with people reacting emotionally to how they feel.

A coach must do three things to demonstrate loyalty to those who are not present.

  • The coach cannot talk about other people in a negative light. There is a caveat here for coaches to talk to other coaches about players behind their backs, but even this needs to have limits. If you are telling a coach that another player needs to improve in some way, wouldn’t the player be served by that conversation too?
  • Confront your players that do talk about others as soon as it happens. Emotion can force people to temporarily steer away from what they know is right. Gently affirm a player’s concerns, but remind them of the team code surrounding back talk.
  • Encourage players to intervene when no coach is around. Let’s face it. The coach is not at the home of the players when they talk to mom and dad. The coach is also unable to sit in on the conversation in the cafeteria (thank God for that!). Getting players to police themselves is the most important step to developing transparency.

Despite our best intentions, players and coaches may slip and talk behind another team member’s back. Which begs the questions, what should be the attitude toward the person who was talking about you? How does what they say make you feel? Does this alter your trust level of that person? And if so, how hard will you work with or for someone you do not trust?

Reflect on these questions yourself and have your players do the same. The gut reaction is to be infuriated and maybe cut all ties with that person. That is only human, but it probably does not pass the “Mission Statement” test or “Being Proactive.” This is actually a great case to “Overcome Adversity” and remember “Problem Equals Opportunity.” Picture taking the high road and publicly acknowledging truth in the criticism and a promise to get better. Who does not want that person for a teammate?

6. Breaking Habits

It is really hard. Covey used a great analogy to make it seem possible.

“But to get there [the moon] those astronauts literally had to break of the tremendous gravity pull of the earth. More energy was spent in the first few minutes of lift-off, in the first few miles of travel, than was used over the next several days to travel half a million miles. Habits, too, have tremendous gravity pull.”

On the court, I have seen individuals conquer bad habits. Overuse of strong hand. Taking a useless comfort dribble instead of remaining in triple threat. Reaching in after missing a shot instead of sprinting back. Boxing out instead of staring up. Communicating a screen is coming before a teammate gets popped.

There are others that I have had a much harder time teaching, but there is hope. Watching the play instead of cutting. Not looking at the hoop on the catch. Exhibiting patience on post catches. They are all areas of growth for me as a coach.

With all of these skills, it’s not necessarily a matter of breaking a habit, just relearning a new one. For example, instead of going for the ball after a shot, players should find their man. Just changing the cue of what to do eliminates the old habit (staring up and hoping to get the ball) and enforces the new habit (box out). And literally after the first time a player successfully exhibits this skill in game action, it is just like the spaceship Covey describes. The initial investment of energy to make a change far outweighs sustaining the change.

In the same way, off-court habits can be conquered as well. Focus on changing the statement of, “I’m not good at ___” by adding Carol Dweck’s favorite word. “I’m not good at ___ yet” has the sound of a player being proactive instead of reactive.

7. Explaining the Other Side of the Story

There is a wall between the coach and the athletic director (or whoever). The coach desperately wants to host Sunday practices, but the athletic director does not permit that. The competition practices six days each week and Saturday practices are hard because the gym is in use by other community members. Instead of the coach saying how unfair it is, try to see it from the other perspective. Explain the athletic directors reasons in the dilemma to them. Chances are the coach might be missing a detail in their reasoning. And if the coach is not, the athletic director will feel understood.

In any disagreement, once you have sought to understand their perspective, it is much easier to be heard on your side. Will this lead to you getting your way? Will both parties end up getting what they want? Not always. It is much more productive though than simply airing your grievances and walking away with each side more entrenched in their positions.

There are several relationships where differences could emerge. Administration, parents, players, other coaches, referees, and your opponent are all critical to a coach. Relationships always involve several issues where people do not see eye to eye. There is a hierarchy though. The relationship is much more broad than the issue. By seeking to understand, as Stephen Covey suggests, the entire relationship is not engulfed by one issue.

8. High Emotion, Don’t Teach

Another quote that had deep meaning for me in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People touched on how to properly manage emotionally charged people:

“When relationships are strained and the air charged with emotion an attempt to teach is often perceived as a form of judgment and rejection.”

For many teachers and coaches this is a default reaction. I am one of them. By listening to the emotion instead of just doling out advice or dismissing it is an overreaction you are building trust. Eventually people will seek advice from people who are good listeners. And in the event that a team code was broken in an emotional reaction (perhaps the player was hiding from the blame for instance) in a calmer moment you can remind them of this team code. Be especially careful in Lesson #5 here (ending backstabbing).

9. Cell Phone and Values

Covey originally wrote this book in 1989 before Snapchat consumed every adolescent, but he did offer this:

“Surveys indicate that television is on in most homes some thirty-five to forty-five hours a week. That’s as much time as people put into their jobs, more than most put into school…And when we watch, we’re subject to all the values that are being taught through it. That can powerfully influence us in very subtle and imperceptible ways.”

Substitute the word television for phone and the wisdom of this thought still holds true today. Nothing is more important than who follows today’s players and how many likes they get. Most could not care less as to how any of it relates back to goals, principles, and values – if at all. The ego is starved for attention, but when one photo reaches the previously unachievable 50 likes, they will only want more for the next photo.

I am not saying to take it away or to stop using social media. That would be hypocritical (I’m using Twitter for this write up). There is value in promoting our best selves. There needs to be better balance and a deeper perspective though. I spoke with another coach a few weeks ago who told me he tells his players to shoot a free throw for every like on Instagram or work on their weak hand the same number of minutes they play Fortnite. Time and energy are the two most precious resources we have, and players should be more reflective about how to balance them.

10. When in Doubt Serve

One of the more rewarding times of the year to coach is summer camp. The players, who act as counselors, get more out of it than the campers. In the words of Covey:

“If one’s motives are wrong, nothing can be right. It makes no difference whether you are a mailman, a hairdresser, an insurance salesman, a housewife – whatever. As long as you feel you are serving others, you do the job well. When you are concerned only with helping yourself, you do it less well.”

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is the ninth book I have read this offseason. I hope to read 37. If you have any books worth reading please comment or send me a message on Twitter. 

2 thoughts on “Ten Basketball Lessons from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits

  1. Mark,
    Recently came across this page and I absolutely love it. Here is a list of a few books I have recently enjoyed this past offseason:
    Getting to Us By Seth Davis
    The Legacy by James Kerr
    Pound the Stone by Joshua Medcalf
    Runnin the Show by Dick Devenzio
    Lead…For Gods Sake! By Todd Gongwer
    Lead Like Butler by Millard/Cebula

    Thank you for taking the time to write these articles and share he knowledge you have obtained!

    1. Thank you Dave. I’m hoping to start posting with more consistency. I will definitely add those books to my list. I’ve read other books by DeVenzio and Medcalf and have learned a lot.

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