09.29.2020 The Rise of Philosopher-Athletes
The media frenzy around Phil Jackson’s firing by the Knicks has obscured an important part of his legacy—not his 11 NBA Championship rings, but his impact on youth sports.
Phil was an incredible role model for youth coaches. He was ejected from the second NBA game he coached and led all coaches in ejections that season — but he evolved. He didn’t stalk the sidelines berating players and officials. He often refused to call timeouts when an opposing team went on a run, to give his players a chance to develop their ability respond to challenges.
Phil’s calm example helped turn the conventional wisdom of effective coaching away from a nasty-snarly approach toward positive coaching as the key to developing players and scoreboard success.
Phil pioneered mindfulness in sports. Steve Kerr, who played for Jackson on the Bulls, has made mindfulness a Golden State Warriors value (with joy, compassion and competition). Last year the World Series teams, the Indians and Cubs, employed sport psychology gurus Charlie Maher and Ken Ravizza, respectively, to help players stay in the present moment.
Jackson’s Triangle Offense is often criticized, but its most salient aspect is that it requires players to keep their mind in the moment and react to what is available, a life lesson of the highest order. Research shows negativity takes athletes out of the moment and distracts them from the task at hand. Phil pioneered this in the most impactful way—by winning multiple NBA Championships with a mindfully positive approach.
Phil won by transcending anger. At a Positive Coaching Alliance event at Stanford University in 2000, Phil spoke of the hatred his Chicago Bulls felt toward the Detroit Pistons. Phil noted that the Lakota Sioux needed their enemies, the Crow, to make themselves better. But the Bulls couldn’t defeat the Pistons until they got past the anger they felt toward them.
In a youth sports environment so often beset by sideline rage, Phil’s example was huge.
Phil won by engaging his entire team. Much negativity engulfing youth sports results from parents frustrated with their kids sitting on the bench game after game, even after the outcome is effectively decided. Jackson, Steve Kerr, Doc Rivers and other successful coaches succeed by getting more out of their role players.
Jackson prepared his bench players to contribute in key moments. At PCA, we say: “Great coaches get kids into games.” It’s good for them and for a team’s performance. Kids don’t learn as much sitting on the bench.
Phil was a crucial early Positive Coaching Alliance advocate. I grew up in North Dakota idolizing our two local athletes in the big leagues: Roger Maris and Phil Jackson. When I started PCA at Stanford University in 1998, I knew who I wanted to represent it as the embodiment of positive coaching.
Our mutual friend Rich Kelley introduced us, and a great collaboration resulted. PCA now has 17 U.S. Chapters (including New York City, which Phil and the Knicks helped get started). This year we will conduct 2,800 live workshops and reach 5 million athletes. Research has shown that youth coached by PCA trained coaches stay in sports longer. I doubt PCA would be where it is had Phil not lent his stature and wisdom to it early on.
Ultimately people will evaluate Phil Jackson by his long, successful NBA coaching record. However, for me his most important legacy will be his positive and lasting impact on youth sports, one of our country’s most important institutions.