Dean Smith: A Coach’s Life

Dean Smith's A Coach's LifeRecently I was asking for people’s favorite books by or about coaches. Someone mentioned Dean Smith’s A Coach’s Life (written with John Kilgo and Sally Jenkins) which I had read over a decade ago and remembered loving.


So, I went back to it.

Dean Smith, the legendary North Carolina men’s basketball coach, needs little introduction even to a casual sports fan out there. He won two NCAA national championships at UNC,  but more importantly he was an educator and honorable person. I am an alumnae of the school which helps to explain my affinity for him, but my respect is also stoked by the now familiar story of the times he referred to UNC as a “women’s soccer school.”

I pulled the book off the shelf and reread some of what I had underlined, highlighted and bookmarked with paper clips years ago. It proved to be wonderful way to spend several hours.

Smith delivers remarkable coaching insights throughout and he details for the reader how he built that culture and why.

These insights alone are worth the read.

A Coach’s Life is fantastic, but more importantly reading the book reminded me of what I have always loved about Coach Smith.

As great a coach as he was, he was an equally great man.

Smith, a bright thoughtful and well-read person never condescended to his audience.

Here’s a quote regarding his retirement, which displays humility, perspective and the respect he has for the reader’s intelligence:

“I tried to tell myself that I was a teacher as well as a coach of a Division I program. But the jobs differed in one important respect: A teacher didn’t have as many people watching the examination and grading his students in their living rooms…There was no better example of that than my announcement in 1997 that I was retiring. I was shocked to find that my press conference was carried live on ESPN. I couldn’t help mentioning that I felt our society’s values were mixed up. When a Nobel-Prize winning professor retired, there was a simple announcement in the newspaper. It was a Kierkegaardian “switching of the price tags.”

Glad I asked for recommendations on twitter.

Even though had I read Dean Smith’s A Coach’s Life before,  it was well worth my time to revisit it.


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Have any other books I should read? List your recommendation(s) in the comments or send them to me at inf0 at thecoachingconversation d0t com

What is a Growth Mindset?

Mindset: A Book Review

What is a growth mindset?  Why do some athletes take on challenges while others stay in their comfort zone? Why do some seem to jump back from failures so well, while others are debilitated by setbacks?  Why do we sometimes choose to pad our schedules with easy wins and avoid the challenging and evenly matched opponent? Or, hide from presenting at annual meetings or convention?

I am sure the answer to these questions are varied and complex, but one of my favorite books in the last 5 years, Mindset by Carol Dweck, provides insight into these questions

Dweck, a Stanford Psychologist, uses the construct of mindsets to study achievement and success.  In the book she describes two distinct types of mindsets, the growth and the fixed.

I have read some of her work in the past, mostly as interviews, but this simple paradigm was a real “aha” for me.

I saw myself in this book, as well as, many of the athletes and teammates from my past.

The two mindsets, fixed and growth.

In the “fixed mindset” an individual perceives herself to be already established and permanent, or as Dweck says, “carved in stone.” You either believe you are smart or that you are not.  Talented or not. Creative or not and so on.

If you are stuck with a fixed mindset you believe you are who you are.  You must always be either proving yourself or hiding your flaws and limitations. Failure can be debilitating.  There is little hope for improvement.

On the other hand, the growth mindset, indicates you believe you can improve and grow with effort.

As Dweck asserts, “The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset.”

Setbacks motivate this person. He believes he can get better and conquer the challenge.

“Grow Your Mindset.”

Dweck makes the case that you can change your mindset.

Each chapter ends with a section titled “Grow Your Mindset” intended to help in the transition from fixed to growth.  She asserts that you may go back and forth between the two in your lifetime based on your experiences, including success.

You may have a fixed mindset in one area of your life, like your relationships, but a growth mindset in another, perhaps your career.

She breaks the book into different disciplines like art, sports, relationships etc.

From my point of view the weakest section is on sports. It feels a bit shallow.  I imagine an artist will feel the same in that chapter and a business leader in the chapter devoted to business.

I found some of the most valuable information in the book on the chapter on teachers.  For example, her section titled “Which is the enemy success or failure?”  she considers the possibility that success leads to the fixed mindset.

Is she opposed to winning then?

No, but she is wary and includes this reminder:

“Beware of success. It can knock you into a fixed mindset. “I won because I have talent. Therefore I will keep winning.” Success can infect a team or it can infect an individual. Alex Rodriguez, one of the best players in baseball, is not infected with success. “You never stay the same,” he says, “You either go one way or the other.”

Anyway, worth the read I think.

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“Courage to be Patient”

Christian Lavers, the President of the ECNL, weighs in on player development in an interesting article,”The Courage to be Patient.”

He addresses the difficulties and the value of implementing a long-term player development strategy in each club and throughout our youth system.

None of his prescriptions are simple; many require smart, knowledgeable thoughtful coaches who have the time to devote to study and planning as well as implementation. They all require maturity and leadership.

Each of his ideas need to be unpacked, studied, and debated as we improve our developmental system in the U.S.

Here’s just one quote,

“It is very difficult to:

  1. Create a solid developmental plan based on study, research, and experience,
  2. Continually assess its impact and adjust it accordingly without abandoning fundamental principles, and
  3. All the while resisting continual pressure from the critics that inevitably arise when immediate (or even short-term) glory isn’t immediately captured. 

The individuals that can do all these things over the long-term – that truly have “the courage to be patient” – are rare. 

Those that are around now need to be identified and empowered, and those that have this potential for the future need to be mentored and supported.  Each additional coach with this courage will slowly close the gap between American potential and reality – and will help elevate the quality of soccer eventually at every level.”

The entire article, published at Soccer Nation, is worth a read. You can find the article here.

Bosses Matter (And, Coaches too)

Over on Slate Mathew Yglesias has an interesting article up about a new study out of Stanford University and The University of Utah about the importance of a good boss. The study is called “The Value of Bosses” and you can read about it here.

The researchers conducted their study at an undisclosed major technology-based service company. They looked at the effectiveness of front-line supervisors, not the CEOs. Some of their findings:

Good Bosses Boost Productivity in their employees and their teams:

The first finding is not particularly shocking: a good manager boosts productivity significantly in her team especially compared to a team managed by one of the lowest ranked bosses.  The improvement in the better bosses teams surpassed the productivity that would be created by adding an additional average employee to the team.  Additionally in fact, a good manager boosts productivity by 1.75 times that of the average worker according to the study.

Good Bosses are Teachers

Another finding, however, is a bit more surprising. The key to the success of these bosses is not just that they can motivate or supervise, but that they can teach. And, the effects of this ability to teach lasts after the boss or employee has moved on to another job. When I look back at my own coaches, bosses and mentors I recognize that the best were great teachers, but I rarely hear this mentioned as a critical success factor.

And, They Have Greater Impact on Best Employees

The study also found that great bosses have a greater impact on the high quality employees. Or, as Ygelsias quotes, “Maximizing the value of bosses requires that the better bosses be assigned to the better workers,” and then he goes on to assert “because workers increase their input so much when working with star supervisors.” This surprises Yglesias, but it does not surprise me at all. Really high quality employees know what to do with the information being taught. So, why not provide them with the best information and let them excel? A coach can actually make greater gains by improving a star than by trying to bring up her poor performers. I think of the athletes and coaches I have worked with in my career and this really resonates.

The final finding of the study was not surprising. Unproductive bosses rarely keep their jobs. The authors did not say whether they were fired or simply decided to change paths themselves.

The article reminds me of how much coaches matter. So often we ascribe the success and failure of a team simply to the amount of talent. We act as if coaches are incidental when the team is talented; how often have you heard, “anybody could win with that group.”  This study reminds us is that quality talent needs a high quality coach.  An individual can, of course, excel all on her own due to initiative, effort and talent, but what this study points to is that it is more effective to pair the great boss with great employee, the coach with the talented star or team and that a teacher can make a big difference in the life of a talented student.


Effective Coaching

The other day I was watching a soccer tournament with some friends. Lining the field were all the college coaches and parents. One team was doing pretty well; the other was struggling. The coach of the struggling team kept getting up to yell. Most of what he was yelling was an explanation of what his team was doing wrong. It seemed his audience was the coaches and parents lining the field. He wanted to be sure they knew that he was better than his team. He was separating himself; drawing a distinction between his knowledge and theirs.

It may have made him feel better, but it’s not effective coaching.

Coaching is Repetition. Don’t be afraid to Repeat.

A coach recently indicated to me that he was working extra hard to have something unique and original to do with his team each week in training.

He always wanted to provide new games. I asked him why? If your players are always getting new training games then they are probably spending a lot of time learning the “drill” versus learning the game of soccer.

On the other hand if you repeat games and exercises weekly they get more comfortable.

They can then focus on what you are teaching about soccer because they are comfortable with their training environment.

Learning is often about repetition.

We have to teach the same points many times.

We have to say the same thing many times.

It is OK to go ahead and use the same training environments–to repeat your games–until you think the players have maxed out their learnings with it or are getting bored.

You can also continue to develop games so that the decisions and responsibilities get more and more complex.

Keep them challenged and neither bored no frustrated. And, you’ll have a winning environment.