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Coach K Leading with the Heart
3 years, 1 month ago Posted in: Blog, Coaches' Corner, Education Comments Off
Coach K Leading with the Heart
family, trust and communication, there is little denying that the methodology to his leadership has been successful.

Mike Krzyzewski has built quite a reputation during more than 30 years as a basketball coach. His philosophy on leadership, his strongest attribute, may include key words such as “heart,” as from his 2001 book, “Leading with the Heart: Coach K’s Successful Strategies for Basketball, Business, and Life.” While other key characteristics might include family, trust and communication, there is little denying that the methodology to his leadership has been successful.

Krzyzewski’s success has helped him build a grand reputation on the national stage and, since his role as the U.S. Olympic coach, where he won a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, on the international basketball stage. Known internationally as Coach K, his leadership and position at Duke University have been admired by his players and his peers.

It could be inferred that Coach K’s leadership style comes from his time at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., from which he graduated in 1969. After leading the men’s basketball team as a player during his time at the academy, Coach K took over the head coaching position in 1975 after leaving the Army with the rank of captain. As Coach K explained in an interview with ABC News, “That’s what I was trained to do. That’s why I went to West Point. Not just to be an Army officer, but to be a leader.”

Associate head coach Chris Collins has been with Coach K both as a player, from 1993 to 1995, and a member of his coaching staff, since 2000. Collins believes it is Coach K’s motivation and communication that set him apart from other coaches.

“There are a lot of people who know the game and have a great knowledge of the game and can coach the game well when it comes to strategy,” says Collins. “I think what sets the great coaches and great leaders apart is their ability to take it a step further and to be a great communicator, to be great motivators and to really build a team. That’s really what [Coach K] has done with each of his teams, is try and build a team throughout the year that when you get to the end of the season there is such a strong bond between the guys, whether it be the coaches, the players or everybody who is in it. Everyone takes ownership of the team. I think Coach K is the best that has ever done that in those areas.”

His coaching and leadership style is a success. Examining the numbers, there is no denying it. Coming into the current college season, Coach K has 868 career coaching victories, 795 of them at Duke University. He has taken his team to 15 straight NCAA Men’s Division I basketball tournaments, missing the tournament only three times in his 30 years as Duke’s head coach. Coach K also has more tournament victories, 77, than any other current NCAA coach. Add to those numbers the success of his players – 21 first-round NBA picks, seven National Player of the Year awards and four NCAA championships – and it’s clear his method works.

Four NCAA Men’s Division I basketball championships for Duke University is a significant achievement, ranking the team fifth in overall championship titles. Beyond athletics, the private university, located in Durham, N.C., has an outstanding academic reputation. U.S. News and World Report and Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings rank Duke University 14th worldwide.

According to Duke University, student-athletes maintain a high standard of academic success during their time at the university. “Duke is such a great academic school,” says Collins. “It is one of the top universities in the world. So for us, when we are looking to bring student-athletes into our program it’s not just about having talent to play a sport. It’s about being well-rounded and wanting to get an education as well. Our student-athletes are definitely that. They are students while training to be athletes. I think a lot of that has to do with the school and being able to attract players that not only want to play basketball at a high level but also want to go to a great school. I think that is why we have been able to keep a good balance of both.” Duke claims a 98 percent graduation rate among its student-athletes.

When recruiting athletes, Coach K becomes heavily involved in selecting players who are right for his program. However, it is also the players who understand and appreciate what Duke University and Coach K have to offer them. “First and foremost we are looking for a high talent level in terms of playing basketball,” says Collins. “Obviously, we want to compete at a high level, so you try to find players that have the abilities to be outstanding basketball players. But then after we see a large number of guys that can play the game, then we have to do our due diligence in terms of learning about that person. Is he a good student? What kind of family does he come from? Is he a good person? What kind of values do they have?’

‘For us, talent is something to take into consideration, it is also the well-rounded student-athlete. [We also look for] somebody that cares about wanting to go to school and someone that wants to be a part of a team. Someone that wants to win.”

For senior Nolan Smith, it was an easy choice when looking for a school. Smith, a point guard for Duke, was recruited out of Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va. “For me [the process] was pretty quick,” says Smith. “This is the school that made me feel like I was going to be very welcome by teammates that were like brothers. That’s pretty much what it has been since day one. The coaching staff to everyone around Duke basketball has just been a big family.

“[Coach K] told me he was going to get me to be the best player that I could be. He was going to get me better and the coaching staff were going to get me better. When you hear that from one of the greatest coaches of all time you just can’t turn that down. I just felt like he was a very honest coach and he was going to do that.”

Collins recognizes Smith as a student-athlete who has excelled in the Duke basketball program. “[Smith] came in as a freshman and was a very talented player,” explains Collins. “He has matured in every way. Not only as a player, but in the way he carries himself. He has done very well in the classroom. He has developed into an outstanding leader. And now he has also developed into an All-American basketball player on the court. I think he is a great example, as a senior this year, of someone who came in as a freshman and for four years has continued to improve in every way. Not just basketball. And when you improve in every area, it is certainly going to help you on the court. I think that has happened at a really high level with Nolan.”

“Nolan right now is doing everything,” says Coach K. “He’s on the ball, defense, running the team and he is also scoring the ball. His role right now is really as important as any kid’s in the country. He has a huge role. He is really playing great.”

Smith will join fellow senior Kyle Singler as the Duke basketball team looks to repeat their 2010 NCAA Men’s Division I championship victory. Both players were part of the 2010 championship team and are now turned to by Coach K and the coaching staff for leadership on and off the court.

“When our guys become seniors and leaders in our program, there is much more expected of them because they have been in our program for four years so they understand what Coach K expects,” says Collins. “They understand what our program is about. It is up to those older guys to teach the younger guys how to play, how to practice, act off the court, how to approach their studies and academics. We really rely on our senior players to do that.”

Leading into each season, Coach K reflects little on the past success and takes each new year as it comes. It is the same for the 2010-2011 season. “We are very young except for Nolan [Smith] and Kyle [Singler],” he says. “These other guys have not established their NCAA collegiate egos as to who they are as players. They are still developing. They are a willing group. They have really good enthusiasm and want to learn. They’ve had good attitudes.”

Coach K starts each season with a visit to the Duke athletic center, where many banners display the success of years past. Here the new athletes are encouraged to place their own stamp on the Duke basketball program. “A key thing if you are fortunate to have had success in the past … a new group can’t assume it is just going to happen. Each team, you don’t go through every team, but you talk about different teams and what they had to go do. Losses they incurred. Difficulties individuals had while they were developing into sound NCAA-level players. That’s what we are trying to get across. It’s a realism as to where you are at right now.”

The impact Coach K has on his athletes extends beyond the basketball court. “Coach is one of the greatest motivators and leaders that I’ve ever met,” says Singler, who was selected as the 2010 NCAA tournament’s most outstanding player. “The things that stand out for me that I pick up on are, he always follows his instincts. He is a great preparer. And he loves to compete. I think those three things are what makes him a great coach, a leader and a teacher.”

Smith also praises Coach K for his leadership and coaching. “First and foremost [Coach K] is one of the greatest leaders ever, from a coaching standpoint and off-the-court standpoint. He just knows how to lead and knows how to win.

“The biggest thing he has taught me about leading is just to be myself. Don’t try to be something I’m not when I’m leading my team. Just be vocal. Guys will follow your lead if you have a strong face, if you know what you are doing. First be prepared and eventually be ready to lead and guys will follow.”

The challenge for any coach or leader is to maintain success through multiple years. Collins suggests the key to Coach K’s success is his ability to motivate and communicate. “Coach K is a great motivator. He has an ability to get a group of guys to really buy into what it takes for each group and each team to win. He gets his team year in and year out to play at an unbelievably high level in terms of intensity and effort, which I think is a great skill.

“He is a great communicator. He develops great relationships with his players through good times and bad. I know … something I cherished being a player for him and now coaching with him is the relationship we had, not only as coach-player, but off the court as well. I think as a communicator and a motivator he is as good as any coach or leader that I’ve ever seen in those two areas.

“His main values remain the same,” explains Collins when asked if Coach K has changed over his many successful years as Duke’s coach. “He is a great competitor. He has a great passion for the game, for teaching and for winning. But I think what has happened is that with time he is always adapting to the change of college basketball. As the times change and kids are a little bit different, now as the years have gone on, he has been able to adjust his coaching style to remain unbelievably successful. I think that is the mark of a great coach, too, is the ability to adapt to change, to be open to change and to really get the most out of your group, whoever you may have. And he does that exceptionally well.”

Duke basketball will head into the 2011 NCAA tournament knowing they have a title to defend. However, they will not reflect on last year’s performance or compare last year’s team to the team competing this year. “I wouldn’t do that,” says Coach K. “I don’t do that. I don’t see any reason to compare, because they are two different teams. I just wouldn’t do that and I don’t think it would be a smart thing to do. Last year has nothing to do with this year.”

“It is everyone’s goal to be a part of that tournament,” says Collins. “Certainly as you come into every year it is something that is a goal and you want to have a great chance when you get there. What you do during the season in your conference and throughout the year puts you in a position not only to be there but also to get a seed where you will have a chance to be successful. So throughout the course of the year it is not something we talk about on a daily basis, but it is something in the back of your mind that is always a goal.”

“It is obviously a big goal on my list because this is my last go-around,” says Smith on the championship victory. “This is my senior year. As a team we haven’t really looked that far ahead. But it is important to every team to win the ultimate prize. That’s every team’s ultimate goal. It is important to all of us. But we are not putting that pressure on ourselves to repeat or defend anything. This is this year’s team and we are going out for something new. It’s a fresh start.”

Singler agrees. “It is always important for us to do well toward the end of the year. I don’t know if repeating is in our mind. We just want to do well and play for a national championship again. So, I don’t think the importance is placed on repeating; it is important that we play well and play for a championship again.”

Coach K has many accomplishments and much success that would make any leader and coach proud. However, these accomplishments seem to hold little importance to him as he looks to take Duke basketball to another NCAA title. As Coach K says, “You can’t be an achiever if you are constantly toasting your past.”

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