People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.
We spend the vast majority of our time in traditional coaching education learning the tools to run a great practice and coach in the competition. Intuitively, this seems to make sense. Yet whenever I ask a room full of coaches to write down five qualities about the best coach they ever had, knowledge of the sport usually only entails about 10-15 percent of the answers. Instead, they speak about emotional intelligence and the ability to connect. The best coaches have realized that in order to be their best coaching self, they must authentically be their best self. To do that, you need to do the inner work first. You have to know your why. Just ask eight- time NBA champion and current Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr.
Kerr had a fantastic career as a player, winning five NBA Championships with the Chicago Bulls and the San Antonio Spurs and establishing himself as one of the premier three- point shooters in the history of the game. He will be forever remembered in Bulls’ history for hitting the championship-winning shot in game six of the 1997 NBA Finals. He also had the opportunity to play under legendary coaches such as Lute Olsen at Arizona, Phil Jackson with the Bulls, and Gregg Popovich with the Spurs. And yet, in 2014, when he was given his first NBA head coaching job with the Golden State Warriors, he had a conversation with another coaching legend that made him realize his preparation for his first head coaching job was insufficient.
Kerr had hit the ground running upon being hired by the Warriors. He spent countless hours planning his offensive and defensive game plans, studying other successful teams, building a video library of innovative game plans, visiting with coaches across multiple sports, and compiling concepts and theories that he thought would work with the Warriors. Then, in August of 2014, he was invited to attend the preseason camp of the defending Super Bowl champions, the Seattle Seahawks, and his whole paradigm shifted.
Kerr had admired the Seahawks from afar and loved the joy, spirit, and camaraderie that was so evident as they demolished the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. He wanted the Warriors to look like the Seahawks. When Head Coach Pete Carroll invited him to some spend a few days with the team, Kerr jumped at the chance. He spent two days watching the Seahawks train and prepare for the upcoming season. On the eve of his second day, he sat down with Carroll and had a conversation that, as Kerr explained to us when he was on the Way of Champions Podcast, changed his entire coaching philosophy.5
“How are you going to coach your team?” Carroll asked Kerr.
Kerr, a bit taken aback, and stammered, “You mean, like, what offense are we going to run?”
“No,” said Carroll. “That stuff doesn’t matter. You’ve played forever, and you’ll figure out what plays to run and how you want to defend, pick, and roll and all that stuff. I’m talking about what your day is going to look like. What practice will feel like. What are the players going to feel when they walk into your building?”
In that moment, Kerr realized he didn’t really have a plan or know the answer. He wasn’t sure what practice would feel like, what the culture would be like, or whether the players would enjoy coming to work every day. After playing under some of the best coaches of all time, he had just assumed those things would take care of themselves.
Carroll gave him a homework assignment: “When you get back to your hotel tonight, write down ten things that are important to you. What are the most important things to you, personally, in your life? When you come back tomorrow, we are going to narrow down those ten things to four. Those four principles represent you as a human being.”
And then Carroll gave him one final piece of advice, which has stuck with Kerr to this day and is critical for all of us reading this book. “It doesn’t matter what values I have or John Wooden had or Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich,” said Carroll. “It’s what matters to you because, ultimately, your values have to be reflected in the way you coach. That’s what makes it authentic. And if you try to use somebody else’s values, the players will see right through you.”
When Kerr got back to his hotel that night, he thought long and hard about what really mattered to him. He also thought about what he had witnessed the last few days, from the music blaring during practice to the meticulous preparation and attentiveness at team meetings. He thought about the intense competition in each and every rep of every practice activity and the relentless optimism and interaction between coaches and players.
“That’s when it dawned on me,” says Kerr. “Pete Carroll had built his team’s entire practice routine around the energy, curiosity, positivity, and joy that defined him. His team was a reflection of him because every day was based on Pete’s values, on what was important to him. And the combination of that wonderful culture and an amazingly gifted roster had helped the Seahawks win the Super Bowl. It all made sense.”
Kerr returned to Carroll’s office the next day and laid out his four values:
- Joy: after all, they got to play and coach sports for a living, and that should be fun.
- Competitiveness: the goal is ultimately to win a championship, so they must compete.
- Compassion: everyone is suffering in some way or another, and it’s up to us to try and help people—no matter what we do for a living.
- Mindfulness: coaches and players who are mindful bring clarity of purpose to the team and perform at their best.
“That’s great,” said Carroll. “Now you have to build your whole day around those four values.” Kerr asked what he meant. “Well, if competitiveness is a value for you,” said Carroll, “you guys better compete every day. And if joy is a value, then you better have some fun. And if mindfulness is a value, then you better practice it.” Kerr knew he had the final piece needed to build his Warrior culture.
As training camp started, Kerr and his staff set about instilling those values by creating fast-paced, fun-filled practice sessions. Music blared from the loudspeakers. Practices were short and frenetic, packed with information but not drawn out forever. Video sessions were both instructional and educational, with a fair dose of fun. Coaches were not only teachers but were also intentional about connecting with and caring for the players and their families. “We knew it wouldn’t happen overnight,” said Kerr, “but we felt that over time our players would feel our joy, sense our caring and compassion for them, recognize our competitive desire and our mindful approach to coaching. And hopefully, if we were consistent with that routine, the team would begin to take on an identity that reflected those ideals.”
And take on that identity they did. As Kerr so eloquently wrote in the foreword for my good friend Dr Jerry Lynch’s book Win the Day, “I’m proud to say that over time, our Warriors team has had wonderful success, mainly because we have had an incredibly talented group. The culture that has taken hold is shown in Steph Curry’s joy, in Draymond Green’s competitiveness, in the mindfulness of Andre Iguodala, and the compassion of Shaun Livingston and Klay Thompson. It is shown in the brilliantly unselfish play of Kevin Durant, who wanted to be part of a team that connects, cares for, and sacrifices for one another and has forged an identity of his own amongst this wonderful group of players. Ultimately, players determine a team’s ultimate success. It is the coach’s job to give those players a vision, to develop a routine and a pattern that is meaningful and consistent. And when those things come together, the results can be beautiful.”6
Those things have come together quite nicely. In Kerr’s first five seasons as a head coach, the Warriors have won three NBA World Championships, made five straight NBA Finals appearances, set the single-season record for regular season wins, and established themselves as one of the greatest basketball teams of all time. Joy. Mindfulness. Competitiveness. Compassion. Those are the four principles that mattered most to Steve Kerr and had been ingrained in him as a person, the four principles that defined his authentic self.
The lesson that Steve Kerr learned that day from Pete Carroll was a simple one: know thyself. Your team and your program should be a reflection of you. Do the inner work first and get to know your why.