The delicate art of handling youth and talent
Interview / Phil Jackson
During his career as a blue-chip basketball coach, Phil Jackson has put his support behind various causes, advocating for native Americans, literacy, and the homeless. Now, he's backing better behavior in sports - not at the elite level, where he's guided the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to a combined nine championships, but in youth leagues and programs.Skip to next paragraph
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"I've been coaching 20 years, but I just think now was the right time for this to come along," he says, speaking of his association with the Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit group dedicated to transforming youth sports.
The growing number of negative headlines about poor parent-coach-child relations captured his attention and convinced Jackson he had a role to play. After all, he's earned the soapbox as a celebrity coach with a winning pedigree, and while he teaches young men, some of his players aren't long out of high school.
Adults, he emphasizes, "have a responsibility to teach children about the joy of sports," the lessons of teamwork and fair play, and about the importance of honoring the game (whatever it may be) and valuing the people associated with it - including umpires and referees. "There's an opportunity for me to put some kind of stamp of approval" on these lessons and principles.
Jackson realizes there are good lessons to be learned in youth sports. He's certainly had his share of epiphanies on how to enhance performance while improving the atmosphere of play - regardless of the level of competition.
One experience that offers lessons to overzealous youth coaches occurred when Jackson was coaching the Bulls, including the volatile veteran, Dennis Rodman.
"I found quickly," Jackson recalls, "that Dennis's character on the floor was tied to the emotion of the coach. If I got off the bench and was demonstratively angry [toward the referees], Dennis lived and breathed off that." So much so that Rodman's over-the-top response was more problematic than helpful.
"I decided it was time to sit down, be quiet, and let the team play," Jackson adds. "We won 72 [of 82] games that year, which makes it a lot easier to sit on the bench. Since that time, I've kind of stayed with that style and enjoyed it."
Another change that paid dividends came from a universally applicable strategy in Jim Thompson's book "Positive Coaching: Building Character and Self-Esteem Through Sports." Mr. Thompson, who founded the Positive Coaching Alliance in 1998 and is now its executive director, endorses the 5-to-1 "Magic Ratio" - five praises for every one criticism.
"That made an impression on me," Jackson says. His fondness for this and other principles led to a friendship with Thompson and, recently, to his formal association with the Stanford University-based Positive Coaching Alliance, which has held more than 500 training workshops for parents, coaches, and youth sports leaders since its inception.
Reaching for more praise has become a tenet of Jackson's own coaching philosophy. In particular, he says, it proved beneficial in working with Horace Grant, a Chicago player who notably did not respond well to criticism.
A challenge both youth and professional coaches face that Jackson seems to have mastered is how to handle exceptional athletes - the stars. He enjoys a rapport with the superstars (Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal, and Kobe Bryant) and a knack for finding the utility in every player.
When Jackson took the Chicago job in 1989, Jordan had been in the league five years but had never played for a championship team. Jackson restructured the offense, shifting from plays that isolated Jordan against overmatched opponents to getting other players more involved. Thereafter, the Bulls won three straight titles and produced a second "three-peat" a few years later.
The story has been similar in Los Angeles, where he's built a cohesive team around O'Neal and Bryant.