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.

"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.

His approach to handling such talents, Jackson says, was inspired by something he learned from Red Holzman, the Hall of Fame coach he played for as a member of the New York Knicks in the 1960s and '70s.

"Red used to always say the stars make the other players better," he notes. "I've often told my own players, 'The more gifts you have, the more responsibility you carry.' Sometimes, a very talented athletic player has to learn how to handle that responsibility."

Jackson is an avid reader and enjoys handing out books to his players, based on their individual interests. This is part of his strategy for keeping players mentally fresh.

Jackson is surely a rarity in his line of work - a man conversant with native American wisdom, Zen, and Western philosophy. He's written or helped write several books, including "Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior." In it, his thoughts reflect the rich mix of influences in his life - a Montana boyhood, college in North Dakota, parents who were evangelical ministers, and a pro career with a cerebral Knicks team that included a Phi Beta Kappa (Jerry Lucas) and a future senator and presidential aspirant (Bill Bradley).

Asked what is intellectually satisfying about basketball after all these years, he points to the puzzlemaking challenge. He loves to work crosswords, but also enjoys fitting the basketball pieces together by "trying to ride through a long season and make the personalities mesh."

There's no greater feeling, he says, than when a group of players - emotionally and spiritually bonded - celebrate a championship. "It's pure pleasure. It's mentoring pleasure you get from coaching that really feeds me," and makes him anticipate each new season.

Jackson says he trusts his players and has never felt a need to establish a curfew for any team he's coached. He has the players' respect but doesn't try to get close to them. "I know we are different," he observes.

Jackson is convinced that today's players are keenly aware of how much is at stake personally in playing in the NBA, and they're more determined than ever to reap the benefits.

"They see the huge amounts of money hanging in the balance and dedicate a tremendous amount of effort to playing, not just for four or five years, but 10 or 12 or 14," he says. "I'm always amazed at how hard these guys work, how attentive and how professional they are."

In the late '70s and early '80s, Jackson felt that some players were living a faster, on-the-town sort of existence. But now he says most of them lead a pretty insular life on the road.

"They stay in their rooms, play DVDs and video games, and use cellular phones and e-mail to stay attached to their loved ones," he says. "And when they go out, they often go out together. So whatever the stereotype is out there, it doesn't match up a lot of times with today's players."

As a spiritually minded person, Jackson is aware of varying depths of belief among his players. When it comes to matters of faith, he doesn't try to influence them. The important thing, he says, "is not that they wear [their devotion] on their sleeve, but in their hearts - that they have it in their character, in their walk, in their talk."

Besides developing strong bodies and basketball skills, the Lakers meditate as a group. "I call it 'conspiring,' because 'conspire' means 'with breath,' " Jackson says. "We breathe together in silence. It calms us.

"Because sports is people in action, it's often a difficult task for these players. But it gives them an inner resolve, and I think it's been demonstrated that this has given us the ability to stand pretty solidly in times of duress."

Cultivating powers of concentration is important for players asked to run an offense in which they are given the responsibility of "reading" the defense and making good decisions.

"In the heat of battle, at the most difficult times," Jackson says, "your coaching strategies or insights ought to be in your players' heads, not their ears."

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