The Chuck Wielgus Blog: Coach "K" - Master Teacher
Last week’s Sports Illustrated had a wonderful article about Duke Coach, Mike Krzyzewski titled, “The Education of Jabari Parker.” Parker is a freshman basketball player at Duke, who appears headed for a great career in the NBA. The education he is receiving at Duke perfectly reflects why Krzyzewski – or Coach K as he is more commonly known – is not only the best in the basketball business, but a role model for coaches in every sport.
People who know me know I’m a basketball junkie, so when I received an invitation to sit through a practice session of the USA Men’s Basketball Team at the 2012 London Olympic Games I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. Along with Assistant Executive Director, Mike Unger; President, Bruce Stratton; National Team Director, Frank Busch and our Women’s Swim Team Head Coach, Teri McKeever, we visited the basketball practice facility the day following the end of the swimming competition.
The practice session was closed to the media and the public, but our small contingent was directed to sit in the bleachers that were immediately adjacent to the court. We sat 20 feet from the basket where Kobe Bryant and LeBron James were shooting three pointers.
While the assistant coaches put Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and others through drills and a controlled scrimmage, Coach K was seated at a table in front of a lap top computer. He was meeting one-on-one with players. Russell Westbrook was with Coach K for at least 20 minutes looking at the computer screen while Coach K talked and pointed at the screen.
When the practice ended, we were invited to meet with Coach K. I thought he was simply being courteous; that we’d meet, shake hands and that would be it. But that’s not what happened.
We ended up having a 40-minute conversation about coaching and leadership. Coach K was curious about how USA Swimming brought together and created team unity with 45 swimmers, each of whom was coming from a different background. We talked about the importance of our National Team culture, and how USA Swimming works hard to perpetuate that culture with its athletes and coaches well in advance of the Olympic Games.
When the opportunity presented itself, I asked Coach K about his one-on-one meetings with some of the athletes. He said the purpose of these meetings was to review the previous night’s game and to point out places where the player should have reacted differently. In the case of Westbrook, Coach K said there were several instances in the game when he thought Russell could have driven to the basket instead of passing.
As we nodded our heads, he continued. “These guys love to be taught, but you have to do it privately so as not to put them in an awkward situation with their all-star teammates.” It made perfect sense. These players had mostly been pampered and told how great they were since high school. They were eating up the teaching that Coach K was providing because they knew he was telling them the truth; and he was smart enough to know that it wouldn’t be wise to criticize any of these players in front of others.
The two-page foldout spread at the start of the Sports Illustrated article shows Jabari Parker sitting with Coach K in front of a theatre video screen. I thought back to that session in London, and I was reminded about just how good a teacher Coach K is in helping athletes improve. He communicates in a way that is most effective for the athlete; he shows them respect; and he challenges them with constructive criticism for how they can improve.
Coach K is well-recognized as a great leader, but he’s also a lifelong learner and a great teacher. Watching him work one-on-one with athletes caused me to think that this is exactly what good swimming coaches do. They work with the entire team, but the really good coaches also understand the importance of helping athletes individually.
Every four years when we assemble the U.S. Olympic Swim Team, we are challenging our top coaches to transition from leading their own team to becoming part of another team. This is exactly what Coach K is doing as the National Team Head Coach for USA Basketball. This is why team culture is so important, and why Coach K showed such great interest in how our Olympic Team comes together. We’re all learning from each other.
Above all, coaches are teachers and the lessons they impart go far beyond just teaching the skills necessary to succeed in any sport. The best teachers are lifelong learners themselves, and they transmit life-lessons to their athletes. And after all, it’s those life-lessons that are the most important things as their impact goes well beyond the court and the pool.
Chuck Wielgus can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. All of his blogs are archived at www.usaswimming.org: click on “News” and then click on “Org News & Blogs”