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Lessons from Coach K

By DJ Mitsch, MCC  April 2, 2022

I was recently asked who inspires me in my career as I participated in a panel discussion. I named two women who are both noteworthy local citizens in the Raleigh-Durham area – Pat Nathan, the founder of Dress for Success/Triangle and Sheila Hale Ogle, a serial entrepreneur and my long time mentor. Had I taken a breath and really considered my entire background in broadcast management including sports networks and years of community service, I would have also said Mike Krzyzewski. He has positively impacted the game of basketball and has a level of integrity that many leaders only talk about. He lives from a place of integration and excellence and it radiates beyond Duke’s campus into the world of sports and in service to something greater.

If you asked Coach K who I am, he probably wouldn’t have a clue.

Yet I know him.

I first met Mike Krsyzewski in a buffet line in 1982 on Duke’s campus. I was the sales manager of Capitol Broadcasting’s Sports Networks, the broadcast sports network that sold Krzyzewski’s sports shows and the Duke Basketball games through during the early 80s. Capitol also had the broadcast rights for several other universities and pro teams, so I saw Coach K in comparison to many coaches and contemporaries, including the popular extroverted Coach Jim Valvano. Mike’s power as a coach leader has become clearer over time and I now view his many accomplishments since those early days as other’s do, a journey to personal and professional legacy. While I witnessed firsthand the building of a great program at Duke, I also held my breath as he turned down five NBA head coach jobs for big money, including partial ownership of the Lakers. Like so many others, I have cheered Coach K on from the edge of my seat as our Olympic teams brought home gold from Beijing and London.

He is more than accomplished, he is a super star. And he has significantly contributed to the world around him in Durham NC, in the US and in the world of sports. When you consider the impact, you must remember that his career highlights suggest that among the notoriety he is also really just a Basketball Coach.
He coaches young people to play a basketball GAME!

He is A COACH! It is a GAME!

He IS a coach!

Think about that.

And Coach K inspires me to think bigger, because I am also a COACH for those who lead and shape other leaders. There are many, many coaches in the world – many who are leaders of business – and though our court of play looks different, we have the potential to unleash the best in others regardless of where we play.

I have taken a few lessons from Coach K that I think are relevant to the work for any coach and leader. Perhaps these will resonate or serve as a reminder for you.

  1. Choose your path well. Do what you most love and what is most right for you personally. I saw Coach K speak through tears as he returned from a much needed sabbatical, reflecting on his lack of personal life balance and citing a need to reconnect with his family. He listened to his family and found happiness in allowing the family to get a dog – a sure fire way to “become present to what’s right in front of you.”
  2. Don’t Chase Money. The Game is about excellence and contributing in a way that you are passionate about and for those you are most committed to serve. The money follows.
  3. Build a program by attracting the best people and players. Make sure the people you surround yourself with help you build not only the program, but the culture you desire – one of winning. One that has raving fans who willingly live in tents and name their somewhat homeless existence after you while they wait for prized tickets to a GAME. It is a GAME. It IS a game.
  4. Coach the entire team, not just the stars. Every sports show today focuses on Duke’s star freshman Jabari Parker. And what I know about Duke’s program and Coach K is that if he didn’t have Parker, he would still find a way to win, because a really good team can often beat a team that has a super star only mentality. Jabari is very talented, and his demeanor and he is part of a really solid basketball team and program.
  5. Mentor Successors. Coach K has mentored many former players to become outstanding coaches. Some of them coach competing college programs. I don’t think any of those schools have beaten Duke, so he stays ahead of the competition by adapting his game plan even when the competitors know it inside out.
  6. Give Back to your community. The list of Coach K’s foundations and community involvement is impressive, he uses his fame and fortune for the betterment of the people, places, and institutions that have contributed to his success.

So Coach K, you inspire more than just the young men in your world, more than the Duke students and alumni, you inspire all of those who aspire to live a fully integrated life, do what we most love and make the world around us a better place!

Question to start a conversation:

What else can leaders as coaches learn from the discipline of sports coaching?

DoD photo by D. Myles Cullen [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

DJ Mitsch, MCC

Darelyn “DJ” Mitsch is the Chief Energy Officer of the Pyramid Resource Group, a Master Certified Coach, and a founding member and former president of the International Coach Federation (ICF). She is a world-class coach and creative partner for innovative leaders and teams. DJ designed this program based on her passion for bringing people fully to life as they change the game of work!



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