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The greatest coaches in history can teach us a lot about personal development

Sports can often tell us a lot about life, and there are many parallels between the two. Whether it’s learning to trust others, accepting losing, or becoming aware of our own accountability, sports offers a very real look into some of life’s greatest lessons – lessons that are applicable in business, in home life, or in our everyday dealings with people. Consequently, coaches can have a profound impact, not just in the results of the team, but also in the development of the people on the team. Coaches are not just coaches — they are mentors, they are confidants, they are teachers. And some of the best coaches in sports history have also been some of the best in personal development and communicating life’s lessons. Here is a look at just a few of the values that we can take away from some of the most iconic coaches in sports history.

Phil Jackson

Phil Jackson won eleven NBA Championships. Known as the ‘Zen Master,’ Jackson’s philosophy revolved around bringing the team together into ‘a state of harmony and oneness.’ Jackson often implemented practices of meditation and mindfulness, in which the players would sit in silence and breathe together in sync, allowing them to achieve greater focus, connection and togetherness.

Players were encouraged to think for themselves to determine what other qualities and skills they could bring to the team outside the basics, like shooting or passing. Everyone on the team was inspired to take on a leadership role, not just the veteran players or the superstars.

Jackson’s philosophies have many applications as they relate to the real world. In business and in life, when we are highly focused, and that uniform focus is instilled in others around us, whether it be our business partners, co-workers, or team members, we can begin to inspire others to change, to contribute, to lead, and to improve.

“Leadership is not about forcing your will on others. If you want them to act differently, you need to inspire them to change.”



John Wooden

John Wooden was affectionately known as the ‘Wizard of Westwood’ as he coached the UCLA Bruins to a staggering 10 NCAA Championships. As great as Wooden was as a coach and teacher of basketball, he should be equally recognized for his contributions as a coach and teacher of people. One of his former players, the great Bill Walton, once said of Coach Wooden, “[He] has a heart, brain and soul that have enabled him to inspire others to reach levels of success and peace of mind that they might never have dreamed possible on their own.”

Wooden was one of the winningest NCAA coaches of all time, with a win percentage over 80%. Ironically, some of his greatest teachings involved dealing with and overcoming failure, something his teams only did a couple times a year, usually. One of his teams won 88 consecutive games at one point. Yet, when they did lose, they had the wisdom of John Wooden to lean on. A major advocate of lifetime learning, it’s what we learn in our failures that was really important to Coach Wooden.

“Let’s face it, we’re all imperfect and we’re going to fall short on occasion. But we must learn from failure and that will enable us to avoid repeating our mistakes. Through adversity, we learn, grow stronger, build more confidence in our ability to persevere, and become better people.”


Vince Lombardi

The trophy for winning the Super Bowl is called the Lombardi trophy; that pretty much speaks to the accomplishments of Vince Lombardi. He won five NFL Championships and two Super Bowls (I and II). His ability to motivate and inspire players led to the Green Bay Packers becoming the most dominant team in the NFL in the 1960s.

Lombardi was known as one of the greatest motivators in sports and was well recognized for his inspirational speeches to his players, after which they were willing to run through walls for the coach and for the team. He had an ability to inspire players to win, and it begins with creating winning habits. According to Lombardi’s values, it’s not just about how things go on ‘game day.’ Rather, success begins when you create successful habits – having the will to be disciplined enough to create the proper habits by doing the little things the right way every time.

“Winning is a habit. Watch your thoughts, they become your beliefs. Watch your beliefs, they become your words. Watch your words, they become your actions. Watch your actions, they become your habits. Watch your habits, they become your character.”

Learn personal coaching and building self esteem from sports coaches

Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant

During his 25 year coaching career at Alabama, Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant led the Crimson Tide to win 13 conference championships and 6 national championships.

An ‘old school’ tough guy, Bear once played a college game with a broken bone in his leg, leading the Tide to a victory. It’s no surprise that the qualities embodied most by Bryant are sacrifice and dedication. While he demanded quite a bit from his players, and many of his techniques would be considered exceedingly harsh by today’s standards, Bryant said he’d never ask anything of his players that he wouldn’t do or hadn’t done himself ant one time or another. The bottom line is that making sacrifice, and being fully committed to, a winning effort is essential to success.

“If you believe in yourself and have dedication and pride – and never quit – you’ll be a winner. The price of victory is high but so are the rewards.”


Jim Valvano

While Jim Valvano might not necessarily be categorized in the same super elite coaching class as Jackson, Lombardi, Wooden, and Bryant, he impact on the world is undeniable. The former head basketball coach at NC State passed away from cancer in 1993, but not before leaving an indelible impression millions and millions of people.

After his diagnosis, Jimmy V inspired through his courageous battle against cancer, not just fighting for himself, but also for millions of others affected by cancer. To date, the Jimmy V Foundation has raised over $130 million, with 100% of the money going towards cancer research and grants.

A very charismatic man, Valvano had a positive impact on so many through his fight, through his charity, and through his words. Jimmy V was a masterful speaker, and at the 1993 ESPYs, he delivered his ‘Don’t Give Up Speech,’ considered by many to be one of the greatest speeches of all time. If you haven’t seen it, you must. If you have, you likely bawled your eyes out with everyone who has ever watched it.

Valvano often preached that leaders need a vision. As a coach, he would have one practice each year in which the team would practice cutting down the nets, the customary tradition for the winner of the NCAA Championship. He felt it was vital for his team to believe that they were going to win, and by cutting down the nets, they could begin to envision themselves winning.

His ‘vision’ came to fruition in 1983, as his longshot Wolfpack team made an unlikely run through both the ACC Championship and the NCAA Championship, ultimately defeating an athletically superior University of Houston team in the finals. And so, they cut the nets down, just like they did in the quiet confines of their home gymnasium in Raleigh, NC.

“Be a dreamer. If you don’t know how to dream, you’re dead.”

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The greatest coaches in sports — and the greatest leaders and teachers in the world — all have one thing in common. They have an ability to INSPIRE. They inspire others to work hard, to strive to win, and to become the best they can be. The most successful coaches and teachers don’t get results through yelling, they don’t get results through threats, and they don’t get results through coercion. Results come with the ability to inspire others through leadership.

So the next time you face challenges in some area of life or another — no matter if it is in your home or in your work — stop and consider the values embodied by some of the greatest teachers the sports world has ever known.

* The next time you, or your family, or your team, needs to create results, think of Phil Jackson’s ability to create focus, mindfulness, and unity towards a team goal.

* If you have experienced failure, think of John Wooden’s words of wisdom and learn to become a better person through the adversity.

* If you are making a commitment to ‘winning’ more often, take a page from Lombardi and start by creating winning habits by doing the little thing right every time.

* When chasing goals, take a ‘Bear’ Bryant approach and realize that sacrifice is an essential part of accomplishment.

* And when you are trying to create the life of your dreams, be like Jimmy Valvano have the vision to begin to make your dreams one step closer to reality.

small image of balanced living expert Susan Sly                 

Susan Sly is a best selling author, speaker and entrepreneur. She has appeared on CNN, CNBC, Fox, Lifetime Television and the CBN. Susan is the mother of four children and resides in Scottsdale, Arizona




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