Sacred Hoops
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Phil Jackson coached the Chicago Bulls basketball team to one of the longest winning streaks in professional sports. In his book, Sacred Hoops, he describes his approach to coaching a group of acknowledged stars. He clearly understands that simply collecting a set of outstanding players does not a championship team make. One way of understanding his approach is to think of every problem or project having components in four different spheres:

Mental, logical, scientific, technical
Systems or how the parts all connect and interact
Emotional, feelings, intuition
Ethical, spiritual and issues of being.
(Aristotle identified three of these so we call this view of problems Aristotles Insight. Email us if youd like a handout on this.) Phil Jackson assumes his players have the technical and techniques (Element1) down pretty well. He emphasizes the spiritual or being issues in developing the best from his team. This is fascinating to hear Jackson a seven foot plus former pro player himself coaching other magnificent physical specimens in the finer points of connecting with a larger sense of being.

Decades ago another championship basketball coach, Red Auerback, wrote a similar piece on teamwork for the Harvard Business Review. He did not as openly describe the spiritual components as Jackson, but it is the same message. Both coaches understood that the individuals on the team must transform their view of themselves and their connection to others to truly create the synergy of team work.

Both coaches intimate that after the basic technique is in place, the point of greatest leverage is at the being level. In fact, small gains here are often leveraged into huge gains in the systems, feelings and technique level.

Advice from Phil Jackson, coach of the Chicago Bulls, as well as a former player for the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets. Jackson begins the book with Michael Jordans return to the Bulls, and goes on to discuss his own life, growing up as the child of fundamentalist Christians, and his adoption of Zen principles in life and in coaching.

Ive been throwing basketballs for almost as long as I have been sitting. At about the same time that I began to sit regularly I started attending a Keep Fit evening class where basketball is the staple diet. So most Thursday evenings will see me along with a group of similarly middle aged and slightly overweight (?) men running up and down a gym trying to throw a ball into a suspended basket.

So what has this to do with Zen?
Firstly, most people understand the idea of the zen moment when some seemingly complex series of actions acquire a unity that is beyond thought and intention. I have experienced some of these moments in several ways and the most usual involves throwing a basketball at a basket and it going in without touching the ring. Hand, eye, ball, air, arch, basket; – hold a gesture of oneness. Then when a ball goes in a basket free of the ring a different sound is produced in the mesh of the basket – a sort of ttccssshhh. That sound defines the moment, for it somehow always happens in silence; a silence instantly broken by my triumphant “Yeeesssss”. When opposites arise the Buddha mind is lost (but 2 points are scored).

And this book? Well, Phil Jackson is the coach of a professional basketball team known as the Chicago Bulls and he is a Zen practitioner. In fact he bases his coaching method on Zen principles, including the practice of meditation. In the book Jackson tells his story of an upbringing in an overbearing Christian home, the disillusionment with its spirituality and the finding of a freedom in Zen practice (Jackson now calls himself a Zen Christian). Following a career as a player Jackson applied his understanding to coaching basketball teams. You cant expect a team to perform in a way that is out of tune with its natural abilities, so empowering individuals – even superstars – to mindfully acknowledge their true abilities and accept what they can and cant change moves any team toward a greater cohesion. Focusing on the awareness of the moment, instilling the notions of selflessness in action and the value of compassion towards fellow players are some of the teachings that Jackson provided for his players.

Somehow I never associated the competitive world of a professional sport with Zen practice but clearing the mind and opening the heart is just as relevant there as anywhere else. In dealing with the high pressure situation of highly paid athletes constantly under media scrutiny Jackson, via his practice has been able to reflect on his own actions, look into his essential nature and find solutions to all sorts of problems – the Tao of Authority leads him.

Zen is life, so why not let the eightfold path lead you to a method of coaching basketball? Even if right action means calling it quits sometimes and it involves losing. As Jackson says, “I used to believe that the day I could accept defeat was the day I would have to give up my job. But losing is as integral a part of the dance as winning. Buddhism teaches us that by accepting death, you discover life. Similarly, only by acknowledging the possibility of defeat can you fully experience the joy of competition. Our culture would have us believe that being able to accept loss is tantamount to setting yourself up to lose. But not everyone can win all the

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Phil Jackson And Championship Basketball Coach. (April 6, 2021). Retrieved from