The Stoic Guide To Coaching

What do Nick Saban, Pete Carroll, Bill Belichick, Andy McKay and Shaka Smart all have in common? They’re all incredible coaches, sure. But a love of ancient philosophy? Surprisingly, yes. In a recent article on the power of Stoicism in professional sports, ESPN highlighted coaches and athletes from every sport who have benefitted from the timeless wisdom we know and love. Among the examples mentioned were NBA star CJ McCollum, who found balance in his personal and professional life after a teammate gave him a copy of The Obstacle is the Way. And Ryan Shazier, the Steelers linebacker who utilized Stoic philosophy to overcome a debilitating spinal injury.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that athletes and coaches at the highest levels have turned to Stoic wisdom to improve their game and overcome adversity. Good coaches understand that there are physical and mental components to everything that their players do, but without the latter, the former can only take a team so far. So what is it that Stoicism is teaching these champions and how does ancient philosophy apply to sports?

Control The Controllables

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…” — Epictetus

“You can’t control everything that goes on on the football field—no matter how great you think you are,” Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard has said. It was the advice he was given his freshman year of college, and “I became a better player on the football field because I understood the concept of controlling the controllables.” Epictetus said it two thousand years ago. It’s the chief task. Mastering our understanding of what we can and cannot control. When we spoke to the Cleveland Browns about this, we highlighted how both athletes and coaches often overestimate their ability to control what happens. They lose their minds when crowds boo them. They feel slighted when they don’t get the big contract they feel they deserve. They mope around when key players get hurt, wondering about all the ways their absence will hinder the team. And in focusing on the uncontrollable, their performance and morale declines. In life, in sports, on the field and at home, all we can control is our individual performance—how we play. Not how the other team plays. Not how the other coach coaches. All we can control is our individual performance every time we step on that field. 

Epictetus famously described the dichotomy of control; a masterful way of understanding what is within our power to change and what isn’t. Essentially, Epictetus says that what’s within our control is that which is of our own doing. Opinion, motivation and desire are all examples of this, including speech. What isn’t within our control is that which is not of our own doing: things like our reputation, our social status and the circumstances we’re born into. Make no mistake, this is a skill that takes time to master. But in reserving our attention to the things we can control, we’ll be unphased by the things we can’t. 

Embrace Difficult Opponents 

“The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic-class material. But this is going to take some sweat to accomplish” — Epictetus

Every team has expectations going into each game. They know who the tough opponents are, who the wildcards are, and which teams they should absolutely blow out. Those games where your team destroys their opponent—they’re fun, sure. But they are a lie.

We learn very little when we steamroll someone. Where there is no struggle, there is no growth. It goes back to what Epictetus said in Discourses, that circumstance does not make the man but reveals him to himself. In easy times, when it’s 72 degrees with an ocean breeze and we’re feeling great, we’re not growing because our effort is minimal. We don’t have to work hard in those conditions.  Seneca wrote that only the prize fighter who has been bloodied and bruised—in training and in previous matches—can go into the ring confident of his chances of winning. The one who has never been touched before, never had a hard fight? That’s a fighter who is scared—and should be. Because they have no actual idea how they’re going to hold up. The Stoics would advocate for us to look forward to difficult opponents because they allow us to test ourselves. How much can we handle as a team? Who are the players that will put out maximum effort despite being faced with a worthy opponent? These questions are crucial from an awareness perspective, and they can only be answered by embracing the difficult opponents. Next time one of those difficult teams lines up across from you, don’t just see it as an obstacle. See it as an opportunity to test yourself and the team.

Assess and Adapt

“Just as nothing great is created instantly, the same goes for the perfecting of our talents and aptitudes. We are always learning, always growing. It is right to accept challenges. This is how we progress to the next level of intellectual, physical, or moral development. Still, don’t kid yourself: If you try to be something or someone you are not, you belittle your true self and end up not developing in those areas that you would have excelled at quite naturally.” — Epictetus

Going into the 2016 football season, Lane Kiffin was sure of himself and the effort he had put into his team. Then celebrating his second year at the University of Alabama as their offensive coordinator, Kiffin had made noticeable improvements to their game. But something was in the way of Kiffin and achieving all the milestones he wished to achieve as a coach. That something was his own ego. Throughout the season, Kiffin butt heads with head coach Nick Saban. It wasn’t a secret by any means, and fans everywhere could sense the tension that grew as each game passed. The Saban vs. Kiffin standoff came to a head when Kiffin accepted a coaching position at Florida Atlantic University just weeks before Alabama’s much-anticipated playoff appearance. Despite reassuring Saban that he would see the season through before beginning his new coaching position, Saban fired Kiffen one week before the Roll Tide faced off against Clemson for the national championship. When Alabama lost to Clemson, Kiffin went as far as telling the Washington Post that Bama would have won if he was there. 

Through all of this—the bitterness of being fired, the Alabama fan base supporting his departure—Kiffin had adopted a revamped mindset. Halfway through the 2016 season, Kiffin was given a copy of Ego is the Enemy. It caused him to sincerely rethink his coaching strategy. Instead of being obsessed with milestones like becoming the youngest head coach to do X, or being the first offensive coordinator to do Y, Kiffin realized that his ego had run wild. It cost him his job at the University of Alabama, but it wouldn’t define the rest of his career. Kiffin would use his newfound wisdom to bring FAU to an 11-3 season. He would practice humility by turning down a $2 million dollar coaching job at LSU, and continue to grow as an individual and a coach. By all means, Kiffin assessed and adapted. He saw his shortcomings and overcame them through the study of wisdom. That’s exactly what we’re all trying to do, and it’s what good coaches have done time and time again. 

Always Be Learning

“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” — Epictetus

When we think of the most prolific sports teams in the world, it’s hard to imagine them ever needing help. All we know is where they’re at now, not how long it took to get there or who taught them the skills they have now mastered. We ought to remember that no matter how great someone is at something, every master was once a student. Marcus Aurelius for example, the great Stoic who we now study so closely, had a teacher in Junius Rusticus. Marcus spends the earliest lines in Meditations thanking him for “the recognition that I needed to train and discipline my character.” Epictetus was taught by Musonius Rufus. Even Zeno, the founder of Stoicism had a teacher named Crates. 

Coaches are no exception. Phil Jackson, the legendary head coach of both the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers, learned the famed triangle offense from Tex Winter. Bill Belichick found a mentor in Bill Parcells. The illusion that success is achieved entirely by oneself is exactly that, an illusion. If we wish to be great, we must always be learning. We must always look for opportunities to learn more about the game and about ourselves. Seneca once said that “There is the need for someone against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler, you won’t make the crooked straight.” We need mentors, teachers, and coaches to make us better. The key to peak performance is to always remain a student. Always seek opportunities to challenge yourself and your team. Always. Be. Learning. 

Win or Lose, Practice Indifference

“To accept it without arrogance, to let it go with indifference” — Marcus Aurelius

We talk a lot about failure, hardship, and what to do when everything goes wrong for us. Rarely, however, do we touch on what to do with success. You know, when everything is going great. We know that ego is certainly something to worry about as we achieve more and more accolades. But aside from controlling our ego, what sort of tactics should we deploy? 

Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus each tell us that the Stoic is indifferent to external things, indifferent to wealth, indifferent to pain, indifferent to winning, indifferent to hope and dreams and everything else. You hear it enough times and it starts to sound like these people don’t care about anything. Especially since the modern definition of the word means precisely that. But this is a dangerous misreading. The Stoics were not indifferent in that sense at all, it’s that they were good either way. It didn’t matter whether they were on top or losing in every sense of the word, the Stoics learned to be indifferent when fate actually dealt out its hand. 

You may have heard about the incredible upset in 2018, when top-ranked University of Virginia was defeated by University of Maryland-Baltimore County in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. It was the first time in the tournament’s 80 year history that a number 16 seed beat a number one seed. Virginia had been the favorite to win the entire 68-team tournament, and then the biggest of underdogs came in and surprised everyone, pulling off one of the greatest victories in sports history. The Virginia loss ruined millions of brackets and could very well have ruined one man’s career. As one local Virginia newspaper put it, Virginia and head coach Tony Bennett “will be remembered in years, perhaps decades, to come, for becoming the first No. 1 seed…to lose to a No. 16 seed. That stain,” the article continued, “does not easily, if ever, wash away.”

But that’s not how Bennett saw it. He decided to accept it—to take the hit. Because that’s all you can do, if you want to play on the biggest stages, at the highest levels, and test yourself against the best. As he explained in a press conference after the game:

That’s life. We talk about it all the time…If you play this game, and you step into the arena, this stuff can happen…And all those who compete take that on. And so we’ll accept it.

It was Marcus Aurelius who said that we have the potential to live a good life, but only if we can learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference. Of course, winning matters. It’s the measure by which sports teams are judged and valued. But we have to learn to be like Coach Bennett—how to be good either way. Win or lose. Success or failure. Championship or losing season. Be indifferent to the outcome and focus on being the best you can be. That, ironically, is how to keep momentum. 

Know This: It Takes What It Takes

“Athletes decide first what they want to be, then proceed to do what is necessary.” — Epictetus

The Stoics believed the formula to achieve mastery in any field was simple. “First, tell yourself what you want to be, then act your part accordingly,” Epictetus said. It seems easy enough, though many people struggle to act their part to the fullest. Coaches know that it takes more than a playbook and solid athletes to create a winning program. It takes mental toughness, it takes mind-numbing discipline and dedication to the cause. As the renowned mental conditioning expert, Trevor Moawad would say, It Takes What It Takes. In our interview with Trevor, he expanded on this mantra: 

It Takes What It Takes as a broad message is an acceptance that choice is an illusion. It goes back to a conversation I had with NBA star Vince Carter when I was consulting with them. He said at 38 the behaviors for him to keep playing were clearly defined. It ‘took what it took’ and he had to decide whether to do them or not. Things like not dunking as much in games when it impacted his ability to get back on defense at the speed required and fast food post-game, etc. That conversation helped me better explain the simple truths behind success to athletes.

When you’re running drills, when you’re coaching up players and strategizing before games, you always have to ask that question of whether or not you’re doing what it takes to succeed. It seems silly to audit yourself in that way, but it’s exactly as Epictetus said. It’s reverse engineering, first seeing the objective and then visualizing everything it will take to meet it. 

During our interview with Trevor, he also made the distinction between thinking less negatively rather than thinking more positively. “Positive thinking and it’s constant quest to bully people into brighter lives has been an arch-nemesis of the self-help industry for years” he says. “If people were simply less negative – particularly their language and consumption of content – it would help them exponentially more” Seneca said something similar, that the wise man “dyes events with his own color.” When you’re defining what it will take for your team to succeed, remember Trevors’ (and Senecas’) sentiment, that the way we achieve what it takes is by less negative thinking and coloring each event with our own color. 

Cultivate a Quality Culture

“The secret to all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious.” — Marcus Aurelius

We’ve touched on the importance of assessing yourself as a coach, practicing indifference, and defining what it will take to succeed. But really, all of this has to do with creating a winning culture, and there are few coaches who do that better than Mike Lombardi. Michael Lombardi disrupted the way NFL executives prioritize structuring a winning franchise. A Stoic with three decades experience in the NFL, Lombardi’s resume includes winning three Super Bowls with some of the greatest minds in coaching–Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick. Lombardi’s philosophies on how to build championship teams, previously overlooked or undervalued, became foundational for the dynasties built by both Walsh and Belichick. Talent and stats matter, sure, but more important, as Lombardi pioneered: character. When you build a team on a foundation of character, everyone buys in. Everyone understands that they’re a part of something larger than themselves, and they’ll do anything to make sure the group succeeds. As Lombardi put it in our interview: 

Culture is everything. When I first started in the NFL, Bill Walsh told me there were just eight teams competing for the title.  I first thought he meant regarding talent and coaching. What has taken me more than a lifetime to learn was he was talking about the culture in each of those buildings.  Walsh is credited with the West Coast offense, but he loved his Standard of Excellence principles. 17 beliefs that he preached every single day. He, like Belichick, is all about culture.  The Patriot way is culture—a team wins, a team loses. The power of the group trumps the individual.

Marcus Aurelius spoke about the importance of principles when he wrote, “Take a good hard look at people’s ruling principle, especially of the wise, what they run away from & what they seek out.” What separates good sports programs and great ones is exactly this: their principles, their reasons for doing what they do. In the same way that our Stoic virtues bring us success in life—temperance, fortitude, prudence, and justice—each team must have a clearly established set of principles to succeed on the field. Now, here’s where coaches often miss the mark. What works for one team won’t necessarily work for another. There is no taking another team’s culture, it doesn’t work that way. Culture has to be organically created and sustained by the team itself. Seneca warned of this, writing “We’ve all known people who, like monkeys, mimic whatever seems novel and flashy at the moment. But then their enthusiasm and efforts wane; they drop their projects as soon as they become too familiar or demanding” 

It’s Important to Have Reminders

“Your principles have life in them. For how can they perish, unless the ideas that correspond to them are extinguished? And it is up to you to be constantly fanning them into new flame.” — Marcus Aurelius

If it wasn’t obvious, there are quite a few mantras in Stoicism. Memento Mori, to remind us that we are mortal. Amor Fati, to love our fate and accept the uncontrollable. Sympatheia, to remind us that we’re all connected one way or another, and many more. Stoics like Aristo, who lived around the time of Zeno, believed that this was cheating. A wise man, properly trained, should just know what to do in any and every situation. Later Stoics, like Seneca, thought this was ridiculous, which is why his letters to Lucilius are filled with all sorts of quotes and aphorisms and rules. Marcus Aurelius, who admittedly was a fan of Aristo, seemed to follow a path similar to Seneca’s, laying down “epithets for the self” and all sorts of other precepts for living. These precepts aren’t just beautiful philosophical truths though. They are practical reminders to keep us composed when life feels like it’s tearing us apart. 

It seems crazy now, but amongst the Stoics in the ancient world there was once intense disagreement over whether philosophers should have “precepts” or sayings to remind them of their teachings. Stoics like Aristo, who lived around the time of Zeno, believed that this was cheating. A wise man, properly trained, should just know what to do in any and every situation. Later Stoics, like Seneca, thought this was ridiculous, which is why his letters to Lucilius are filled with all sorts of quotes and aphorisms and rules. Marcus Aurelius, who admittedly was a fan of Aristo, seemed to follow a path similar to Seneca’s, laying down “epithets for the self” and all sorts of other precepts for living.

For one of our recent Saturday podcasts, we asked 2x NBA champion and 6x All-Star (and fan of Stoicism) Pau Gasol about the role these precepts play in sports:

Athletes appreciate pointers and directions. Quotes kind of hit home, as far as there’s a message, like “Pound the rock.” As far as resilience, you just keep pounding the rock. That was a big one for the Spurs. Just keep pounding the rock. If you hit it a thousand times or two thousand times, you might not see a crack, but it’s that next hit, that next pound where the rock will crack. You just got to keep at it, keep at it, keep at it. So pound the rock. It’s something that a lot of other coaches have acquired and then shared in their locker rooms.

On the Lakers, we used to have this quote in our weight room from Rudyard Kipling, “The strength of the pack is the wolf. And the wolf is the strength of the pack.” The strength of our best wolf, or our best individual, relies on the team, and the strength of the team relies on our best individual. So that’s something that really kind of resonates and brought everyone together. Understanding the importance of everyone’s job, everyone’s contribution, everyone’s role regardless. Because even if you have the best player, in this case like Kobe Bryant, but the rest of the pack does not do their job and does not fulfill their role, that wolf is weaker. We don’t accomplish team success.

Reminders matter. They aren’t cheating. They make you better. Mantras keep you centered. They give you something to rest on—a kind of backstop to prevent backsliding. The last thing any sports team or individual wants is regression. This is why every Stoic needs reminders to keep them on the path. 

Why Coach With Stoicism?

It’s perplexing to explore why stoicism has found its way into the hearts and minds of the world’s most well-known coaches and athletes. From Pau Gasol and CJ McCollum, to Ryan Shazier and Rory Mcilroy. The truth is that the challenges we face in sports are much of the same challenges we face in life. When we lose, when things don’t go our way, when we get injured (physically or emotionally), Stoicism teaches us to tame the wild, insecure beast that is ourselves. It gives us a philosophical toolkit by which we can bring about order in the chaos. Whether you’re a coach or not, we’re all playing the game of life. We can all benefit from the timeless teachings of the Stoics. 

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