The Soul of Teamwork
Syndicated from, May 13, 2013

6 minute read


“Basketball is a sport that involves the subtle interweaving of players at full speed to the point where they are thinking and moving as one.”    -- Phil Jackson, Sacred Hoops

Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson—by percentage (.738) the winningest coach in NBA history—is renowned for his ability to turn megastars into team players. And his secret is spiritual. “The most effective way to forge a winning team,” he writes in Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, “is to call on the players' need to connect with something larger than themselves.” Blending principles from Zen Buddhism and the teachings of the Lakota Sioux with his experience from over twenty years as a professional player and coach, Jackson led Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls to three consecutive titles not once, but twice, from '91 to '93 and '96 to '98. Then he did it yet again with the Lakers and Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, from '00 to '02. Before Jackson arrived, both the Bulls and the Lakers were teams that, despite the presence of breathtaking talent, had failed to achieve the harmony needed to win championships. Yet under his guidance, schooled in his characteristically unselfish, team-oriented style, they went on to record-breaking success. So what does this remarkable head coach have to say about the heightened group consciousness that can awaken when teams come together beyond the divisive forces of the ego? WIE spoke with him last December, as the Lakers were coming off a ten-game winning streak, to find out.

WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT?: In Sacred Hoops you write about “the energy that's unleashed when players put their egos aside and work toward a common goal.” You also refer to “a powerful group intelligence [that] emerges that is greater than the coach's ideas or those of any individual on the team.” What is that powerful energy and intelligence that emerges in a collective when the ego is set aside? How is it experienced?

Phil Jackson: When a player surrenders his self-interest for the greater good, his fullest gifts as an athlete are manifested. He's not trying to force a shot, or do something that's not in his repertoire of basketball moves, or impose his personality on the team. It's funny—by playing within his natural abilities, he activates a higher potential beyond his abilities, a higher potential for the team. It changes things for everybody. All of a sudden, the rest of the team can react instinctively to what that player is doing. And it just kind of mushrooms out from there—the whole begins to add up to more than the sum of its parts. We see this a lot in critical situations. When players are totally focused on the team goal, their efforts can create chain reactions. It's as if they become totally connected to one another, in sync with one another, like five fingers on one hand. When one finger moves, the rest of them all react to it.

For example, we have a ballplayer on this team who loves to chase balls for steals on defense. If he's worried about scoring points at the other end of the floor, or worried about what happened on the last play, he won't do it. But when he commits himself on defense, his teammates react to his natural opportunism and come to cover for him, because they know intuitively what he's going to be doing. Everybody is activated, and good things start happening. It's interesting—the other players are consciously aware of the fact that they're anticipating their teammate's behavior. Somehow, mysteriously, they just know the timing is right. They simply feel something out ahead of themselves and make their move. It's not an out-of-body experience or anything like that. They just feel the tremendous pull of an activity, of what has to happen next. At that moment, they're called to activate themselves. I think that's what players mean when they say “I had to go; I had to commit.” It doesn't even occur to them that they shouldn't.

WIE: What does it take to bring about this shift, this conscious shift of attention from the concerns of the individual to the success of the team? Superstars, especially, tend to have big egos and to want to stand out from the group. How have you managed to convince them to, as you put it, “surrender the 'me' for the 'we'”?

Jackson: Well, one has to demonstrate that if a person does this, they're rewarded for it, because the team succeeds. The fact is, selflessness is the soul of teamwork. We have a practical rule in our game: when you stop the basketball, when it resides in your presence and you hold it for longer than two counts, you've destroyed our rhythm. When the ball is in your hands, you become the focal point. And when you become the focus, our system breaks down. It's that simple. Suddenly the defense can catch up, and the spacing is destroyed. So it's the unselfish players—players who are more interested in reading what's happening and keeping the flow going on the floor—who are the most valuable players that you have. They may only be averaging seven points a game, four points a game, or whatever, but their ability to play in a selfless manner gives the team its real opportunities. In those individuals, the power of we instead of me is more advanced. They feel more responsibility to the group, and that's why you're better off with maybe two very, very talented and perhaps selfish people on the team than five or six or seven. That's why teams that are less talented but more selfless and group-oriented can have more success. You might say the San Antonio Spurs were a successful team last year because of that ability that they had. The Bulls were a very successful team because of that ability. And the Lakers, when I first started watching them in the late nineties, were not successful—even though they were very, very talented—because they couldn't do that.

You see, the real reason the Bulls won six NBA championships in nine years is that we plugged into the power of oneness instead of the power of one man. Sure, we had Michael Jordan, and you have to credit his talent. But at the other end of the spectrum, if players 9, 10, 11, and 12 are unhappy because Michael takes twenty-five shots a game, their negativity is going to undermine everything. It doesn't matter how good individual players are—they can't compete with a team that is awake and aware and trusts each other. People don't understand that. Most of the time, everybody's so concerned about not being disrespected. But you have to check that attitude at the door—that defensiveness, that protection of your own image and reputation. Everybody needs help in this game. Everybody's going to get dunked on. We're all susceptible to falling down and being exposed. But when we lose our fear of that, and look to each other, then vulnerability turns into strength, and we can take responsibility for our place in the larger context of the team and embrace a vision in which the group imperative takes precedence over personal glory.


This article has been reprinted with permission and was originally published by EnlightenNext magazine -- a rich archive of over two decades of cutting-edge spiritual journalism.

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