Beyond Basketball

Coach K's Keywords for Success


By Mike Krzyzewski

By Jamie K. Spatola

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This is a collection of short but extraordinarily powerful essays as to how Coach K of Duke inspires, motivates, and teaches his basketball players about the game of life, both on and off the court.



Five-Point Play

Leading with the Heart


Intimate experiences are precious in life. I have enjoyed one of the most intimate in writing this book with my daughter Jamie. We have spent a lot of time together on airplanes, in gyms, sharing meals, talking on the phone, and I have loved every second of it.

Since she was a little girl, Jamie has loved to write and I have known that she has a gift. I have used her gift to help me share some of my life stories with you and she made it easy for me. I often say that two is better than one if two can act as one. Jamie and I truly acted as one and grew together during this project. I thank her as I love her—with all of my heart.

—Mike Krzyzewski

June 2006


As a point guard at West Point, I had the privilege of playing for the legendary Bob Knight, a tough coach and probably the best of all time. There was one particular drill, called "Zig Zag," that we did in practice every single day. It was a defensive drill that was difficult and physically exhausting. Though it's a great and effective drill, my teammates and I dreaded it, but we always knew it was coming.

Five years later, after the completion of my service in the United States Army, I was able to reunite with Coach Knight as a graduate assistant coach at Indiana for the 1974–75 season. It was an unbelievable start for a coaching career, because not only did I have the opportunity to work under the best in the business, but he also had the number one team in the country that year with such standout players as Scott May, Kent Benson, and Quinn Buckner.

At our very first practice of the season, I was so excited just to be there. But I couldn't help but notice that we did not do the "Zig Zag" drill. In the locker room after practice, I was thinking about saying something to Coach Knight about it, but I thought better of it, and didn't say anything. Surely we would do the drill tomorrow.

The next day, we had a great practice, but again, no "Zig Zag." That day, Coach Knight seemed like he was in a pretty good mood and I was feeling sure of myself.

"Coach," I said, to get his attention.

"What?" he responded. I was already thinking that this was a mistake, but at this point I had to say it.

"Well, at Army, we did the 'Zig Zag' drill every single day, often multiple times. How come we haven't done it with this team?"

Coach Knight walked calmly over to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, "Michael, there is a big difference between you and Quinn Buckner."

He was right. Drills like "Zig Zag" that are a necessity for some teams may not be appropriate for others. You have to adapt what you do based on who you are. A drill that Mike Krzyzewski needs to do every day, Quinn Buckner may never have to do or may only have to do infrequently. Every player is different, every team is different, and to merely apply a formula is not fair to those players or those teams.

You can always learn something from great teachers. I had the privilege to learn from one of the best coaches of all time. From Coach Knight, I learned passion, commitment, persistence, and intensity. But I also learned adaptability.

That lesson is the reason why I have written a different practice plan for every single practice of my career. In teaching, you must remember that no group or individual is the same as who you taught the day before, the year before, or the decade before. Your plan has to suit who you and your team are right now. And you must always be willing to adapt. When you do, you and your team will be even more successful.


What I believe separates good teams and individuals from great ones is the manner in which they handle adversity. Do you let it beat you or do you use it to make you better?

Adversity can teach you more about yourself than any success, and overcoming an obstacle can sometimes feel even better than achieving an easy victory. Additionally, you can discover things about your endurance, your ability to turn a negative into a positive, and your personal strength of heart.

One of the greatest comments I ever heard about adversity came from the current Duke University president, Richard Brodhead. He said to me, "You outlive your darkest day." In other words, failure can never be your destination. In adverse circumstances, you must remind yourself that this day is not your last. You will get through it, but can you use it to get better? Improvement comes as the result of adversity; it comes from learning about limits and how to break those limits. Whenever I face adversity, I look at the problem and then beyond the problem. I look for the solution and then I look for the positive impact it will have on me, my team, or my family.

In the summer of 2003, after doing a speaking engagement in Colorado Springs, I heard on television the frightening news that my former Duke point guard Jason Williams had been in a horrific motorcycle accident. I immediately made calls to find out about Jason and learned that he was in serious condition and had been taken to a trauma center in Chicago. The initial prognosis was that he had a chance of losing his leg and never being able to walk again. I immediately changed my original schedule and flew to Chicago to be with him.

On the flight, I thought about Jason's current condition and all that he had already accomplished in his young life: he was a Duke University graduate, a National Champion, a two-time National Player of the Year, and he had his jersey retired and hanging from the rafters in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

One thing that had always blown me away about Jason is that he was never afraid to make mistakes. In the 2001 National Championship game, Jason had hit only one three-pointer in ten attempts, but going into the last few minutes of the game, I called a play for him to shoot another three. He was not afraid to take that next shot. And he hit the three that proved to be the biggest shot in the last few minutes of the game. As a result, we all became National Champions. Jason was fearless because he grew up with great parents, knowing that he had their unconditional love and support and that a mistake was never the end-all. I tried to offer him the same type of support during his college career. His fearlessness made him one of the best players I have ever coached.

I will always remember walking into Jason's hospital room, seeing him in that condition, and hugging his crying mother and father. As I bent over and kissed him on his forehead, Jason said to me, "Coach, thanks for being here."

I then proceeded to talk to Jason in positive terms about the fact that he would not only walk again but also would be in the NBA again. I gave him a holy saint's medal of mine that I had carried with me for years. Every time he looked at the medal, I wanted him to look beyond the adversity he was currently facing and to remember that those who love him will be behind him throughout his recovery and the rest of his life. I wanted to give him a destination beyond the devastation. I said to him, "Jason, this medal is very special to me, but I want to lend it to you. You have to promise to give it back to me the day that you play in your next NBA game. And you can be sure that I will be there."

The doctors would talk about the solution to Jason's medical problems, but I wanted to be sure that, mentally and emotionally, he was looking beyond the problem and that his destination was not adversity, but success.

I have always known that Jason has the heart of a champion and with him it is best to let him follow his instincts. Winners expect to win. And Jason expects that he will come out a champion yet again. His limits have been tested in a very serious way. But he is approaching this scary situation and his arduous recovery with the same fearlessness with which he played every game of basketball. He has taken his recovery time to develop as a student of the game, attending as many games as possible, asking questions of other players and coaches, and even doing television commentary during some games. Because I know Jason has a winner's heart, it doesn't surprise me to watch as he has gone from not knowing whether or not he will walk again to having the opportunity to begin playing basketball.

The adversity did not beat him. Rather, he has used it as an opportunity to grow as a person and to learn a great deal about what a strong man he is, mentally, emotionally, and physically. Jason looked at his adversity and beyond, and his champion heart has him running and jumping again, less than three years later. What a winner!


Drive, passion, and intensity: these are all good things. They are elemental to finding success in your life and career. But just as important to life as all of these things is balance. Being motivated in your career is important, but you must be cautious not to become one-dimensional. If there is no balance between the time and energy spent on your career, your family, your religion, your friendships, and community service, you can become unbalanced internally.

I was reminded of the need for balance by my then eleven-year-old daughter, Jamie, after a heartbreaking loss in 1993. Our team had won back-to-back NCAA National Championships in 1991 and 1992, but California had just beaten us to end our pursuit of a third title in a row.

On the jet going back to North Carolina that night, the mood was very somber. I walked down the aisle of the plane thanking our cheerleaders and band members for all that they had done as a part of our team. At the same time, I was watching my players, and particularly my seniors, to see if any of them needed my friendship or assistance during this difficult time. I heard Jamie's voice whispering, "Dad, come here." At first I tried not to pay attention to her because I was focused on my team. But she was persistent. When I went over to her, she said, "Dad, can we have a family meeting tomorrow?"

We had not had a family meeting in a number of months, and there I was, worried about my team, and my eleven-year-old wanted to call one. However, always wanting to give my children the time and attention they deserve, I agreed to a meeting the next evening at six o'clock.

That next morning, Jamie came into our bedroom with clipboard and pen in hand. She asked me to rank my level of happiness on a scale of one to five: one being the lowest, and five being the highest. Because of the loss and the mood I was in, I wanted to tell her it was a zero. But, because she was eleven, I told her it was a three: a very mediocre response.

"Okay," she said, taking note of my answer, "now, how would you rate your happiness level if we were to get a dog?"

I could see where this was going but I responded anyway. "Four."

At 6:00 p.m. sharp, we all gathered in the family room. Jamie had the entire family in front of her, and behind her two posters. The first sign read, in large letters, "Issue #1: A Dog," and below it had the action statement, "Act Now." Next to it, the second sign read, "Issue #2: Family Vacation," and below that, "Badly Needed." With a pointer, she indicated the first topic and began to plead her case. She even revealed a bar graph she had drawn displaying the family level of happiness without a dog and the projected level of happiness should we decide to get a family pet. The graph showed that the family happiness level would go from 60 percent to 80 percent. A shocking 20 percent increase in overall family happiness! She then used her pointer to indicate the action statement as she read aloud the words, "Act Now."

During the next twenty minutes, the discussion turned into the typical family debate over whether or not to get a pet. Who would train the puppy? Who would take the time to walk and exercise him? Who would clean up his messes? After the unconvincing responses that my daughters would take care of all of those things, we told Jamie that it was not going to happen. Jamie cried. The meeting was over. We never even got to issue number two.

The next day I left for a recruiting trip. When I returned the following day, I opened the door, and to my surprise, we had a dog: a beautiful black Lab puppy that we named Defense.

In that situation, Jamie proved to be wrong. She said the happiness would increase by 20 percent; it actually went up 40 percent, because now we were 100 percent happy. Defense turned out to be an amazing addition. And, a year later, we added another dog to our family, a chocolate Lab named Cameron. "D" and "Cammy" have brought joy, comfort, and unconditional love into our everyday lives. When I come home from a long trip or a hard practice, there is nothing I love to do more than get down on the floor and spend time with our dogs.

After getting to know Defense for a couple of days, I left town again to work for CBS during the 1993 Final Four. I was gone for seven days. When I returned home, I was exhausted and emotionally drained but was scheduled to leave the next day for a five-day recruiting trip. As I was sitting in the family room, I looked up and Jamie's signs were still there. I stared hard at the sign that read, "Family Vacation: Badly Needed." After thinking momentarily, I canceled the recruiting trip and took that time to go to the beach with my family.

While at the beach, I was able to spend some one-on-one time with my middle daughter, Lindy, who was going through a very difficult teenage crisis. After a long walk on the beach and a great discussion, we together had come up with a solution to the crisis. Our family happiness increased yet again. All because my eleven-year-old daughter persisted in making sure that I keep balance in my life.

As a leader and a career-oriented individual, you must take care not to allow one aspect of your life to so consume you that you neglect the others. Your family and friends are there to remind you when you need to "act now" on regaining some balance and when getting back on the right and healthy track is "badly needed." At a time in my life when my career had stirred up some very intense emotions, I was reminded to put time into the other parts of my life, and it ended up changing all of us for the better. Balance can put things in perspective, can bring you joy even when you are down, and can allow you to be at your best in all aspects of your life.


Those three magic words "I love you" are words that are important and meaningful in any culture. But there are four words that are not said nearly enough by families interacting with kids or people interacting in a team environment.


On Sale
Oct 10, 2006
Page Count
192 pages
Business Plus

Mike Krzyzewski

About the Author

Mike Krzyzewski was the head basketball coach of the Duke Blue Devils from 1980 to 2022, winning five NCAA championships and 1,202 games—the most ever in Division 1. He is revered by sports fans and business leaders everywhere. Coach K lives with his family in Durham, North Carolina. 

Jamie K. Spatola is a graduate of Duke University, where she majored in English. She is also one of Coach K's daughters.

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