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How Dean Smith Inspired Peak Performance (and You Can Too)

February 10, 2015 • Uncategorized

The recent passing of famed college basketball coach Dean Smith reminded me of the peak performance of his University of North Carolina teams over the decades. Only three coaches have more victories than Smith’s 879 wins. His team won two NCAA championships. His courage to challenge the racial status quo helped him earn the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

How did he do it? How can we have sustained excellence like that?

Pointing the Finger

The brightest spotlight typically belongs to the player who scores—the person who closes the deal. The rest of the team has to cope with that. Smith brilliantly came up with a simple gesture that fostered loyalty: Anyone who made a basket was to point to the teammate who made the assist. “He taught his team, and those who watched, that everyone is connected,” an ESPN.com writer eloquently wrote. Peak performance rises from a culture of selflessness. Smith’s players focused on giving to one another. They want to be pointed out for their contributions, and they want to point to one another.

Sacrificing His Interests

Every company wants to recruit and retain top talent. College basketball coaches labor under the uncertainty that their best players may well leave early for the NBA. Smith bucked that fear. If the player could bank on a good paycheck and job security, he told him to go for it. And by setting them free without guilt, shaming or expectations, almost all of them returned to graduate later. Smith was all about fulfilling potential, and that inspired greater loyalty.

Your Game Changer Takeaway

Play hard, play together, play smart—that’s the essence of Smith’s “Carolina Way” coaching philosophy. The intensity, unity and resourcefulness depended on connecting every individual to his own peak performance, so the team could do the same. Smith didn’t hold on too tight, even when letting go of a prized player appeared to go against his team’s best interests. These calculated risks built loyalty, which produced a towering legacy in one of the most pressure-filled positions in college sports. If you want to build peak performance in yourself and your team, start pointing out the people who are helping you get there, and supporting their individual journeys. It works!

Molly Fletcher helps inspire and equip game changers to dream, live and grow fearlessly. A keynote speaker and author, Molly draws on her decades of experiences working with elite athletes and coaches as a sports agent, and applies them to the business world. Sign up here to receive our monthly newsletter.