Illustration: Ashley Siebels
The toughest moments in our career are the ones we should never forget. They make us stronger.
I had the good fortune of watching the ESPN documentary “The Class that Saved Coach K,” recently. It’s about Duke University’s legendary head basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, and the players that he recruited that helped build the foundation for Duke’s incredible run of success. It also served as a master class in adaptability — a cornerstone of emotional intelligence.
This great class arrived in the early-mid 1980s, before the time that Coach K and Duke became synonymous with winning and championships. Back then, Coach K was a relative unknown. He had success coaching at West Point, but he wasn’t the icon of American sports coaches that he is today.
During the documentary, Coach K told a story of how early on in his career, there were already calls for him to be fired.
The team suffered a humiliating loss (109–66) in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Tournament that ended their season. It was an emphatic thumping that could have sunk everyone’s self-esteem and had a major effect for years to come. Everyone was down. Coach K was wondering about his job security.
Following the game, he and his assistant coaches went to a restaurant to eat and reflect on the season. Once they were prepared to eat their meal, one of the assistant coaches lifted his glass of water and offered a toast:
“Here’s to a night let’s soon forget.”
Coach K didn’t like this. It didn’t seem right. He had learned earlier in his childhood, growing up on Chicago’s South Side, that adversity was nothing to run from. In fact, it was something to embrace. This is what adaptability is all about.
Even earlier in his career while playing for — and then coaching — West Point, he realized tough times had defined him. He banked those memories, used his brilliant self-awareness and emotional intelligence to assess the moment, and then he paused.
He looked at each coach at the table in the eyes. He lifted his glass of water and said,
“No. Here’s to a night we will never forget.”
The men at the table sat in stunned silence. They could see the look of conviction and confidence on Coach K’s face that this would be a meaningful night — just not in the way they first thought.
That night formed the mindset of the teams that have played for Coach K during his 40 seasons coaching basketball at Duke University. It’s a winner’s mindset. It’s an emotionally intelligent mindset.
Learn from mistakes.
Grow. Adapt. Reflect. Never, ever, ever, ever give up.
As a former college basketball player, I can attest that the greatest wins come from the greatest losses. I received a scholarship to play basketball and played on the team in my first season. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I was cut from the team. It rocked my world. My whole life had been about playing basketball, and at age 19 I didn’t even know where to turn next.
Fortunately, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and went on to become the sports director of my college radio station for three years. I learned things during that time that have carried with me to this day about professionalism, preparation, hard work, communication, and friendship. I had a fulfilling college experience that I maybe wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Whatever adversity you’re going through now in your career, never forget it. In fact, build the foundation for your next great success on your toughest losses. It will make you stronger, better, bolder and more prepared for what comes next. This is the mindset of great, emotionally intelligent leaders.
This is the mindset of a champion.
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