Basketball Over Everything: Life Lessons from the Zen Master

Nicole and I began to work with each other almost five years ago.  We worked at a summer camp for people with special needs and disabilities.  She was my team leader.  We had our share of fun over the summer, but looking back now it must have been hard for her – we had our fair share of drama through out the summer.  Not only with participants but also turmoil within our own group.  It wasn’t a battle of egos rather six people trying to figure out how to work together and where our skills could be expressed without restricting another person.  We pushed past our initial turbulence, meshed together, and had a good summer.

The experiences from my first summer helped when I returned to camp the next summer.  I was lucky enough to have Nicole as my team leader again.  I would say we understood how we worked and what our strengths and weaknesses were.  However, I wouldn’t say we were particularly close on a personal level.  In my opinion, one of the biggest reasons for this was her maturity level was on a higher plane than mine and until mine rose we would never connect on a personal level.  Yet, even if we weren’t buddy-buddy outside of camp, we both knew we cared about each other not only as Otters (our age group team designation) but people as well.  After being on the same team the previous summer, we went into the next one knowing we had each other’s back.  Which served us well in a summer filled with drama. This drama just made our group stronger because it served as a call to rally around each other.  We understood that no matter what else was happening outside our circle it didn’t matter because we still were in control of what we could control.  We let go of the things we couldn’t.

Even with my first two years at camp being chaotic, I loved it.  I can’t imagine my first two summers there being any different.  I was fortunate enough to have Nicole as my TL for them.  I can’t imagine anyone else handling everything as well as she did.

Leadership is not about forcing your will on others.  It’s about mastering the art of letting go.

The quote above is from Phil Jackson‘s latest book, Eleven Rings.  On the surface the book seems like an overview of Jackson’s coaching career from his perspective.  While the book could be described as that, it would be short selling the themes and topics the book traverses.  Jackson hardly talks about the games themselves because we already know those stories.  We don’t need his recap of the “Flu Game” or “The Shrug.”  Instead the book isn’t so much about basketball as it is about harnessing the full potential of a group, finding the balance between creativity and structure, and understanding the moment and what is needed.  I believe sports are a reflection of real life and a commentary on what is happening in the world off the court.  In Eleven Rings, Jackson takes this idea to it’s natural conclusion: the idea of a basketball team as a mirror for any team or group you might work with in life.  He accomplishes this without sounding overly preachy or grandiose.  Instead, reading the book I felt like my grandfather or an elder was reading me the story, explaining the greater world to me and how to act within it.

The book is chronological but it’s only used as a skeleton.  His beliefs, perspective, and ultimately his spirit give his words life on the page.  In the second chapter of the book he details his eleven basic principles of mindful leadership.  Each point is not complex, instead he opts to keep things simple.

The eleven points are:

1. Lead from the inside out.
2. Bench the ego.
3. Let each player discover his own destiny.
4. The road to freedom is a beautiful system.
5. Turn the mundane into the sacred.
6. One breath = one mind.
7. The key to success is compassion.
8. Keep your eye on the spirit, not the scoreboard.
9. Sometimes you have to pull out the big stick.
10. When in doubt, do nothing.
11. Forget the ring.

Eleven Rings is Jackson’s story.  These guidelines or rules are from his own experiences and background.  I cannot explain what Jackson means by each – he does so himself in the book.  In addition to this chapter, the book is sprinkled with poems, fables, anecdotes, and quotes which are all inspiring and get the brain moving.  I’m sure I’ll have a new favourite anecdote or quote after every re-read and will be able to spit out fables word for word soon.  Again, I do not dare analyze them in their greater meaning; all I can do is absorb the lessons and filter it through my own background and experiences.  I do highly recommend any fan of Jackson’s to pick up the book for themselves.

I knew I wanted to write a post about the book after it was released.  I picked it up on Friday and was finished it by Saturday night.  I felt a rush of inspiration however, it was close to being one in the morning.  I was afraid if I began writing I would be up for the next few hours.  Instead I jotted down some my initial thoughts and assumed this feeling would return when I looked at the notes later.  As Jackson explains in the book, you cannot force the feeling of oneness.  It has to be cultivated and trained.  If it never happens you don’t stop.  If it does you don’t stop.  More importantly, if it does happen, you have to let it go.  It is not a switch you can turn on and off.  If it does return it will be in a different form.  You have to trust the process.

The themes discussed in this book has been a project for me this year.  Not trying to find myself per say, but discovering my own process, as well as answering a question I usually struggle expressing.  Not answering but expressing.  The question is: what do I need in this moment?  I guess that’s one of the reasons why I’ve latched onto yoga so fast.  It’s an avenue for me to cut through all the drama and distractions I keep piling up to prevent me from expressing my answer.  Also, it provides me clarity to why I’m afraid of expressing myself.  It’s not that I’m scared of the question but I’m scared of what the answer might lead to.  In the start of each chapter Jackson provides a short quote to set the tone.  The one quote which speaks to me the most is one by Soren Kierkegaard, “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily.  Not to dare is to lose oneself.”

Some people may find it weird that after reading a book written by one of the greatest basketball coaches ever that my first though wasn’t of a basketball team I played on, but a summer camp, considering I played organized basketball for twelve years.  However, I don’t think I’ve ever played on a team who had a mindset as Jackson describes from the book Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer Wright – where the team has the mindset of “we’re great (and they’re not).”  However, I have had the experience of playing on many teams whom had the mindset of, “I’m great (and you’re not).”  The first time I felt as if I reached the level of “we’re great” was that first summer.  It didn’t happen automatically but we figured it out, together and by the end of summer, in my mind, we reached the highest level: “life is great.”  We didn’t win a championship ring or anything but life was great then.  I feel as if that summer pushed me and caused me to lose my footing momentarily and if that never happened who knows where I’d be now.   If I didn’t have that experience, I might not be heading back to camp this summer for my fifth one, and second as a TL.  If Nicole wasn’t my TL those two summers, we probably wouldn’t have become such good friends and you wouldn’t be reading this blog.

It’s Like I Have ESPN or Something – Nicole

I am certainly not a zen master.

I don’t think zen masters never have zen.  Zen is kind of an essential skill for the whole zen master thing.  I missed the zen boat completely.

Irving hits solid gold in this post.  It, and a thousand other things, prove how great of a team leader Irving is.  I can’t help but be proud of him.  I can only imagine how lucky his new staff (my grand kid group leaders, aww) are to work with him this summer.

I can grab on to when Irving talks about not stopping – about the importance of motion, moving, change, velocity.  Summer camp demands that we never stop; that we never stop in a million ways.  Obviously, physical movement – you can forget about sitting down.  But camp requires and teaches us other motion and movement as well.  Our ideas, creativity, beliefs, emotions, friendships, self-processes, identities, must all be in flux at camp.  And while sometimes that motion feels uncontrollable, that it is changing, moving, evolving, is important.  If we stick ourselves still, camp doesn’t work.  For anyone.  Camp taught me that always moving – and moving at varying speeds (aka learning to slow down) – is essential and productive, but also that simply moving is enough.  Sometimes it’s fast motion that drags me out of frustration, other times I need a slow contemplative motion.  When I’m stuck, motion keeps things going; it forces change, which forces learning and growth.  It moves me from being jammed in mean, nasty stuff.  So.  Summary: “There are a bajillion ways to move, and opportunities for motion, at camp.  Sitting still is overrated.”

And remember: “sometimes you have to pull out the big stick”.  Or campers will pull it on you.  Just keep moving.

Irving Chong (@Irving_Chong) and Nicole (@_nicoliooo) are co-creators of This is Why we Can’t Have Nice Things even though it doesn’t make sense why they’re friends.


One thought on “Basketball Over Everything: Life Lessons from the Zen Master

  1. We Aren’t Any Closer to Having Nice Things: 50 – This is Why we Can't Have Nice Things

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