Phil Jackson: the art of strategic rivalry

11 NBA championships. No other coach has won more. The numbers don’t lie. Phil Jackson is the greatest basketball coach the world has seen.

So how is he so good? 

Jackson mastered the triangle offense – which is the most optimal way to space the basketball court with 5 players. And he put in a lot of emphasis on teamwork where players helped each other. Better passing. Better layups.

But more than his strategic playbook, he is the greatest coach because he knows how to get the best out of all his players.

How? By creating rivalries.

Setting up competitions

When Jackson was coaching Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, he setup a completely optional “Breakfast club.” An extra morning workout routine. He would praise whoever showed up for the optional workout.

He created internal competitions. Where players would be ranked in their practice sessions based on who made the most number of passes.

But Jackson took this strategy a lot deeper.

Motivating Shaq

During his first week of coaching the Lakers, Jackson has a conversation with Shaquille O’Neal: “What do you think was Wilt Chamberlain’s greatest accomplishment?” 

“Averaging 50 points and 30 rebounds a game.”

“Nope. He averaged over 48 minutes a game. Do you think you could do that?”

That’s how Jackson got Shaq to put in his best effort. He knew that for someone as talented as Shaq, the more time he played, the more points he would score. Shaq ended up playing 79 games that season and averaged 40 minutes per game. Scoring 29 points per game.

Helping the Lakers win the championship and earning himself the MVP!

It’s not enough to create a competitive environment. To get the best out of his players, Jackson reframed them as underdogs. There is always someone who has played better than you. Find them. And frame them.

Could the Chicago Bulls ever be the underdogs?

Michael Jordan and the Bulls were already the best team. They had absolutely no competition. How could Jackson motivate them to become even better? He pulled out the record books.

Jackson put up newspaper clippings of how the Lakers had won 69 games in 1971. And he set a target of 70 wins for the Bulls!

The Chicago Bulls went on to win 72 games and lose just 10 in 1996 – creating a record that stood for 2 decades!

How do you set up rivalries?

  1. Rivalries means creating a “us vs them” situation. It begins with identifying a “them.” Identify a worthy rival. Someone who is beatable but only if you stretch.
  2. Highlight their strengths. Their accomplishments. Their record. Create a goal.
  3. Add emotional weight. What would happen if you don’t beat them? What would happen if you do!

Action Summary:

  • Rivalries are great motivators. Because we have egos, we have a desire to dominate. So use them. Put up a rivalry that you need to stretch to beat.
  • If there is no worthy current competitor, look at history.