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Monday, March 04, 2013

The Power of Negative Thinking: Bob Knight Explains His Coaching Philosophy

Hall of Fame basketball coach Bob Knight has been called many names but "Pollyanna" is not one of them. Knight's new book The Power of Negative Thinking (co-written with Bob Hammel) takes a contrarian view of Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking. Knight explains that there is "a large helping of my version of humor in the title chosen for this book" and adds, "I am not arguing for being a strict negativist, for walking around with a sour look, for always seeing the dark side, always expecting failure. That's not my intent at all. Quite the opposite."

Knight's thesis is that instead of blindly believing/hoping that an endeavor is going to be successful, "being alert to the possible negatives in any situation is the best way to bring about positive results." Knight believes "Planning beats repairing" because "There are so many unintended consequences in any important action that we need to at least consider, like the best chess player, how our next move could produce an unexpected chain reaction down the line."

Knight observes, "most basketball games are not won, they are lost," so therefore Knight constantly reminded his players, "Victory favors the team making the fewest mistakes." Considering his confrontational reputation, it is not surprising that Knight also put a twist on a famous advertising slogan when he declared to his teams, "This ain't Burger King. We'll do it my way."

"Negative thinking" in Knight's parlance is analogous to what the great chess player/theoretician/writer Aron Nimzovich called "prophylaxis," which in chess means overprotecting a strategically important square, thus ensuring the overall safety of the position and also providing for smooth, harmonious deployment of one's forces. Knight cites many examples from military history and he is particularly fond of the philosophies of Sun Tzu, who believed that a wise general patiently waits until he can fight a battle on his terms on the terrain of his choosing and in a manner that favors the strengths of his forces while maximizing the deficiencies of the opposing forces. Along those lines, Knight advises, "Insecurity can have intangible benefits. Being able to self-analyze and be self-critical is very important...Realizing your shortcomings takes an awareness." A general, a coach or a business executive must figure out not only the reasons that he could be successful in the next battle, game or deal but also the reasons that the next endeavor could fail. Knight suggests, "Always worry. If you can't think of a thing to be worried about, worry about being overconfident."

Hall of Fame coach Pete Newell told Knight that coaches who rely on simplicity and execution have more long term success than coaches who rely on surprises and changes. Think of Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers running their famous sweep to perfection and Red Auerbach's Boston Celtics that reportedly only had seven plays (although each play had multiple options); dynasties are not built on trickery and gimmicks but rather on a solid foundation of fundamentals executed precisely. During Knight's coaching career, his winning formula relied on drilling his players to make as few mistakes as possible, to play tough defense without fouling and to patiently pass the ball until a player had an open shot that he could make at least half of the time. Another factor that Knight considers to be critically important is to make more free throws than the opposing team attempts; he describes "the hidden values of drawing fouls": free throws not only add to your scoring total but foul trouble restricts the minutes of opposing players.

Knight decries drinking to excess, smoking and gambling; one of his treasured possessions is a scrapbook given to him by the widow of Hall of Fame coach Joe Lapchick: the scrapbook contains newspaper clippings detailing the fallout from the gambling scandals that almost destroyed college basketball in the 1950s. Lapchick showed those articles to his players to warn them about how a bad decision could ruin their lives. 

Lapchick's mild-mannered demeanor is completely different from Knight's but Gus Alfieri, author of Lapchick: The Life of a Legendary Player and Coach in the Glory Days of Basketball, told me that Knight "was a very strong disciple of Lapchick, probably the biggest name person who Lapchick mentored; Lou Carnesecca also benefited, but Knight more so. When I interviewed Knight, he made a statement that I put in the book: 'You could put all the technical basketball that Joe Lapchick knew on the back of a postcard but it would take encyclopedias to contain all the knowledge that he had of basketball.' Lapchick was an intuitive type of coach who could feel what was going on. Knight told me that Coach Lapchick taught him a rule that he still uses to this day. The rule, kind of simplified, was this: if a player does anything to embarrass the school, the team or me, he has to answer to me…He didn't make specific rules and neither does Bobby Knight to this day. He claims that he got that from Lapchick."

Knight alludes to this way of thinking in his book, stating that even though he had a reputation as a dictatorial personality he actually tried to have as few rules as possible and he would let his players decide many things by a vote; one time he allowed the team to skip practice entirely because the players were very fatigued from a tough win--but Knight admits that he always selected the team captains and the team MVPs because he felt that those choices would have a direct impact on current and future success. While it may be true that Knight followed Lapchick's example to not have rules about frivolous, unimportant things, the "Burger King" quote probably provides a more accurate depiction of day to day life in Knight's program than the story about his players voting not to have a practice, which must have been the exception rather than the norm.

There is an inescapable irony surrounding Knight's career. He achieved great success both on the court and off the court while emphasizing the importance of discipline, which he defines as "recognizing what has to be done, doing it as well as you can do it, and doing it that way all the time"--yet Knight often displayed horrific lack of personal discipline/self control in many infamous incidents; Indiana University fired Knight in 2000 after he repeatedly violated a code of conduct put in place to curb his verbal abusiveness and physical violence. Knight never directly addresses his temper in the book and his only reference to the end of his career at Indiana University is the suggestion that he should have left years earlier when it became apparent (in his opinion) that the school's administration no longer supported him. Knight would never accept that kind of lack of personal accountability from one of his players on the court, in the classroom or anywhere else, so even though Knight is indisputably a great coaching strategist and even though his book contains much wisdom it is undeniably hypocritical for Knight to ask other people to be disciplined, to think negatively (in terms of assessing the possible consequences of a course of action) and to uphold a high moral standard.

There is certainly a place in sports, business and life in general for the specific kind of "negative thinking" that Knight recommends; it makes sense to assess what could go wrong and then try to prevent those scenarios from happening but I wonder if a philosophy based on "negative thinking" can be presented in a positive manner or if "negative thinking" is instead more useful as one particular technique that is incorporated within a larger, more holistic philosophy. Nimzovich's prophylaxis is a very important chess technique but it is just one aspect of chess mastery; after a chess player properly deploys his forces and limits his opponent's options he still must come up with a winning plan.

In Stillpower: Your Inner Source of Excellence in Sports, Garret Kramer contends that the best approach to life is based on Stillpower, which he defines as "The clarity of mind to live with freedom and ease; the inner source of excellence; the opposite of willpower." He further explains the difference between Stillpower and willpower:

Forcing effort, judging behavior, or trying to mold players potentially thwarts creativity and, ultimately, stifles free will. What all children (and adults, too) are looking for is an unbounded environment where they are permitted to follow their passions, express themselves fully, and compete in the absence of the fear of failure.

Kramer believes that coaching should be rooted in love: "love for your players, the game or life itself." Knight would undoubtedly consider that to be a "Pollyanna" approach that is doomed to failure but I think that one can have a Stillpower mindset in terms of being a calm person with a positive outlook and yet still engage in prophylactic (or "negative") thinking regarding specific life and/or game strategies. In other words, I think that Knight did not have to throw chairs, physically assault people and act abusively in order to prepare his players to minimize their mistakes and maximize their strengths; those worthy ends do not justify all of Knight's means.

In The Power of Positive Coaching, David Bornstein defines the cornerstone principles of the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) as developed by PCA founder Jim Thompson, a teacher who once directed the Public Management Program at Stanford Business School: "He came up with the 'ELM Tree of Mastery' to help coaches remember that the feedback that most helps young athletes develop their potential is not praise for good performance or criticism for bad performance. What works best is helping children understand that they control three key variables: their level of Effort, whether they Learn from experiences, and how they respond to Mistakes." Larry Brown, Phil Jackson and Dean Smith are three Hall of Fame coaches who are members of the PCA's National Advisory Board.

Knight's The Power of Negative Thinking communicates a worthwhile message and the specific examples he cites--including several detailed anecdotes from his championship seasons--are very interesting and apropos but there are some striking similarities between Knight and Bobby Fischer, the chess champion who often lashed out at those around him; Fischer did not reach the top because of those outbursts but rather in spite of them and he might have enjoyed even more success both personally and professionally if he had been less confrontational. Fischer perceived every legitimate critique of his conduct as a personal attack, much like Knight has defended his actions by citing his proven track record of success both on and off the court. It would be refreshing if Knight at some point develops the self-awareness to admit that he crossed the line on many occasions; Knight undoubtedly believes that everything he did was in service of a larger good but that still does not excuse his conduct and it is sad that someone who did so many things the right way is unable to acknowledge his own shortcomings. If Knight were capable of this kind of introspection then he would have finished his coaching career as an Indiana hero instead of being consigned to the relative wilderness of Texas Tech, much like Fischer ended up in the chess wilderness as opposed to enjoying a long reign as World Champion.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:34 AM

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