Coach K's Secret (He Coaches Like a Girl)

April 11, 2015
Mike Stallard
Connection Heroes

Mike Krzyzewski is remarkable. Coach K, as he is better known, has led the Duke men’s basketball team to another National Championship. Consider what he’s accomplished:

  • Five National Championships (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010, 2015)
  • Four gold medals as head coach of USA Men's Olympic National Team
  • More than 1,000 career wins (most in NCAA history)

Coach K’s phenomenal success as a coach and leader begs the question: how does he do it?

Obvious reasons are that he’s talented, disciplined and works hard. He is a master of task excellence. A lot of coaches fit that description, though, so there must be something more that differentiates Coach K and provides Duke men’s basketball a sustainable competitive advantage.

Coach K grew up in Chicago. He attended an all-boys Catholic high school then went on to West Point (then all-male) where he played basketball under the driven, domineering, perfectionist coach Bobby Knight. He served in the male-dominated U.S. Army.

Coach K’s perspective took a major turn when, having grown up in male-dominated cultures, he found himself outnumbered at home by his wife, Mickie, and their three daughters. Every night at dinner he observed how Mickie and the girls reconnected by sharing the details of their day, including how they felt about it. Whereas guys cut to the chase in conversations, Mickie and the girls invested time each day connecting through their conversations.

He also observed how attuned Mickie and the girls were to how people felt. Their intuition was like radar. Time and again, Mickie would sense when something was bothering one of Coach K’s players. She was nearly always right so he learned it was wise to follow up and ask the player if something was wrong. Sure enough, something was always amiss and talking about the problem made the player feel, and play, better. When he didn’t follow up, the player would be out of sync with the team and performance suffered.


Coach K’s “ah-ha” moment, his epiphany about the importance of connection and relationships, transformed his coaching style. He began involving Mickie and his daughters in the Duke men’s basketball program. The Krzyzewski women became, in military terms, a reconnaissance team to sense the state of relationships and emotions, and the sense of connection, community and unity among the team. They thought of the boys as extended members of their family. They hugged them. (Hugs have been found to boost the trust hormone oxytocin.) As Coach K became more intentional about developing the feeling of connection among the team, it helped produce superior results.

If you study Coach K’s approach, you’ll see that he clearly articulates what I’ve described in previous articles as a “connection culture” where shared identity, empathy and understanding move primarily self-centered individuals toward group-centered membership. Great groups always have a strong sense of connection. In previous articles I’ve written about a few with a high degree of connection: the rock band U2Pixar, the U.S. Navy under CNO Admiral Vern Clark, and the Girl Scouts when Frances Hesselbein was CEO.

Scores of research studies have found human connection is necessary to thrive and a lack of connection contributes to anxiety, depression, addiction and pre-mature death. Sadly, America and most affluent nations have become more disconnected over the last half-century and a recent study of 16-29 year olds in affluent countries showed that they rated connection as their greatest need.

Unfortunately, most coaches (and leaders in general) are not intentional about developing relationship excellence and a sense of connection, community and unity among the people they lead.

Coach K is an exception.

Consider a few of Coach K’s quotes that appeared in an excellent article from a few years ago:

  • “Almost everything in leadership comes back to relationships”
  • “When he recruits a player, Krzyzewski tells him, ‘We’re developing a relationship here, and if you are not interested, tell me sooner rather than later.’ That word — relationship — is one he uses frequently. [He tells players] ‘If you come here, for however long, you’re going to unpack your suitcase. We’re going to form a bond, and you’re going to be part of this family.’”
  • “Game day is not a day for long, drawn-out speeches. It is a time for interaction.”
  • “Know their names. You know what? Please and thank you go a long way. You can be damn sure that every guy on my team says that. The best way to get better as a team is if everyone has ownership, and if you do these things they will.”

The Connection Culture:  Vision + Value + Voice

The key to developing connection can be summarized in a simple, easy-to-remember formula: Vision + Value + Voice. When members of a group of any size, from a basketball team to a business organization, share a vision that makes them feel proud, feel valued, and feel that they have a voice to express their ideas and opinions, it creates a connection, a bond, a feeling of unity or esprit de corps.

In groups where connection is high, members give their best efforts (i.e. employee engagement) and they align their behavior with group goals (i.e. strategic alignment). When times get tough, as they periodically do, groups with connection pull together rather than tear one another apart. Connection is the force that differentiates a dog-eat-dog culture from a sled dog team that pulls together.

Duke’s men’s basketball has developed a sustainable competitive advantage thanks to Coach K and the lessons he’s learned from the women in his life.

On the surface, this sounds easy. It is not. Human beings are complex. They are driven consciously and unconsciously by an infinite variety of past experiences, temperaments, perspectives, and thinking and learning styles. Coach K and his coaching staff, including the Krzyzewski women, have for years been developing ways to connect that include attitudes, language and behaviors.  While most coaches and leaders will remain clueless to the power of connection, the Krzyzewskis will continue to refine their methods while adding to Coach K’s legacy and the Duke men’s basketball program’s remarkable record of success.

Adapted from Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work

Michael Lee Stallard, MBA, JD, is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.

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