Lessons From Krzyzewski: ‘Be Demanding Without Being Demeaning’

Jay Bilas, former Duke basketball player and member of the coaching staff of two national championship teams, learned a lot about mental toughness from legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski. In this March Madness special edition of our Corporate Competitor Podcast, he teaches you how to use failure as fuel for improvement.

Jay Bilas remembers the Sunday practice as though it happened yesterday rather than 31 years ago. The day before practice, the Duke Blue Devils had beaten the University of Nevada Las Vegas in the NCAA semi-finals. Although Duke was a strong team, UNLV was considered to be perhaps the greatest men’s college basketball team of all time. With the NCAA National Championship at stake the following day, however, Duke’s Coach Mike Krzyzewski didn’t like the air of overconfidence and satisfaction as they shuffled out to practice.

“And so he called us back into the locker room and said, ‘I don’t like the way we’re walking. I don’t like the way we’re talking. They aren’t right,’” recounted Bilas, who had played for Coach K and was then on the team’s coaching staff. “Coach said that if this was our mental state going into the championship, we were not going to win it. We had to refocus.”

The Blue Devils did refocus and went on to beat Kansas for the National Championship.

It was one of many life lessons, applicable to business leaders and athletes alike, that Bilas learned en route to helping coach the Blue Devils to two national championships in 1991 and 1992, work he did while also earning a law degree from Duke. He went on to a career practicing law and serving as a commentator and analyst for ESPN.

At the top of the list of “lessons learned” is the art of being demanding without being demeaning—an art at which Bilas says Coach K excelled. “He was very demanding,” noted Bilas. “But his criticism never cut into your character as a person or an athlete. It was about your performance.” This way of managing people, which Bilas works to practice, maintains the difficult balance of keeping teammates confident but, at the same time, keeping them accountable to each other for failure.

The author of Toughness: Developing True Strength On and Off the Court, Bilas believes mental discipline and “relentless preparation” holds the key to winning and learning from losing. “Whether you are stepping on to a basketball court, getting your argument in order for a legal case or preparing to lead a meeting, you have to be right and ready,” Bilas said. “But even relentless preparation doesn’t give you the right to success,” he added. “You still have to perform. And practice and performance are often not the same.”

In this podcast, Bilas explores the wide range of people who have influenced him, from his high school drama teacher to the legendary Coach K. Listeners will learn important leadership about mental toughness they can apply in their own lives, including:

16:00  How to leverage your body language.

20:00  The danger of “becoming your own opponent.”

30:00  How to increase your mental tougness.

38:00  The difference between “not missing a shot” and “making the shot” in any performance.

Bilas doesn’t define toughness as the capacity for pain and suffering in the pursuit of victory but rather as meeting challenges and acknowledging that you may fail in a game or a test of leadership in your job. “The toughness lies in knowing you have it within you to honestly assess those failures and attack the problem.”

Check out the full Corporate Competitor Podcast interview archive and subscribe to new episodes.

Over the last 30 years, longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated and 11-time New York Times Best-Selling Author Don Yaeger has been blessed to interview the greatest winners of our generation. He has made a second career as a keynote speaker and executive coach, discerning habits of high performance to teach teams how to reach their full potential.