Jay Wright on Sustaining Excellence

Don Yaeger, Forbes.com (https://www.forbes.com/sites/donyaeger/2017/04/20/villanovas-jay-wright-how-to-sustain-excellence/2/#63ddafd108a0)

Picture Jay Wright two Mondays ago: the dapper, dynamic head coach of Villanova’s men’s basketball team.  He’s a princely promoter of court-side cohesiveness, a magical motivator of young male athletes on-the-make (Dickie V, we all want to be you!) And, most recently, Wright is the freshly minted co-author of a brilliantly focused, compellingly uplifting tome titled Attitude: Develop a Winning Mindset On and Off the Court.

But on this early April Monday night things are not all that peppy.  In fact, they are downright demure: Wright sits on his living room couch perched in front of his flat screen TV taking in a game.  Not just any game: the ultimate showdown; the NCAA Championship final.  It’s upon this very proscenium that Wright and his merry pride of Wildcats stalked (and bagged) their prey just twelve short months ago in a perfectly scripted, riveting, buzzer-beater finale.  The very same stage upon which Villanova out-dueled perennial powerhouse North Carolina to seize collegiate basketball’s ultimate prize: a fistful of championship netting.

There is no easy way to spin this denouement.  Villanova entered the 2016-2017 season ranked number one.  They concluded it with a 31-3 record and entered the NCAA Tournament as the top overall seed.  The Wildcats were poised to repeat—to do what only two Division 1 men’s basketball squads have done since the John Wooden Era. To win, and then—win again.

I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of sustained excellence. In the realm of collegiate basketball only Duke (1991-1992) and Florida in (2006-2007) have garnered back-to-back NCAA titles since Wooden’s UCLA dynasty ended in the 70s.  “It’s human nature,” Wright told me last week, as he reflected on how hard it is to keep a championship team focused.  “We had three seniors (Hart, Jenkins and Reynolds) who had already won one national championship.  It’s natural to say, ‘all right, I already did that for the team and everybody, now what do I get out of it?.’ ”

And things did get a little zany after Villanova’s title win, Wright said.  “After the national championship we had walk-ons getting paid $1,500 do autograph signing sessions—while those three juniors weren’t allowed to do so due to NCAA rules.”

But Wright is emphatic about Attitude and Proper Mindset and the challenge of maintaining both after a championship run.  “This year, everyone talked as if every regular season game was meaningless,” he says.  “Because all that mattered to them was the NCAA tournament.  We would win big games and no one would really care.  But to their credit, our guys showed a remarkable ability to concentrate night in and night out.  We may not have repeated, but these guys dealt with the pressure of being a number one seed, won a regular season championship and got to the finals of the Big East Championship.  Maintaining that kind of mental focus is one of the most remarkable achievements I’ve seen as a coach.”

The challenge crops up in business all the time, too.  You score a mega contract or win awards.  You are at the top of your game, outshining all your competitors.  But how do you keep your team from losing focus, becoming overconfident, or simply resting on its laurels and under-performing?  According to Wright, “you have to be honest about the elephant in the room.  In fact, it’s the most important lesson we can take from our championship success.  We explained to our guys that this season our challenge is about human nature more than it is offense, defense or our opponents, because it’s just constantly there in everything you do.  The disease of me.”

When people win.  When they arrive at the pinnacle of success, they tend to get wrapped up in their own greatness.  That’s what Wright calls the disease of me.  “Like—you’re on a bus and you see all these people who are there because of you.  You are on TV and everyone is talking about you.  It can blow up your ego,” he says.  “If you think about how good you are as opposed to what the next challenge is going to be, then you’ve already lost.  We have to stay humble and to play for each other, not to put on a show for other people.  The more success we had,” Wright asserts, “the more we had to fight our own human nature.”

In effect, complacency becomes your team’s worst enemy.  Or as motivational guru John Maxwell routinely puts it: “the greatest predictor of failure is success.”

I asked Wright what he thought he learned this year that might affect the way he steers his team the next time he has a chance to repeat as national champions.  He’s answer was crystal clear: “I learned how important the right attitude is—that’s why I wrote the book.  It’s a concept that permeates everything you do as a basketball player, as a person, as a husband, a father, a team captain.  We all bring our attitude to every situation.  How do we walk into a room?  How do we meet people?  How do we respond to challenges?  To adversity?”

“Our attitude is crucial,” he continues.  “It’s the one aspect of life that we have control over.  And it’s the one concept that affects everything we do on and off the court.  The most important characteristic any of us have is our attitude.  We don’t have a choice whether we’re going to feel good or we’re going to be tired.  Whether it’s going to rain outside—whether things are going to go our way.  But we do have a choice about what our attitude is going to be getting out of bed.  What’s our attitude going to be coming into work?  What’s our attitude going to be stepping into a room?  We have a choice and we’ve got to make sure that choice is a positive one in everything we do.” 

That’s why every time the Wildcats come off the court they clap their hands—especially on a timeout—and repeat their mantra: “Attitude! Attitude!”  And what that means, Wright explains, “is that whatever is happening, good or bad—we might have just gone on a 20-point run or be on the road down 10.  But whatever just happened, that’s over.  Done.  The one thing we have control over is how do we come out of this huddle.  When we step on the court, what’s our attitude?  Are we coming out positive?  Are we coming out humble?  Are we coming out hungry?  We control that.”

That’s certainly the kind of mindset that promotes sustained excellence.  Jay Wright the motivational author is every bit as effective as Jay Wright the coach.  To follow his lead:

Stay present.  Stay positive.  Don’t get bogged down in should-haves or what-ifs.  Focus your energy on what you should do next.

And feel free to chant “Attitude!”

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