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Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols All-Access Pass

Pat Summitt is the all-time winningest coach in basketball, in the men’s and women’s game with over 1,000 victories.  Jeff Janssen is one of the world’s top experts on sports leadership.

Go Deep Inside the Tennessee Women’s Basketball Program

Imagine the opportunity to have a four-day, All-Access Pass to the legendary Pat Summitt and her formidable Tennessee women’s basketball program…

I had the amazing chance to do just that over this past weekend and want to share with you what I observed and learned from this elite program.

As someone who has always been fascinated by top teams and coaches and what makes them so successful, it was such a special treat for me to spend four days with the Lady Vols staff and team.

I want to thank Coach Summitt, her staff, and especially assistant coach Dean Lockwood, for their first-class hospitality, overwhelming willingness to share, and great cooking! It’s no wonder why the program has over 1,000 wins, 8 national championships, and the respect of many world-wide.

Here are several of my observations from the amazing experience that you can use to help take your program to a high level.

1. High Standards Always

The more I work with and observe elite teams, the more I see how establishing and enforcing high standards are the absolute core of what makes them special. The Pat Summitt’s, Anson Dorrance’s, Mike Candrea’s, and Mike Krzyzewski’s of the coaching world set very demanding standards for themselves and their athletes.

They know that demanding standards are absolutely critical to develop their team to its fullest – and instill an intensity, competitiveness, confidence, and attention to detail that are the difference makers when competing against teams with top talent.

Take a moment to consider: What are the standards of your program?

What do you consistently demand from your team?

2. High Standards Drills

In my latest How to Develop Relentless Competitors books, I wrote about using High Standards drills to develop competitiveness in practices. Tennessee used an example of high standards drills by splitting their team up into two groups of seven and having them attempt to make 7 free throws in a row as a group. They also did competitive drills in practice where the losing team needed to run while the winners got to relax and get a cold drink. If you want a competitive team in games, you have to emphasize, drill, and reward it regularly in practice.

How do you consistently incorporate competitive drills in your practices to help your players gain the competitive edge?

3. Continually Emphasize Your Program’s Core Principles

What core principles are critical to your program’s success? At Tennessee, it is defense and rebounding. While Coach Summitt and her staff are able to recruit many of the nation’s best offensive players, the real key is to be able to get them to rebound and defend. As Coach Summitt says, “Offense sells tickets, defense wins games, rebounding wins championships.”

The core principles of defense and rebounding are continually stressed in pre-practice talks, worked on in drills, reinforced with coaching, and reprimanded with team running when someone forgets to do them. They are also discussed and monitored before, during, and after games. The coaches and managers list and discuss the rebounding and defensive stats at halftime and at the end of the game – so the players always know where they stand.

What are the key core principles of your team that you hold near and dear?

How do you talk about, teach, coach, reinforce, monitor, and relate these core principles on a weekly basis?

Remember, “It’s not what you teach, it’s what you emphasize.” Don Meyer, Former Northern State Men’s Basketball Coach

4. Coaching for championships, not just for one game.

The first night I was in, Tennessee absolutely annihilated Alabama by 65 points – even with the Vols reserves playing a good portion of the game. You might think a 65-point drubbing would fully satisfy a coach – not at Tennessee.

In a film session the next morning, the coaches began by praising the team for their accomplishments and what they did well. But they also reminded the team they needed to learn from this game so that they could be better prepared against more challenging opponents. The focus was, of course, rebounding. Several clips where shown where players did not box out on rebounds. The coaches sternly reminded the team that this lack of attention to detail would severely hurt them against much better competition. Coach Summitt said succinctly, “If you don’t box out, you’ll come out. If you want to cut down nets, we have to have a better sense of urgency.”

In this way, Coach Summitt is not just coaching for the moment, she is coaching to best prepare her team to win conference and national championships in the long term. She could have easily glossed over a 65-point win and moved on to the next game. But she knew if the critical rebounding issue did not get noticed and addressed, it will come back to bite the team when going up against the UConn’s and Baylor’s of the basketball world. She used the moment in the season to better prepare her team for the post-season.

How do you keep the big picture in mind when coaching during the ups and downs of the season?

How you can you use today’s practice and games to better prepare your team for the difficult challenges they will eventually face in the post-season?

5. Tradition Always Graduates

Coach Summitt is very proud of the fact that she has a 100% graduation rate for all the players who have completed her program over the last 37 years. As a great visual incentive, the Lady Vols have a prominent Tradition pillar in their locker room.

The Tradition pillar contains the signatures of all the players who have received their degree at Tennessee. Her players can only sign the pillar once they have graduated.

The Tradition pillar accomplishes a few things:

1. The prominent pillar emphasizes that graduation is an integral part of Coach Summitt’s philosophy.

2. The pillar is a constant visual reminder of the need to focus on the “student” part of the student-athlete equation.

3. Earning the privilege of signing the pillar is a strong incentive for the Lady Vols players to earn their degree.

4. The superstar names on the pillar are a reminder of all the amazing players who have gone before them. They see that they are part of something much bigger than themselves.

What positive traditions can you create in your program?

How do you acknowledge your players’ accomplishments off the court?

6. The Value of Experienced Assistant Coaches

Coach Summitt is blessed to have an amazing staff of assistant coaches: Holly Warlick, Mickie DeMoss, and Dean Lockwood. All combined, her stellar assistants have a whopping 86 years of coaching experience! Coach Summitt puts their experience to great use by encouraging them to be extremely active and vocal in practices. Rather than dominating the practice, Coach Summitt taps into the wealth of experience she has on the staff and allows them to contribute in a multitude of ways both on and off the floor.

This “co-coaching” kind of approach brings several benefits to the program including:

1. Gives the players a different voice to deliver a similar message. So often kids can tune out a person if they hear the same voice over and over again.

2. Brings in multiple perspectives and ideas to benefit the team.

3. Keeps assistant coaches much more involved and engaged.

4. Reduces assistant coach turnover because they know they are valued and are making a contribution.

5. Increases the longevity of the head coach because she can delegate responsibilities that can reduce fatigue and burnout.

Whenever possible, consider how you can bring on experienced and energetic assistant coaches to your staff.

Are you encouraging and allowing your assistants to contribute all they can to your program?

Hopefully these ideas get you started on some things you can do to take your program to an elite level. Our Championship Coaches Members can click on the link below to get seven more ideas that I picked up from my visit with Coach Summitt and Tennessee.

Thanks again Coach Summitt and staff for sharing your wisdom with me – and the readers of this site!

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