Systems Therapy NBA Style: Therapists Could Learn a Thing or Two from Chicago Bulls Coach Phil Jackson

By Simon, Richard | Family Therapy Networker, March/April 1997 | Go to article overview

Systems Therapy NBA Style: Therapists Could Learn a Thing or Two from Chicago Bulls Coach Phil Jackson


Simon, Richard, Family Therapy Networker


You don't need to know a thing about basketball to quickly distinguish Phil Jackson of the Chicago Bulls from his peers within the hyperkinetic fraternity of National Basketball Association head coaches. In a profession notorious for its drill sergeants and control freaks, Jackson's the one who, for much of a game, looks like he's chilling out on a park bench. That's not to say he's a stranger to the sideline theatrics that are an NBA coach's stock-in-trade--arguing close calls, lobbying the refs, chewing out players when they botch their assignments--but for Jackson, that's the last resort. Mostly he's a study in stillness in the heat of battle, quietly taking in a game's ebb and flow to discover what his team needs to do to win.

When it comes to sitting still, Jackson has a huge advantage over the opposition. Growing up, he sometimes spent as much as 20 hours a week in the pews of his father's Pentecostal church in Montana, all the better to help him avoid the devilish temptations of TV, movies and rock and roll. After deciding his deliverance lay in perfecting his jump shot rather than following his parents' fundamentalist faith, Jackson went on to become an All-American basketball player in college and then played for 12 years in the NBA. But along the way, he discovered Zen meditation, and for much of the past 25 years, Jackson has started each day facing a wall, counting his breaths.

Despite being a temperamental oddity in his chosen profession, Jackson has enjoyed an almost unheard-of success as a coach. In four out of the last six years, he has guided his team to NBA championships, which, as any basketball fan will tell you, demands a competitive intensity that stops just short of mortal combat. Of course, much of that success has been attributed to the mind-boggling talent of Bulls superstar Michael Jordan, probably the most idolized player on the face of the planet. Nevertheless, each year seems to bring more recognition of Jackson's pivotal role in the team's achievements. After all, it was only after Jackson was named coach that the Bulls shed their image as a one-man show--"Jordan and the Jordanaires"--and ascended to the pinnacle of the NBA.

Last year, the publication of Jackson's book Sacred Hoops: Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior drew heightened attention to his iconoclastic coaching philosophy, which somehow cobbles together his interest in Zen, Native American spirituality and what readers of this magazine might be forgiven for calling a systems approach to basketball. When, at the end of last season, the Bulls not only gained another title, but posted the best regular-season record in league history, many started crediting Jackson with creating the greatest sports team ever. The Bulls were so much better than their opponents that their remarkable level of collaborative peak performance recalled a rival's famous quip about tennis champ Bjorn Borg: "We're playing tennis; he's playing something else."

Jackson's accomplishments as a coach are more than the stuff of sports-page myth-making. Even though he makes his living in an elite world of millionaire goliaths, Jackson's work raises issues of perennial interest to therapists--how to handle setbacks and overwhelming stress, how to deal with group conflicts, in short, how to establish the conditions that bring out the best in people. While the employment prospects for professionals used to thinking of themselves as shrinks may be uncertain these days, those who can demonstrate that they know how to address these issues effectively--whether they call themselves therapists, consultants or coaches--will always be in demand. And of course, any therapist who has ever walked the line with an acting-out adolescent cannot help but identify with Jackson's struggles to keep his team's celebrated bad boy, Dennis Rodman, on the straight and narrow--more or less. …

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