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Eleven Rings
Read in 19 min.
Listen in 24 min.
Learn the key ideas of the book by Philip Douglas Jackson , Hugh Delehanty

Eleven Rings

Zen secrets from the most successful basketball coach of all time

Traditionally, at the end of an NBA championship, every member of the winning team receives an engraved ring with their name, team name, and the year on it. Given the extreme competitiveness and high skill level of American basketball teams, winning one of these rings is a sign of great skill, and automatically makes you a superstar. Winning eleven, on the other hand, is practically science fiction. The only person to have succeeded in doing so, is the coach Phil Jackson, and according to him, it is all thanks to his training method, which he developed using a combination of principles from various spiritual disciplines, such as Zen and mindfulness. He reveals this approach in the book, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, which he co-wrote with journalist Hugh Delehanty.

Eleven Rings
Read in 19 min.
Listen in 24 min.

The secret to victory is the forging of a spiritual and emotional union between team members

The world of NBA is really tough, and stardom can only be achieved by working hard to ensure your own personal success: it is a highly competitive sport, in which the prominent personalities within a team are traditionally rewarded, and assigned with the task of leading the entire team to victory. Conversely, the less prominent players are relegated to the role of helping whoever the star of the moment may be on their run to the ring, while coaches are responsible for laying down martial law for the whole team, or granting exceptions for the team’s star player.

Despite being the most widespread team management model in American basketball, it is nevertheless flawed: placing all of your bets on one single player could work to your advantage when trying to win a few championships, but it is not very reliable, either for a long-term strategy, or for isolated incidents. For example, if the whole team’s game is based solely on the talent of a particular basketball player, in the event that that player is injured, the rest of the team will end up being totally exposed on the court. Furthermore, each player has their own distinctive playing style, with both strengths and weaknesses: when they take part in their first championship, the other team may not know what to expect from them, but the opposing teams will subsequently study how each player moves on court, and prepare themselves to fight back in their next game.

Finally, in an environment like that of the NBA, where the most talented players are seen by the public as total rock stars, they often begin to behave as such, and become difficult to manage: basing the success of a team purely on the contribution of this player alone would be the same as handing them the power to get whatever they want, at their slightest whim.

Phil Jackson immediately realised that this system is the core reason why a team fails to develop the talent of its players as it should, making it impossible to control their performance, and, therefore, keep them on track to winning the championship. As a consequence, starting from his very first experience with the New York Knicks (a team he played for over a number of years, before making the move to coaching), he began to develop an alternative method: experiences from his personal life, such as being the son of preachers who strictly followed their own religious dogmas, led him to seek other spiritual paths that resonated more deeply for him. He then began to apply the teachings and techniques - taken from eastern disciplines and Native American populations that he came across during this spiritual journey - to the game of basketball.

After all, as the author says, the combination of spirituality and basketball should not come as a surprise, because, on closer inspection, they share the same symbol, with the same meaning: the ring. In the NBA, the ring is a symbol of championship victory, of power, and of talent; in the spiritual sense, it is a recurring symbol, in any given context, of the search for oneself, for harmony and connection with the rest of the world. It therefore makes sense to think of the ring as a symbol of a victory achieved thanks to the psychological and spiritual union of the members of a team, who act together to become an impregnable and invincible whole.

If the ultimate goal is the union of intentions, strategy cannot be based on a single superstar player, but rather the team members need to learn to work together, which can only be achieved when all members of the team trust each other, and form an emotional connection, working as one, for the good of the team. Victory will only be assured if the spiritual circle between players is activated, and each player joins forces with the others.


The key ideas of "Eleven Rings"

The secret to victory is the forging of a spiritual and emotional union between team members
Mindfulness is the first step towards training a team to play at its best
According to Zen principles, a true leader lives with compassion, in the moment, and relinquishes control
The offensive triangle system is the key to team play
Jackson’s method capitalises on the concepts of altruism and equality, from the Lakota Sioux warrior philosophy
Zen teaches us that sometimes we achieve more when we decide not to act
Spirituality and unity are the foundations from which the Bulls and Lakers won championships
Take-home message
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