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Nancy Sharp

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Life Lessons From NBA Coach George Karl

Posted: 03/22/2012 6:45 am

Many of us are feeling the thaw of winter and the early heat of spring. It's a glorious time of year, albeit a charged one. Growth spurts, spring cleaning, bikes that need maintenance, gardens that need pruning, multiple school projects, the season of birthdays. And for basketball fans... March Madness, NBA trades and the upcoming playoffs and finals. Can you feel the energy?

My friend, George Karl, head coach of the Denver Nuggets, is busier than most people, but we did find time to check in with each other recently. We actually had to reschedule our conversation because he had to close out a personally difficult trade with Nuggets center Nene.

As hectic and high pressured as George's life is, he's still among the most centered people I know. You can't help but feel "up" about life when you meet him. My twins and George's daughter attend the same school, so I've known him for a few years as a father, community leader, cancer warrior and coach. Previously, I interviewed him and his fantastic partner, Kim Van Deraa, for a feature story. What impressed me then continues to impress me now: George's candor about rebounding, second acts, mindfulness and unadorned positive thinking.

Many know that George has successfully battled cancer twice in his life. First, prostate in 2005, and squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck in 2010. The latter was especially intense, requiring eight weeks of treatment and many more months of unexpected traumas that frequently landed him in the hospital. While still in recovery, he radically altered his diet, eliminating processed foods, red meat and the Honey Buns and Mountain Dew he used to eat for breakfast. Today he is 60 pounds lighter. He eats an organic diet and practices a holistic lifestyle.

"I wish I knew at 20 what I know now," George told me in a moment of reflection. Don't we all.

For my own mental fitness and yours, here is some wisdom from Coach Karl that holds up on and off the court.

  • Too many times we wake up feeling that life is a pain in the ass, wondering how we're going to fix it. It's just as easy to wake up and decide to think life is good. In fact, our job is to make it great.
  • Wear your attitude. Kim and I have over 30 "Life is Good" hats, t-shirts, caps, pajama bottoms and vests. We recently bought our daughter a Life is Good lunchbox. I talk to her a lot about waking up in an energizing mood. You've got to plant the seeds early.
  • Take walks. Run. Bike. Do what you must to clear your head. Now is a very pressured time for me as a coach so it helps to set aside 15 minutes for a walk where I can breathe deep. It's very meditative. I focus on taking in as much oxygen as I can. I'm more clear-headed after this exercise -- the walk and the breathing.
  • Stay away from negative energy. I'm insistent upon this; I tell my players all the time to stay humble, positive and to be proud. No one needs to be swayed by the negative forces of the season because, really, there isn't one coach or player in the NBA who is a failure.
  • Have vision. In an NBA season it isn't the current chapter that counts. You've got to focus on the end result. So many things can happen during our season -- injuries, training camp shortened, trades. Coaches have to be reasonable and understanding. When you lose a game, you lose to a team that played well and was coached well. Build on the foundation of success. See? You can turn your loss into a win-win if you stay on that track.
  • Expand your mind. I carry Wayne Dyer's Wisdom of the Ages in my briefcase. He offers 60 meditations from renowned teachers like Buddha, Michelangelo and Emily Dickinson. I enjoy reading a page or two at a time. On my nightstand right now is Drive by Daniel Pink. It's a book about motivation, and how we're actually motivated by our inner passions and thoughts.
  • Be engaged in the world. Personally, I want to kick cancer's butt. I'm committed to doing what I can to see that patients have more of a say about how they want to be treated. I believe that people need personalized treatment plans. (See the George Karl Foundation for more about George's advocacy efforts).

Few of us have as many public wins and losses as Coach Karl; such is the life of an NBA coach. Still, he will be the first to tell you that what ends up in the sports pages is not the ultimate measure of success.

If you are grounded and know what you are about, then you create the winning moments.

For more by Nancy Sharp, click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.

 

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