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Play Hard, Play Smart, Play Together

“Play Hard, Play Smart, Play Together” is a guest post written by Charlie Leonard.

How can you establish a culture of success in today’s business world? Consider following the lead of Dean Smith, the legendary basketball coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels.

With close to 900 wins, eleven Final Fours, two national championships, and a plethora of great players, such as Michael Jordan, James Worthy, and Larry Brown, Smith was accustomed to continuous success. So how did he do it?

In his book, The Carolina Way, Smith says that he never had a set system, but instead “a philosophy:” 

“Play Hard, Play Smart, Play Together.”

Play Hard

Dean Smith had a reputation as a demanding coach. A lot of coaches and business leaders do because perfect practice and hard work bear plenty of fruit.

But what set him apart and made him a truly great leader is that he wasn’t just demanding. He saw his players as people. In another one of his books, A Coaches Life, Dean defines coaching as a form of teaching, saying that “a demanding teacher is quick to praise action that deserves praise, but will criticize the act, not the person,” because, “demands must be coupled with true caring for the students.”

Dean Smith realized that there is a person in every player, a face, and a name that goes along with the number. He knew that if you truly wanted someone to do well, you needed to be cognizant of their well-being.

That’s why he concluded every player’s time on the team with an “exit meeting” where he would ask about the man’s goals and plans. That’s also why he led the desegregation of the Carolina team, recruiting Charlie Scott as the first black college scholarship athlete, in 1965. In an interview with The Charlotte Observer, Scott later explained that while the coach could not protect him from racism, he could show him that: 

“Everyone was not like the bigots, or like the racists. That there are people who have genuine sincerity in what they think about life. That there are individuals who have genuine concerns about wanting me to succeed in life as an individual. That was the most important thing he could do.”

We all are inherently capable of working hard and accomplishing goals. When a co-worker or boss realizes this and lets someone truly be who they’re capable of being, that’s what cultivates success.

Play Smart

It’s one thing to work hard, but without the willingness to learn and innovate constantly, you’re not going to get very far.

Innovation is something Dean Smith prioritized. Some of the intricacies you see in basketball, like the “tired signal” to sub, having the point guard call the defense, and pointing to the man who assisted you, directly came from Smith. He was always looking for ways to gain an advantage, making communication as easy as possible while making sure everyone acknowledged each other.

Dean Smith knew the rules and knew which systems worked. He also knew that without the ability to keep learning and innovating, others would eventually catch up. He had to keep an edge

In the article, “THM Looking Back at 1993,” recalling the 1993 championship team, Adam Lucas recalled an unusual tactic Dean Smith used to motivate his squad: by doctoring a photo of the scoreboard from the 1982 championship win, he was able to give his players a concrete vision of success. Each player arrived for practice to find “Congratulations North Carolina, 1993 national champions” in his locker.

If you could literally see the destination, the journey wasn’t as difficult to undertake. 

As a business leader in an ever-changing world, it can be difficult to keep up with the twists and turns our internet-driven, fast-paced economy throws in our path. Always be on the lookout for new trends and techniques to gain an edge. Seek out the advice of industry experts and see how their suggestions can work for who you are. Analyzing data and knowing the rules and regulations need to be a part of your business plan as well. 

If your business can constantly keep looking, listening, learning, and adapting, success can be maintained. 

Play Together

Prosperity in any aspect of life is never just the work of one, singular, person. Thanks to your co-workers, friends, family, and various other external forces, who you are and what you’ve become was the effort of a team.

Dean Smith knew that it didn’t matter how hard you worked or how smart you were if you couldn’t play together. I believe that’s why he mentioned it last, almost like a secret ingredient that pushed you over the top.

In another passage from A Coaches Life, Smith explained the significance of the team as a whole: 

I believed a demanding teacher should treat each player as an important part of the team, which, of course, he is. The least-skilled player received the same attention from me as the best player.” It truly didn’t matter if you were a last-minute walk-on or the great Michael Jordan, you had a role to play

The Philosophy for Success

Personal development, teamwork, and the elevation of every individual were truly the pieces that kept Dean Smith’s team together throughout their careers and their lives afterward. From a business standpoint, this is one of those “secret” ingredients that is easy to overlook, but if you consider the most successful firms in the world, the majority of them land on lists of the top places to work. They all have the profits and the performance technology, but most importantly, these businesses are all at the cutting edge of how they value people.

What does this look like exactly? It’s a genuine concern for the well-being of each employee. The 21st century, in general, has seen more and more businesses prioritizing the lives of their employees in countless innovative ways, from offering more personalized feedback and support to expanded benefits and perks, such as generous paid time off, company-paid training and schooling, and even encouraging employees to leave or take a break to pursue their passions. This isn’t just for large-cap, publicly traded firms, either. Any business can implement employee-friendly environments as long as you have one Smithesque trait: you care.

Play Hard. 

Play Smart. 

Play Together.

These three statements Dean Smith combined into one cogent message that has inspired decades of successful basketball teams and successful men. It’s so simple but so applicable to many situations, whether business or personal. If you can work hard and always learn, innovate, and truly care for those around you, that’s a formula for winning in business and in life.

That’s the Dean Smith way.

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