In 1982, Pat Riley’s first year as head coach, the Los Angeles Lakers won the Basketball World Championship title. After numerous ups and downs and a heartbreaking series of eight consecutive World Championship game losses to the Boston Celtics, the Lakers scored a breakthrough victory in 1985 and recaptured the World Championship title. The following year, the team became complacent and Pat Riley turned up the heat. By the end of 1987, the Lakers went to the playoffs after winning an incredible 65 games. Immediately following the ’87 Championship victory over the Boston Celtics, Pat Riley personally guaranteed that the Lakers would win the title again in 1988. Says Riley, “I made a statement of faith and belief, and the team took the challenge and the responsibility.” As a result of Riley’s coaching system (which he details in this interview) the Lakers were the first team to win back-to-back Championship titles in 19 years. Under Riley’s leadership, the Lakers achieved the highest winning percentage in the history of the NBA.
In this exclusive Selling Power magazine interview, Pat Riley shares the motivation strategies that helped him coach the Lakers to four world titles.
“Being involved in major competition for the last 30 years has helped me to see that you should not allow other people to determine your behavior. Pressure should come from inside and then you transform that into a feeling of excitement and exhilaration. Fears and pressures that most people experience are usually external. They worry about how they’re going to be perceived, or what people will think of them if they lose, or if they fail. When you can shed those apprehensions, you will find that competition is something to embrace and look forward to.
“If you’re in a business or a sport long enough and you’re doing your work and growing in it, you understand through your successes and your losses, what conflicts, complacencies, or other diseases you may have picked up when it comes to competition. After a while you come to understand how to deal with them. In all walks of life, there are things that count and there are things that don’t count. I suggest getting rid of those things that don’t count and can’t help you attain your goals. Focus in on the things that really count and don’t worry about external pressures.”
“There are fears such as your family’s welfare or the need to feel secure. There’s the fear of personal injury or death. Those are natural. But when it comes to a job, when it comes to basketball or NBC or anything like that, all the fears that hold you back should be eliminated. They are of no use,” adds Coach Pat Riley,
“My dad was a coach and a player in minor league baseball for 20-25 years. When I was a very young boy, he told my older brothers to take me down to a place called Lincoln Heights, which was a park in Schenectady, New York, where they played baseball, football, and basketball. He told my older brothers to get me involved. So they took me down there and threw me into a game. I didn’t do very well. I got frustrated. Then I got beaten up. Ashamed, I ran home and hid in the garage, and cried. Every night at the dinner table my dad would ask my older brothers how I was doing. They would lie and say, `He’s okay, Pop. He’ll be fine.’ Then I felt even more ashamed and humiliated.
“I have a very vivid memory of one night when I didn’t show up at the dinner table. My father asked my brothers where I was. They said, `He’s out in the garage. He’s been out there all day. As a matter of fact, he’s been there for two weeks. He’s still crying and upset from this afternoon.’ My father asked, `Why?’ and he told my older brother to go out and get me and bring me into the house and sit me down. They did, and then my oldest brother, Lee, said `Dad, why do you make us take him down there? He doesn’t want to be there. He’s only nine years old. He doesn’t like the game. Every day he goes down there, gets beat up and runs home crying. So, why do you make us take him down there?’ My dad said, `I make you to take him down there because I want you to teach him not to be afraid.’
“That was his message to me. Somewhere you’ve got to dive in. He taught me that competition will bring out the very best and the very worst. And that every now and then, a boy at nine, or a man at 45, or a team, country, company, or anybody, at one time must take a stand and make a point about who they are and what they believe in. And when that time comes you do it and you do it based on who you are and with no help from anybody else.”
“The difference between success and winning is in a person’s attitude. When I speak before a business audience or talk to my team, I don’t talk about success, failure, or winning and losing because I don’t want to paint that kind of picture. I’ve always believed that anybody can be successful. If you’re a competitive person, and you’re striving or aspiring to be the best, then really, it’s about being that one winner who will somehow find a way to shoot up out of the pack of everybody else who’s successful.
“I’ve found that the people who apply themselves, learn the proper techniques, understand the philosophies, plans, systems and strategies of their organization, take pride in the work and repeat it every single day, are the people who will become skillful and maximize whatever talents they originally brought to the job. The difference between people who are skillful and merely successful, and the ones who win is in attitude. The attitude a person develops is the most important ingredient in determining the level of success.”
“Skills and attitude go together. A person brings the attitude with him to every single aspect of life. It is something that is cultivated inside that person from the time that he is first taught. It was cultivated inside of me from the time I was nine years old. After about a month, I was sending other kids home to their garages and teaching them about competition.
“What turned it around for me was my father telling me, `Pat, you have to go back there.’ That’s all he said to me. And I understood that. Sometimes there are fears: `I’m afraid to get beat up again. I’m afraid to get embarrassed, I’m afraid to lose. I can’t finish this report. I can’t attain my goal. The competition’s too tough.’ You’ve got to overcome those barriers. And in my case, I had to break through that fear level and take that risk. When people shed all those external fears and just go out there and do it, they usually find that the people they’re competing against are just like them,” remarks Coach Pat Riley.
“Coaching for 12 years, and being around the Lakers for 20 years and having the opportunity to play and coach with some of the very best athletes in the history of the game, I have learned that very few people stand out there alone without any kind of support base. When you are part of an organization, your primary objective and focus should be on helping all the people who work for you to get out of this business, or this game, or this life, what they desire. To me, that’s essential. You have to take the focus off yourself and stop worrying about what you can get. Get out of what I call the disease of `me’ or the disease of `more’ and simply try to help other people become successful. I think that’s the attitude that really makes a difference between winning teams and just merely successful ones,” explains Coach Pat Riley.
“Everybody has the natural desire to take care of `me.’ People are primarily selfish individuals. They don’t really care about the team. They will voice a lot of insincere attitudes about wanting to help the team, but they really want to help themselves.
“When managers or coaches are looking to motivate individuals, they either do it through incentive, fear or intimidation, or they try to teach self-motivation.
“If you lay carrots out there all the time and create incentive programs and keep dangling money in front of people, you may get a sense of production or success out of that. Because people realize that if they do something well, then they’ll get paid for it. To me, that’s just academic. I mean, we have to pay people for what they do. You can’t over-incentive anything, because after a while, when people begin to play or work just for the money, then they really don’t care about the product or the philosophy.
“I think people have to be accountable and responsible for what they are being hired for and they must know that if they don’t get the job done there could be some consequences. But don’t debilitate people’s creativity by threatening them. Although you have to have that element as an undercurrent in any business, it can backfire.
“If you can find people who really want to be a part of a great team, of something significant, to do something for others, for their teammates, have an attitude and a passion that doesn’t depend on the money … such people know that if they continue to chase the dream and really believe in what they’re doing, the money will follow them, and the incentives will follow them. So, that isn’t their primary motivation. If you can find people who just want to be part of something significant and not always worry about `What are you going to give me for this?’ then you’ve got yourself people who are special,” explains Coach Pat Riley.
“There’s a big difference between an excellent game and game excellence. Anyone can have an excellent pool game, anybody can have an excellent basketball game, anybody can have an excellent sales week, day, month, or year. Anyone can have one of those. People who have the mentality that it’s about game excellence, basketball excellence, or sales excellence — these are the people who understand how to make a winning team. When you define the word `excellence’ or `to excel’ you’re talking about people who understand how to go above and beyond and how to surpass. Those are the people who simply want to be part of something significant that wins. They are the people who can understand and can define the word excellence. That’s what excellence is about. Excellence is not about having things, or about having recognition, or about having money or power or position, or any of those ego gratifying things. It’s about being a part of something worthwhile. It develops the attitude where people can go above and beyond.”
“You’ve got to keep developing other reasons to go above and beyond. Anyone who is successful has a natural motivation to be successful. But the ones who achieve consistently, year-in and year-out, and those who constantly keep breaking records, keep winning, keep topping themselves, are those people who keep doing inner research, and developing attitudes and different themes about what it takes to go above and beyond. That’s the job of a manager or the coach.
“For us as a team, 1985 was the year of the ultimate breakthrough because we had never beaten the Celtics before. In fact, we had lost to them seven consecutive times in the World Championship play. Every time we would play against that team we would choke or get paralyzed by fear. Finally we felt our backs were against the wall. We had to take the responsibility of stepping out and taking a risk. You just simply go out there and get the job done. After we had won that championship and just prior to going out in the Forum for the ring ceremony on November 4, I asked our captain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, `Kareem, what is it going to take to be the first team in 17 years to win back-to-back championships, coming off the Celtics’ victory?’ He looked me in the eye and said, `Coach, how do you expect us to top last year? There’s no way we can top last year. We finally beat the Celtics after all these years. We got this albatross off our backs. We are no longer the LA “Fakers” or the LA “Chokers.” There’s no way we can top that year.’ And that told me that we had a complacent team. It wasn’t Kareem’s fault. It was just a prevailing attitude that happened to the team.
“I’ll never forget 1987. The Lakers and I had already been together for eight years, had won three world championships and we had been to the finals six times. A lot of people said most of our players had already had seasons that could be termed career best. After we lost in 1986 to the complacency that set in after the championship win over the Celtics, we spent that whole summer researching exactly why we had lost and then defining the areas where I felt we had to improve. I came back to training camp and said, `We’re going to challenge you to try to improve one percent. That’s all. One percent in five areas that we feel are the most important areas of our business. We want you to improve one percent in these five areas above your career best.’ If you take 12 championship players and everybody improves one percent in five areas, you can get a 60 percent overall efficiency improvement in your game. So we did that.
“The players took a look at this one percent and said, `Oh, I can improve one percent in anything.’ We had players who improved not just one percent, but five to 15 to 20 to 50 percent. And it’s not a coincidence that in 1987, of all the years in the decade, we won 67 games. We went to the playoffs 15 to three. It was the easiest year we ever had in the decade. So it shows me that if somebody can develop themes to keep challenging people, then people can go above and beyond.”
“We took a player like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or maybe Byron Scott, who was a guard. If Kareem had averaged eight rebounds per game, all we wanted was for him to average 8.08. Byron Scott kept shooting the ball from the outside and we wanted him to improve his free-throw attempts. He only took three or four free-throw attempts per game, but we wanted him to improve to 3.03. Well, he was taking seven free-throw attempts that year, being more aggressive and taking the ball to the basket. So, if you can put objective and realistic goals out there for your people, they will shoot for them. People need to know where they stand.
“We wanted everyone to go above and beyond to achieve something that was going to help this team to win a championship. That was our mission that year. We charted every single day. After a game we would give them a report card. After two weeks we had a business meeting. Everybody knew exactly where everyone stood, so there was peer pressure. And we were getting favorable results. If we weren’t going to get those results, then I would’ve changed the plan. But it was working right from the first day.
“We had it computerized, and we’d spit out the numbers every day. So, they knew exactly where they were and that it wasn’t just lip service. It allowed them to see where they stood and how they were doing. We did it every single day until we achieved a change,” said Coach Pat Riley.
“We were paying a player X amount of dollars just to rebound the ball. That’s all he had to do. So, we would chart how many shots he took at the basket and then we would chart how many times he went after the rebound. If there were 50 shots taken and he only went after 25 percent of those shots, then his rebounding effort was only 50 percent. Now, we would put a number on this player based on past performance. If his norm was going out for 75 percent of all rebounds and then he started to fall to the 45 to 50 percent area, then we knew he was not making the kind of effort necessary to be successful.
“I think management’s responsibility or a coach’s responsibility, or a leader’s responsibility is to create an environment in which talent can flourish. You can’t just give somebody a philosophy and say go and do it. You must keep helping and monitoring people to try to get them to achieve their potential and even do it as a group. You can’t just sit back and say, `Go out and sell.’ “
“I think the ways a leader can measure whether or not he or she is doing a good job is 1) through wins or losses, 2) through the bottom line, 3) through the subjective and objective visual analysis of how individuals are improving and growing. If individuals are getting better results, I think the whole product is improving.”
“Everyone is going to have tough days. Whether you’re on top of the mountain, or down at the bottom looking up, people have to understand that life is a tough, hard struggle every single day. When problems arise, if you face them as a victim, or neurotically or traumatically, you’ll be paralyzed by events. When people understand and accept that problems and difficulties are normal and that life is not fair, then tough times don’t become problems for you. You’ve got to teach people that adversity really is the seed of equivalent benefit. If there is a problem, grab on to it, seize it, and move on from there. Don’t let it debilitate or paralyze you.”
“In 1984 I simply choked as a coach, as a leader, and right along with me, my players choked also. I take full responsibility for some of the things that happened that year that cost us the World Championship. But life is a process. Success is a process. Winning is a process. You go through life, and you win, for one reason. The next year you may lose because you couldn’t handle winning. And the next year your team is injured. You can’t control injuries. The next year you’re right there and you either make or miss. If you miss you choke, and if you make, you’re a hero. Then the next year you have your greatest moment, and you win. The next year complacency sets in. Then you have your career best. Life is like basketball — a series of events and experiences in which you learn and grow.
“Out of our worst moment in 1984 the Lakers came back, and we had our greatest moment, our greatest breakthrough, and our greatest achievement. It wasn’t until 1985, six years after this team was together, that we really, truly became a great team. Because by then we had conquered just about every one of our adversaries. That’s when we finally beat the Boston Celtics in Boston Garden.
“Back in 1976 when my career as a player came to an end, I reacted like a lot of people do when they have difficulties. I became venomous — somebody who blamed. I was a victim. The system was screwing me. Later, after reading M. Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled, I realized that I had a great career. Now when I look back, I realize that leaving the sport as a player really helped me grow. But at the time I went through intense anger. Finally, I realized, through my wife’s help and the different perspective she had on the changes we all go through in life, that you have to go through your period of mourning. But don’t let it go on forever. Eventually get over it and move on with your life and your new beginning.”
“Whenever you aim for success and victory you have several opponents. Only one of them is the opposing team. The second may be the player himself or some internal attitude problems. The third is the peripheral opponent. Anything that can get in the way of that team being focused on their philosophy. Anything that can get in and break down the fabric of what the team is about, what the spirit is about. I used to talk about this philosophy. We had some problems on this team throughout the ’80s and we would talk about them. One day we had a problem with some players who were unhappy with their playing time, their salaries and all of these other things. I’ve always felt that when your part of a team, you’re either in spirit or you’re out of spirit. There’s no alternative. You’re in with the philosophy, the plan, the system, the pride, and the repetition.
“But people are human. All of us have vulnerabilities and frailties and it’s easy for us to get out of sync and get out of that spirit. When you’re out of spirit you may not tolerate what the leader has to say. You may not understand or accept your teammates. If that becomes pervasive it can break down what you’re trying to do as a group. So there must be an understanding that if you’re out of spirit you don’t take that spirit outside the team,” explains Coach Pat Riley.
“Great athletes are egocentric. Anybody who’s successful can be egocentric but it doesn’t have to be in a negative way. People who have big egos expect a lot of themselves. I feel that when a player really gets out of spirit then you must talk to him, find out what the problems are and also tell him that what he’s doing is counterproductive to what the team is trying to accomplish. We’re trying to teach people to get out of the `me’ disease and it is up to the coach to show the player how counterproductive it is to the whole group. Sometimes we would do it humorously. When we knew a player was blatantly out of spirit, we’d put a Do Not Disturb sign on him and say, `Okay, we know you’re upset because you didn’t play well or you’re not getting your minutes or something. But we’ll give you two days, and in two days you’d better get back with us because we can’t afford to have you out there for more than two days.’”
“Complacency is one of the most insidious diseases that can affect a successful organization. Players will come into this league with five-year, multi-million-dollar contracts through which they’re guaranteed payment even before they produce. So, a player may not have any incentive for playing well or working hard because he knows he’s got the money and the security. If your life is based solely on money and security, then you will fall flat somewhere. Teaching players that being a team is more significant than money alone is what it’s about. Forget the money. You hope you can get players, sign them to long-term contracts, and take care of their careers, and take care of their security monetarily, but when you know that they don’t give a damn about that, then you know you’ve got the makings of a great team, a winning team. You know that all they want to do is continue to win because that’s what it’s about. That’s what makes them feel good. It isn’t because they have the money. It’s because they are a part of something successful.”
“Money, rewards, recognition, and position are simply residual benefits of being part of a winning team. If you’re chasing those things in the beginning, then it’s going to be a very selfish trip and usually when you get them you find out that you have all this stuff and you’re still not happy. And then you ask yourself, `Well, what is it going to take?’ And usually what it takes is being part of something significant and putting all your energy towards that sense of fulfillment.
“Dreams inspire you. They inspire you to act. They fuel your motivation. They determine your behavior. I always encourage players to go home and visualize themselves being hugely successful, and to model themselves after people they aspire to be like. Even though you are who you are, you might want to find out about how they did it and do it the same way. That’s what life’s about. Taking the same steps that other people took to be successful and using your own personality to get there.
“Even though the odds may be against you, live your dream out to the end through the intelligence that you have. When you feel that you can’t go any further, either stay with it or move on to something else. But play it out, live it out and wait for the right opportunity because something good could happen — but only if you’re in there playing the game.”
“Through experience you know the pitfalls and the land mines out there. After you reach a certain level of success dreams aren’t as prevalent.
“I have come to a place in my life where I feel very satisfied, content. Even though I am still striving to get to a certain place, I’m doing things now because I want to do them, not because I must do them.
“Right now, with NBC I’m involved with a team, and I want that team to become significant and I’m going to try to help everybody around that studio and anybody I work with become successful and keep applying those principles. But it’s exhilarating to go out there and embark on a new career in another industry that I don’t know a lot about. I do know I’m going to bring the same philosophy and principles with me. If I put the same kind of work and effort into my new career, I think success will follow me,” concludes Coach Pat Riley.
Get the latest sales leadership insight, strategies, and best practices delivered weekly to your inbox.Sign up NOW →
April 26 at 1:00 p.m. ET
Sign up now.