How to Be a Champion in Life (with Tips Gleaned from Coach Jay Wright)

“We practice to create habits that will enable us to play our best in the most difficult situations.”

– Jay Wright, head coach of the Villanova men’s basketball team

Up 10 points with 4:42 left on the clock, the Villanova men’s basketball team was poised to win its first championship in over 30 years… but then North Carolina started making some difficult shots. And then Villanova started making silly mistakes. With 4 seconds left, North Carolina hits a miracle shot to tie the game and steal the momentum. In sports parlance, this is called choking.

Everyone watching knew that the game was going into an overtime where North Carolina would race past a deflated Villanova. Then this happens:

(What? Michael Jordan isn’t crying?)

It’s been called the greatest men’s college basketball championship game of all time—not in spite of the challenges, but because little Villanova kept from wilting in the face of a surging, big powerhouse to win. How’d they do it and how can we apply it to our own lives?

Luckily for you, Jay Wright, Villanova’s head coach, shared his thoughts with a room of us.


(Coach Wright, if you’re reading this, JMC would love to interview you. Lunch is on us!)

He stood tall and lean in his signature tailored suit. There were some jokes sprinkled here and there, but he mostly spoke about that team in the context of life.

The rhythms of life can be like a basketball game. Sometimes you’re winning, other times you’re losing. Sometimes you’re a star, other times a bench warmer. But here are the tenets upon which Coach Wright builds his team to maximize their chances for victory when the buzzer sounds:

  • Surround yourself with those on the same mission as you.

My takeaway: I like that he started with this one. There’s a famous Jim Rohn saying that claims “you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”  People usually walk away thinking they should only be around people who root them on so that their 5 is a monolithic glee club of fans.

I don’t buy that. If you surround yourself only with fans who are always telling you how great you are,  you lose grasp of reality. This also happens if you only surround yourself with critics. So what do you do?

Someone’s ability to encourage or critique shouldn’t be the qualification criteria for your inner circle. Rather, the important criteria should be whether they’re on the same mission. So if your inner circle is made of five people, two should be more encouraging, one should be similar to you, and two should be more analytical (I like this word more than “critical” since, to me, critical has a negative connotation whereas “analytical” is more neutral).

But all five should be on the same mission as you. That way their encouragement and critique has a purpose, and you have a more comprehensive view of yourself or the situation at hand.

Also, don’t forget: we are a part of someone else’s five, too. Define the mission with them and figure out if you’re their encourager or analyst.

As a parent, my wife and I are two very big, important members of that team of five influencers to our children. I think it helps my children when we explain why we do what we do (why we discipline them, why homework is important, etc.). We’re explaining the mission.

  • You become us. We don’t become you.

My takeaway: Building the right culture creates a platform for success for everyone around you. But here’s the trick with this one—in order for “you” to become the “us” we want, we also need to be the “us” we want. It will be hard for your children to learn grace if you’re unforgiving, or to learn not to be overwhelmed with stress when you’re always tense or worried.

  • Everyone’s role is different, but everyone’s status is the same.

My takeaway: Watch an all-star basketball game lately? Me, neither. They’re no fun. If everyone is a star, it leads to a not-fun style of play because no one cares about winning—they just want to make a Sports Center Top 10 highlight play. Take away competition, and the 10 best basketball players in the world are unwatchable.

A great team is not a team of all stars, but a good mix of stars, role-players, and benchwarmers on the same mission. Stars score, role-players help set up the stars to score, and benchwarmers toughen up the stars and role-players in practice. Everyone is a vital member of the team.

My children have never won best this or most valuable that. They might not achieve the high hopes we have for them, but they will always be an equally vital member of our family.

  • “Attitude is forgetting the last play. Focusing on the next play. Learning from yesterday. Focusing on today.”
    – Ryan Arcidiacono

My takeaway: Villanova’s star player, Ryan Arcidiacono, made a costly mistake in the final minutes that helped lose the lead. Then he put his teammate in position to hit the game-winning shot. What happened in between?

When North Carolina tied the game with 4 seconds left, Villanova called a time-out. As the starters were walking toward Coach Wright, the bench (see third point) clapped “attitude!”  The starters saw that and clapped back, “attitude!”  

A good attitude gives you a chance to win when it looks hopeless. A bad attitude gives you no chance. And I can’t define attitude any better than Ryan himself in the above quote.

  • Our enemy is our ego.

My takeaway: Yes. Absolutely. I would add to that our fear and our greed.

  • Success is our team being committed to each other until the last second of the game.

My takeaway: Notice that “winning” is not part of that definition of success? Relationships and relationship commitment are way more important than winning or losing. A lonely winner is not a happy person, but a good, committed friend is an oak of happiness. Let’s seek those friends and be those friends.

Next: Michelle Schroeder-Gardner talks about blogging, fame, and RVs!

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  • Robyn October 3, 2016 at 6:11 pm

    That was a great game and these are great ideas to think about. Fun read!

  • Some Dreams are Bigger than Others. Some Dream’s Fathers are Bigger than Other Dream’s Fathers.* – just making cents October 12, 2016 at 10:42 pm

    […] Facing challenges: Get some insight from Jay Wright, coach of the Villanova men’s basketball team, who shared with a room of us how he led his team to victory in what’s been called the greatest men’s college basketball national championship game ever. […]

  • justmakingcentscom October 12, 2016 at 11:10 pm

    Thanks Robyn! It was unreal watching it realtime, wasn’t it? All the Villanova grads I know still can’t stop smiling. What I’d be interested in seeing is if it boosts the number of applicants. Boston College really benefitted from Doug Flutie’s heroics.

    (For some reason, as I’m doing some clean-up on the site, I just saw your comment, so apologies for the delay!)


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