Coach Steve Kerr: The greatest athletes aren’t afraid of failure

The Warriors head coach and former NBA standout will be the assistant coach for the Team USA men’s basketball squad at Tokyo 2020. He spoke in a leadership webinar this week.

By Nick McCarvel ·

If Steph Curry is going to have a good night at the (basketball) office, coach Steve Kerr hopes he’s hit the (golf) links to prepare.

“Believe it or not, [Steph] plays better on the court if he can get in a round of golf,” Kerr said Monday (26 April), during a Team USA webinar, cracking a smile. “If I'm going to him and say, ‘Hey, make sure you golf; make sure you stop doing your million appearances this week and have dinner at home,’ ... he's going to play better.”

Kerr spoke on the topic of “The Power of Coaching” in the digital broadcast sponsored by the USOPC Foundation, and his Curry example fit into a larger theme: Great coaches get to know their players as individuals, because each one of them has individual needs.

“My job is to understand the circumstances of every single player on the team,” said Kerr, who has led the Golden State Warriors to three NBA championships since joining as coach in 2014. “[I want to] connect with them. Compassion is one of our core values ... you have to have it to understand everybody's got difficulties in their lives, adversity, and that you've got to help them through it.”

In the Olympic Games, the U.S. men have been the most dominant force in men’s basketball since the sport became a part of the Olympic program in 1936, capturing 15 gold medals.

The squad – not yet named – will undoubtedly be favoured at Tokyo 2020 this coming July, as well, where Kerr will serve as assistant to head coach Gregg Popovich.

“It's really fun to be an assistant coach,” Kerr shared. “It's a totally different dynamic and it just feels like you're more part of the team and supporting the head coach and trying to get the results that we're all looking for. I'm looking forward to that.”

Kerr, who has coached NBA superstar Curry as well as Olympic gold medallists Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant among many others, said that while it’s important to tend to players’ needs, it’s also key to develop a philosophy and set of values as a coach – and stick to them.

“You really have to be yourself and be true to your own personality, your own values, what's important to you,” Kerr said. “And you have to impart those values on your team and they've got to feel that those values are authentic. [My] two values are competition and joy. I think that was probably embodied by all the coaches I played for in terms of, it's got to be joyful, because that's why we all started playing sports in the first place when we were kids. But at this level, you've got to be competitive, and how do you strike that balance between competitive desire and joy? That's what I try to teach and achieve with the Warriors.” 

Kerr shared a few other anecdotes, secrets and coaching tips in the webinar. The following are a selected few, which have been edited for clarity and length. NBC's Ahmed Fareed hosted the Q&A.

Question: What have you learned the most since becoming a NBA head coach?
Steve Kerr: I've learned to trust [the players]. I think it was helpful to be a player before I coached in the NBA, because I learned back then that it really is a players’ league, and players are going to make plays and they're going to they're going to be the ones that determine wins and losses. And so your job as a coach is really to guide them and to try to put them in the best position and to not have this idea in your head that you are responsible for the ultimate success. That may sound like a paradox, because as a coach, that's your job: To win. But you've got to go in with the humility to understand that it's other people who are doing the work right. And the other people who are making the plays and having to compete.

I think understanding that dynamic has given me an understanding as coach that I'm really collaborating with and especially my key players, like Draymond Green, Steph Curry, we collaborate every day. I will readily take an idea of theirs in the heat of battle during middle of a game. ... It's important for me to embrace that and also not just succumb to whatever they think, but to work with them to get to the right and best solution.

It's a really a delicate balance.

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Steve Kerr: Clipboards, letters and teaching resilience

Question: Finding that balance as a coach – pushing players to be their best while not running them into the ground. How do you achieve that – especially in the NBA?
Steve Kerr:
Personally, I snap three clipboards a year. [Laughs.] You know, I'm only half joking. I am really, really patient as a coach. But I snap three or four times a year... I completely lose my mind. And it usually manifests itself during a game when we're just not following the game plan; not playing up to our potential.

I have this habit of slamming down my clipboard and a few times a year it snaps. And I actually think it's a good thing. I think the players feel like my passion and my fury and my desire to win. And on most days they feel my patience. I think it's important for me to kind of lose my temper every once in a while, as long as I don't go overboard and just remind them how much this matters.

Question: How do you help players be the best that they can be – on and off the court?Steve Kerr: I like to write players letters a few times a year rather than talk to them because they hear my voice every day. A letter they're more likely to look back at later, too, and pick something up out of the letter that makes some sense to them.

I wrote a letter [to Steph Curry]. I said, ‘I want you to make sure that you get out on the golf course this week. Go play golf and make sure you're having dinner at home with Ayesha and the kids because you're overloaded with all this media stuff and the stress of your life.’ I didn't know how he would take it. And he told me the next day, he said [that] he and Ayesha actually read the letter together and it was really powerful and that it meant a lot for them to hear that from me.

"I have this habit of slamming down my clipboard and a few times a year it snaps. And I actually think it's a good thing. I think the players feel like my passion and my fury and my desire to win." - Steve Kerr on finding a balance

Question: How do you teach resilience and confidence to young athletes and kids today?
Steve Kerr:
I think my advice to parents is, if you want to build resilience, then you have to let your kids fail sometimes because failure is a part of life for all of us. We all fail all the time and to try to teach your kid to be to be perfect and over-coached him or her, it's counterproductive. Because then you don't learn that that resilience that comes with. ‘All right. I failed. I failed at this today. What do I have to do to get better with it?’

And that's why I just think the best coaches and the best parents sort of understand that dynamic. You're really guiding somebody. They have to you have to do it themselves, you can't do it for them, and that's the learning process.

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Question: Is there a recognition or a thank you from a player that really stood out and made you think, ‘Wow, I'm going down the right path here as a coach and as a leader?’
Steve Kerr: I suppose my relationship with Draymond Green is the most gratifying for me on the team, because we butt heads very often, but you know, Draymond is so loyal and such a champion and he has - over the course of the last seven years - periodically just come up and thanked me for helping him achieve his dreams. That's really meaningful coming from somebody like Draymond who has carved an amazing path in his life, mostly through hard work and determination.

"But to hear that from somebody like him, who is living such a successful life and to feel like, ‘OK, you know, I helped I helped him along that path.’ That's incredibly gratifying." - Steve Kerr on receiving a message of 'thanks' from Draymond Green

Question: Is there a coach or leader outside of basketball who you have looked to for professional development?
Steve Kerr:
Pete Carroll from the [Seattle] Seahawks has been a huge influence on my career. I sought out Pete's advice before I became the Warriors coach, connected with him, flew up to Seattle and I spent three days watching their training camp. He's become a mentor of mine and really taught me a lot about culture and how to build a culture within a team and how to communicate with players. He's a brilliant, brilliant coach and I highly recommend looking at other sports. If you're approaching in one sport, I think you can learn a lot from watching or listening to coaches in other sports.

A guy I've never met who I love is Jurgen Klopp from Liverpool. I'm a Liverpool fan. I watch his interviews. I watch his interactions with the players. I think he's a brilliant coach. I would love to meet him someday, but I draw inspiration from him.

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'If you're afraid of the moment, you can't be successful'

Question: What differentiates exceptional athletes? Champions always seem to have another gear when the game is at a pivotal point. What is that trait that makes exceptional possible?
Steve Kerr:
For me it is 100 percent the ability to embrace failure, to not be afraid of the outcome. I know when I was a player for much of my career, I did not want to be the go-to... meaning, the guy who blew the game. I didn't want to miss the shot with the game on the line, so I didn't want to let the team down. That's a recipe for failure in and of itself, because if you're afraid of the moment, you can't be successful.

When I watch Steph Curry. When I watched Michael Jordan, when I watched Tim Duncan, his teammates, I saw this amazing self-belief. It came from a lack of fear of failure. Maybe a better way to put it is just embracing the competition and embracing the idea that, no matter who you are, no matter how good you are, you're going to fail, you're going to lose. Sometimes the best way to win is to give consent and to just say, ‘Let's go, let's go compete.’ [Curry] is incredible with that. He could be oh-for-10 in a game and he'll make his eleventh shot and you'll think he's on fire. You know, just incredible confidence and lack of fear of failure.

Question: What are you looking forward to most about your Olympic experience?
Steve Kerr:
I tried out for the Olympic team in 1988 and I was a finalist, but I got cut before the Seoul Olympics. So I've never been a part of the Olympics. I'm really excited to go to some of the other events, to compete in our own, but [also] just have to feel, the experience, to walk through the Olympic Village and to hear the sights and sounds and to be part of that end.

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