Next Play


The way to win at anything is to be just a little bit better than everybody else. It’s like the difference between still water at 211 degrees and water at 212 degrees . . . boiling.

One of the greatest gifts I’ve enjoyed during my years in corporate speechwriting is how much I learn from researching ideas for talks. It happened again just last week. 

My current assignment is to help a high-tech General Manager motivate a floundering sales force overwhelmed by the monumental effort it will take to turn their lackluster performance around.

One way to start re-building the self-confidence of the dispirited sales people is to show them that to win, you have to be only a little bit better than their competitors. It’s like the difference between still water at 211 degrees and 212 degrees . . . boiling water.

But how to illustrate the truth of this in a credible and compelling way?

I found the perfect story in a homily—of all places—given last Sunday by a canon in an Episcopal cathedral in Atlanta.

It centers on Mike Krzyzewski, or "Coach K" as he’s known to those of us who have trouble pronouncing four or five consecutive consonants. He’s the long-time men's basketball coach at Duke University.

The story goes like this.

The Duke University Blue Devils had just lost the second consecutive game of the 2006 season after winning the pre-season tournament.

Coach K didn’t waste a minute in addressing what he saw as a budding problem. He took the team on an offsite retreat and told them that what had happened in the past did not matter . . . the mistakes, the successes of the first two games . . . they did not matter.

The key is to take it one step at a time, he said. The only thing that matters is the next play.

For the rest of the season, as his team ran up the court on offense or down-court on defense, you would see Coach K (as in the photo above) yelling from the sideline: “Next play! Next play!”

He didn’t care if they had just made a spectacular shot or a dumb mistake. He cared only that the team was focused on and ready for the next play.

Does Coach K’s approach work?

Well, Duke went on to win their Atlantic Coast conference that year . . . and then won the post-season tournament . . . only the fifth team to do that in two decades.

Coach K? He’s still at Duke . . . and went on to become the head coach of the USA Basketball Senior National Team. He is now basketball’s all-time winning-est coach.

And for me? In writing this speech, I’m discovering another way to navigate the often brackish waters of our lives: we might not be able to control what the future brings . . . but we can always control the next step.

Oh, and what does Coach K have to do with Christ? As the Atlanta homilist told it, John the Baptist was beheaded because he challenged King Herod. The king had divorced his wife and took his brother’s wife as his own. For Christ, his next play was to not become distracted by the explosive situation between John and the king. Instead, Christ remained focused on the present and began his own ministry where John had left off. 

I won’t know until a year from now—when my client’s 2017 revenue results are reported—if my speech does the trick in helping his sales team.

I hope they do better in the coming year, of course. But either way, I get to keep my fee.

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