Talking Teamwork With Celtics Coach Brad Stevens and Angela Duckworth

“Don’t focus on what somebody can’t do, and don’t complain about it. Focus on what they can do and help them get the most out of it.”

Angela Duckworth, author of the bestselling Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, sat down with Boston Celtics Coach, Brad Stevens. Before Stevens became a head coach for the NBA team, he coached Butler University’s Division I team, the Bulldogs. Both Duckworth and Stevens know about perseverance and determination, and their conversation sheds light on how vital teamwork and grit are in following one’s passion.

Angela Duckworth: How did you get into basketball? Did you originally want to be a player?

Brad Stevens: My dreams and goals as a kid had nothing to do with coaching or management. It was with playing. I would venture to say everybody in basketball—coaches, front office, everyone—would have preferred to be a player. You wanted to play at the mega-school, under the brightest lights. You wanted to be on the Olympic team, to play in the pros.

After not having a chance to do that and being a Division Three basketball player, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I took a year of soul-searching to figure out what I wanted to do in the corporate world. I figured out that I wanted to be around the game in some capacity, because that was my greatest education: my team, our teammates, and the game. That was what I did year-round, every day.

Angela: Division Three?

Brad:Basically it’s non-scholarship. In Division One, you’re playing at the very highest level of college, mostly with scholarships (with the exception of the Ivy League and a couple of other schools here and there). In Division Three, you’re playing because you love the game and because it’s what you’ve always done, and you take great pride and continue to grow and get better. You’re not going to play beyond, usually.

Angela: Did you want to go to a Division Two or One school?

Brad:I think I wasn’t good enough.

Angela: Why weren’t you good enough? You weren’t tall enough? Talented enough? Or you didn’t work hard enough?

Brad: I was a decent worker. I wasn’t a great athlete. I was fairly small for my position, and I wasn’t a game-changer.

When you’re in the Division One coaching circles, you’re recruiting to get game-changers. You’re not recruiting guys that could play or survive in that level. You’re looking for guys that can put you over the top, who can help you compete at the very highest levels. We were fortunate enough when I was at Butler to have those kinds of guys.

Coach Brad Stevens talking to AJ Graves at Butler University game.
Coach Brad Stevens talking to AJ Graves at Butler University game.

We had always had really successful teams that would knock on the door, and then we had a couple of teams that were able to shift that and compete for all the marbles. I got into coaching partly because of the drive to compete at that highest level.

Angela: Same as Pete Carroll, right? He also wanted to be a football player. He played and he was okay.

Brad:Not being good enough to play at that level probably was one of the driving factors in wanting to be a Division One college basketball coach. Getting a chance to do that at Butler was an incredible experience. It just kept rising and rising, ultimately competing in Final Fours, and now getting a chance to do that here is, again, just crazy to think about. You’re constantly challenging yourself against the very best. It takes a great deal of, as you would say, perseverance and optimism and passion to do that.

Angela: I read quotes online from your wife and other people who knew you when you were younger. I think it was really important for me to see that you weren’t always this Brad Stevens, that there was struggle. What were you like when you were 18, 19, 20? Because the reality of excellence is that it’s a process. It’s not, “Oh yeah, Brad Stevens, we always knew.”

Brad: I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life is the first answer. Secondly, I had to work really hard to do well and to try to be the best that I could be. Whether it was on the court or in the classroom, it was a great place to go to school because they really challenged me. As time went on, I learned, “Hey, I like being part of a team. I like having the ups and downs of a team. I like a scoreboard. I enjoy that.” It’s funny because the longer I’ve been in it, the more I’ve been able to embrace and focus on the process of growth and take each success or failure as information.

When I was younger, I wasn’t as good at that. It was a huge sigh of relief when you won and you’d despise losing. You still do, but you’re better able to move forward now with what you need to do to be successful.

“You’re going to have bad days. You have to move on and focus on what you can do to make the next one better. You just always have to try to be better.”

Angela: We were talking about John Wooden before and I think you said, “He’s one of my favorite coaches.” He’s got to be one of every coach’s favorite coaches.

Brad: No question. Especially as I grew up about an hour from where he grew up.

Angela: Indiana, right? You have a lot of overlap. We both read his books, and the part about being able to have emotional calm, a centeredness in the face of defeat, made total sense to me. What was surprising is that he also encourages players to have emotional regulation in victory too.

Brad: Well, they had a lot of work at that because they won all the time. They had to learn how to be gracious winners, like nobody else in the history of college basketball.

Angela: Isn’t he still the winningest coach in the NCAA?

Brad: I don’t know about the winningest coach in total wins, but certainly in championships and everything else. They went on that ten to twelve year run that was incredible and unparalleled.

You have to be able to move on from the emotions of the game, one way or another. It is really tough and it’s very challenging in college. I think it’s even more challenging at this level, because by the time we were done with exhibition games, regular season, and the play-offs, we had played 95 times. That’s a lot of ups and downs. But the bottom line is that you have to be able to move on to what’s next. You have to be able to take what just happened as information and try to apply it and improve. Carole Dweck and her book, Mindset, had a huge influence on me.

Angela: You’re famously, emotionally centered. That’s what the sports writers write about: Brad Stevens, total calm. Things are going well, calm. Things are going badly, calm.

Brad: There’s perception and then there’s reality, right?

Angela:Let’s just take the writers at their word and say that you’re pretty good at that. I read about a certain loss that you had, maybe you were still playing or it was early coaching, where you didn’t have that equanimity. That emotion-free, “It’s information, I’m going to learn from it” mindset.

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Brad Stevens on sideline at Butler vs. Duke game.

Brad: We all should be better at it the next time we do it. We all should constantly strive to improve. In that moment, I was a young head-coach. I was barely 31 years old.

Angela: At Butler?

Brad: At Butler. We were 8 and 0 and we had started the season off great and we went into a conference game and I was on edge about things that I didn’t have any control over. From that point on, I just thought, I hope to never coach a game where I feel like that again. Where I’m more worried about the result than just doing my task in each moment of the game. I learned a lot from that moment because when I was on edge, our team was on edge.

Angela:It brings me back to growth mindset. You could look at a player who’s got a lot of athletic potential but they’re a hot-head, and if you have a fixed mindset, you decide, “We don’t want them.” If you have a growth mindset, you could say, “This guy’s got a lot of athletic potential and he’s got a really bad temper, but what can I do with that?” Right? Did you learn to become more emotionally centered in any deliberate way?

Brad: One of the things that I love about this league is that every one of these guys is here for a reason. It’s my job as a coach to focus on why are they here. I help them manage the areas where they need to improve. Sometimes those get managed very easily and sometimes those are things that you have to work on. We have a lot of examples here of guys that, for whatever reason, had a chip on their shoulder because somebody said they weren’t good enough. One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about coaching these players is that they’ve utilized that chip in a positive manner.

“Don’t focus on what somebody can’t do, and don’t complain about it. Focus on what they can do and help them get the most out of it.”

Then, they’re more likely to persevere if they’ve already shown their willingness to get over that. They also have really good strengths. They’re really good players and if you don’t value what they bring to the table, first and foremost, then they’re probably not going to have success. That’s a huge part of trying to get the most out of our team. I learned that from one of my first bosses at Butler, Todd Lickliter, who’s one of the greatest coaches I’ve ever been around. He had a book called Soar Over to Your Strengths, but he had that mindset, he had that framework and he always told us, “Don’t focus on what somebody can’t do, and don’t complain about it. Focus on what they can do and help them get the most out of it.”

Angela: There seems to be a tension between the lesson of “I want you guys to come in and we’re going to drill your weaknesses” and “get better and then soar with your strengths.” Is there a resolution to that paradox? What does that mean as a coach? What’s your message to these players?

Brad: We used to have forty minutes to work with our players at Butler per NCAA rules. You do it in three forty-minute sessions because you only got two hours a week in the offseason to work on their skills. That was a rule to help them handle their studies. Because we had such limited time, we wanted thirty-two of those forty minutes to focus deliberately on things that they were going to be able to impact the game with. Most of the time, that’s perfecting your strengths.

Then, as a staff, we talked about what each guy could do that would be unique to what he can do now. What can put him over the top at his position or give him an extra chance to play more minutes. We referred to that as “dream time.”

So the next 8 minutes of the workout, if Angela doesn’t shoot threes normally, we work on Angela’s three-point shot. We’re going to challenge her in unique ways to get her to the point where she can feel good about it and then maybe it becomes something that she can use down the road.

In college, as you’re still 18 to 22 years old, that extra 8 minutes made the individual workouts exciting to come back to, because it’s not just the mundane, deliberate practice. It goes against the grain, but at the same time, it (hopefully) drives the passionate side of things.

Angela: What’s interesting is you could have framed that last 8 minutes in lots of ways—in negative ways. “Now we’re going to work on things that you’re not good at, that are not your strengths.” You call it “dream time.”

Brad: I don’t know if we ever referred to it like that with our players. That’s what we called it in weekend staff meetings. It was more like “Diversify your game.”

One of our best players at Butler, probably the best four-year player ever at Butler, was Matt Howard. He went from not attempting a three as a young freshman, I believe, to making maybe five total over the next two years, to making 53 as a senior.

Angela: Both basketball and football have individuals who have all these individual stats, your points, your assists, your errors—but it’s a team sport. It’s not like golf or track and field. It feels to me there’s a tension there. If I’m a player, am I trying to have my best individual performance or do I want my team to win?

Avery_Bradley_and_Jordan_Crawford
Celtics Point Guard, Avery Bradley, and Jordan Crawford.

Brad: In a lot of situations, those are the same things, and that’s where you start to separate great teammates from others: the guys that have to sacrifice a little bit on the individual end for the team’s success. That happens in every good team.

For a basketball example of that, I’ll use last year’s champions, the Golden State Warriors. They had to downsize to play better in the finals against the Cavaliers, so they ended up sitting a couple of their key players, including their starting center, for much of the last few games of that series.

Angela:Why?

Brad: Because their team was more effective playing against the Cavaliers with smaller, quicker guys. As a result, their team had great success, but if that sitting player doesn’t handle it well, then that could hurt the team.

When champions get back together, they have reunions, and they talk about that stuff. They don’t talk about the shot that went in from 60 feet or the person that scored the most points. In every great team, somebody has to sacrifice something, otherwise they wouldn’t be a great team.

Jared Sullinger (left) blocking the Piston's Greg Monroe.
Jared Sullinger (left) blocking the Piston’s Greg Monroe’s shot

Angela: What surprised me when I was interviewing people for my book was that whether someone’s a team player or trying to win the gold medal in the 100, an art activist working to revitalize poor neighborhoods or a wine taster—they all have a sense of greater purpose. Beforehand I’d thought, obviously the art activist has a greater sense of purpose than the wine taster.

I think there are two engines of motivation. One is personal, self-driven. “Basketball is fun for me, it’s interesting, I like to be in-shape, I like to be successful.” It’s not that it’s bad, but those are self-oriented, personal. Who benefits from that? You benefit from it.

The other engine of motivation, and it’s something probably hard-wired, as we’re social animals, is driven by being needed and truly sacrificing for other people.

Do you feel like it’s a matter of maturity? Maybe when you’re a younger player, you think more about how you’re going to do well and your individual glory and as you get older, you evolve. That’s what’s been observed in some other domains that aren’t basketball. Do you see that progression or is it unrelated to age and maturity?

Brad: You see that progression, but everybody’s different. Every single person is wired differently, every single person finds different motivation. Some are probably more motivated by the initial stuff and then others find their greatest motivation and happiness by being a part of that team.

There was a general talking point in college coaching that I thought was interesting. First and foremost, everybody wants to win. There’s a general consensus that freshman just want to play. They want to win but they just want to prove that they belong. Then there’s a general consensus that after you’ve proved you belong, you want something more. Sophomores want to start. Once you’ve started, you’ve proven you belong. Now juniors want to score. Freshman want to play, sophomores want to start, juniors want to score and then seniors want to win.

Again, everybody wants to win, that’s just the way it goes, but there are different motivations at different levels. Seniors want to win, they want to go out on top too. When you are a senior, this is the last team that you’re going to be on most likely. And how does it end? Is your team going to be a reunion team? Is it going to be a team that just sits together when it gets together?

“Everybody wants to win, that’s just the way it goes.”

Angela: The sacrifice part is what interests me. Who was that guy that you emailed me the article about? The basketball player who didn’t have the best individual stats but every team that he played on…

BradThat was a New York Times article on Shane Battier from a few years ago. But there are so many examples of those guys in sports, guys that figure out that they bring something to the table and their ultimate goal is to help the team win. They’re going to do that and they’re comfortable and content in who they are. Ask anyone who played at any level, they’ll say, “I want to win at the highest level and I want to be the one doing all the stuff at the highest level.” That’s natural. But there are only so many guys that do that. Then there’s the whole rest of the league, whatever sport you’re in, that’s made up of the guys that are great at blending. That are great at figuring out how they impact winning.

Angela: They don’t get onto the cover of Sports Illustrated though.

Brad: The longer you’re in sports, the more you realize that’s a week-to-week thing. Winning as a group and being a part of a team is much bigger than that.

Angela: [For parents], what lessons can be exported from things you know as a coach?

Brad: It goes back to the mindset concept of learning that everything you do, you take as information and you move forward to try to be a little bit better. It’s not about the trophies, it’s not about every A you can squeeze out of every class. It’s about learning, growing and improving and not being afraid of failure. As a young kid, even until I was 25 or 26, that probably was my biggest driver—I just didn’t want to fail.

As I’ve gotten older and more comfortable in my own skin, I’m more able to say okay, take everything as information and move forward. If something goes really well today, you’ve got more work to do tomorrow. If something goes poorly today, you’ve got more work to do tomorrow.

Angela: I totally agree. What makes it so hard to screw-up and get that information that you’re not where you want to be?

Brad: Some people can take criticism and it just flies right off them. Most can’t. That’s why, again, you have to treat everybody uniquely, even though you’re coaching in a collective setting. I was probably more of the ones unable to take [criticism] in large doses. I needed to be told I was doing a reasonable job to be at my best.

I will say this, [even with what I know] about process, the losses still eat at me. This morning, at 8 am, I was watching our last loss from five days ago. It drives you and it eats at you. There’s always something to do to be better. I don’t consider myself to be anywhere near where I need to be, nor where I need to go.

Angela: Will you ever be?

Brad: I don’t know, that’s a great question.

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Stevens cheering on his team

Angela: I was just at pasta class with Mark Vetri, he’s this very gritty chef in Philadelphia. Somebody asked him why he had done his latest project. It’s an Italian restaurant and years into its being the most successful restaurant in Philadelphia, he changed everything about it. He went to Italy, he did months of research. He changed everything about the way they make pasta, and somebody asked him, why would you do that? Nobody was asking you to do that. Everybody already loves your pasta. He said, it’ll never be good enough.

My observation of world-class players, whether in sports or elsewhere, is that they’re never satisfied. When people say, then isn’t Brad Stevens really unhappy, and isn’t he going to be raising his kids to be unhappy people, what’s your answer to that? 

Brad: You have to find contentment in the pursuit. You’re never satisfied with your work. You’re never satisfied with how you’re performing. Every coach has always driven for the perfect game and the perfect game has never been played and never will be played. You talk about how you can’t play perfectly, but just play the right way and play together and good things will happen. It’ll take care of itself. At the same time, there’s this constant drive to do a little bit better.

“You have to find contentment in the pursuit. You’re never satisfied with your work. You’re never satisfied with how you’re performing.”

To me, there’s fun in that pursuit. There’s enjoyment in studying new things. There’s enjoyment in thinking about how the latest work and grit in higher education impacts our lives to make us a little bit better so that we can pursue this a little harder. Your ultimate best is probably unattainable, but it’s the climb that’s fun, and that’s the point. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to have ups and downs, but that’s the point too.

Angela: Well, you’re a gritty coach and the best thing about your story is that you weren’t always as gritty as you are today. I think that gives people hope.

Brad: Part of grit comes with figuring out what you want to do. Figuring out what you like and what your passions are takes time, it takes analysis and all that stuff. Then not taking yourself too seriously as you pursue becoming the best you can be. The maddening part about this is I don’t think I’ll ever be as good as I want to be, but it’s fun pursuing it. That would be something that I’d want my kids to take with them as a young parent.

Angela: To find the satisfaction of always being dissatisfied. That’s a pretty good way to live life.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.