Pat Summitt’s Champion Mindset

UPDATED: January 20, 2009
PUBLISHED: January 20, 2009

When ESPN was looking for a women’s college basketball coach to feature in a commercial recently, they sought out the biggest name in the business, University of Tennessee Basketball Coach Pat Summitt.

The commercial played off Summitt’s reputation for being serious. She’s serious about leadership. She’s serious about her team. She’s serious about winning.

But for the commercial, they wanted her to be funny, laughing as an ESPN anchor joked that she was “at the summit” of her profession. Instead, Summitt looked the anchor in the eye and deadpanned, “I guess you could say I have this coaching thing down Pat.”

Those who know Pat Summitt enjoyed the exchange because it was a rare glimpse into the lighter side of the coach who is on the verge of becoming the first ever to win 1,000 games. There are few records in her profession that Summitt doesn’t own. But Summitt will be the first to tell you the records don’t belong to her, but to the young women she’s coached, all of whom had to learn what it meant to play the game Summitt’s way.

“I’ve been known to say, winners aren’t born, they’re self-made,” Summitt said recently in an interview with SUCCESS. “They’re made that way by setting goals every day. Players who come to our program, they really don’t understand what they individually have to invest. At the start of this season, two of our freshmen were in shock. They’ve never had to sprint on every possession, talk and communicate on the floor. Its like they can go for two to three minutes, but they’ll give in to the mental fatigue. They’re in great physical shape, but haven’t had to put up with this mental challenge. In order for them to overcome that they have to have a different mindset — a different focus — and we talk about that throughout every practice. Most of our games are played in four-minute segments, because most every game we play is on TV, so they get breaks for commercials. But to get them ready, I want them to play in five- or seven- or eight-minute stretches and be able to maintain that mental edge; that is the real challenge for our young players.”

Summitt said pushing her team harder in practice than they’ll ever be asked to play in a game is a habit they can take into their lives after sports.

“If you always put more into getting ready for a game — or a business meeting — than you’ll need, then no game or meeting will ever overwhelm you,” she said. “I want our team to not just be physically more prepared than their opponents… I want them to be mentally stronger, too. Those are life lessons.”

Though a number of Summitt’s players have had the chance to go on and play basketball professionally, she makes it a point to often explain how her basketball philosophies will translate into their lives after basketball is over.

“There are a lot of parallels between basketball and corporate America,” Summitt said. “Both sides know you only win if you have a great team. Little is accomplished with only one talented player. And to build a great team people have to understand their roles and you have to understand the importance of eliminating confusion. When you get on a big team, that’s when it’s even more important that everyone knows their functions. And in working through that, understanding that everybody has to do what they do best, and bring that to the team — just like we want our players to play to their strengths. In the corporate arena, you want the people who have specific jobs to do to be the right ones for those jobs and to do them to the best of their abilities. Communication is even more important, because in corporate America your team is so much bigger. We work on bringing the right attitude to practice — or work — every day and we teach our players how to motivate themselves and others. Everyone is craving motivation these days. Those who can deliver it will always have jobs.”

As will Pat Summitt. A great leader, she is also a much-sought-after speaker, though she admits that is one area where she’s working to get better.

“Maybe one day I’ll get that down Pat,” she joked.

Don Yaeger is a four-time New York Times best-selling author, longtime Sports Illustrated writer and award-winning motivational speaker. Read more at