Coach K Weighs in on Winning Character Traits and Teaching

Coach K clips a net souvenir after a big win in the NCAA men's championship. Photo courtesy of

Coach K clips a net souvenir after a big win in a recent NCAA men’s championship. Photo courtesy of

In the US, the National Basketball Association’s Championship Series runs hot each year. By now, the season’s college basketball is in the history books, but some memories linger…

Mention the nickname Coach K, to anyone who is familiar at all with the game of basketball…

…and Mike Krzyzewski’s amazing stats usually follow.

Coach K is world-renowned.

Players, die-hard fans and followers have Coach K’s stats memorized.

Others know the highlights by heart and access records for the rest.

No matter…the list is long and impressive.

Since 1980, Coach K has served as head men’s basketball coach at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina (US).

Mike Krzyzewski coaches winning teams that include freshmen with skills that shine on the court.

Think of it…freshmen in college are well past grades K – 5, but they are just fresh out of high school.

As you’ll see here, record-setting basketball stats aren’t all that matters to Coach K.

When caught up with him, “Coach,” as his players call him, weighed in on winning character traits and teaching.

“Respect is huge. It’s right there with trust, with loyalty, with collective responsibility and pride; being part of something bigger than you.”

Coach K’s words about key character traits resonate on and off the court.

If character traits that are taught in many elementary schools were a “team” of their own, respect would draw on other “players” in a student’s development…trust and responsibility, to name two.

Coach K describes how respect is one of the most important character traits for his winning teams. “It’s one of the standards that we use with our US Team,” he explains. “We have fifteen standards, and respect is used twice.” How? Coach K’s answers are applicable to students and teachers alike.

He emphasizes the importance of creating a great environment by first respecting yourself with proper preparation and then respecting your team (or class) by never being late and always showing consideration.

Coach K relates the second aspect of respect to preparation. In his view, this means recognizing that your opponent (or competition in a global economy) will be prepared and has strengths, spirit and talent. In a phrase, Coach K suggests that to respect preparation is to commit to never having a bad practice.

“When I got to high school, that’s where I knew I wanted to be a teacher.”

Coach K quickly skips past his memories of the nuns in his very disciplined Catholic elementary school to his recollection of the positive impact of one of his high school teachers, Father Francis Rog. “He’s still a great friend,” says the coach. Father Rog answered questions in and out of the classroom and helped Coach K mature. Likewise, Coach K’s high school basketball coach helped him immensely. “He believed in me at a higher level than I believed in me.”

Respect shines through in good teaching.

“Teaching is coaching; coaching is teaching,” says Coach K. “I think of myself as a teacher; it’s just that I have an athletic team,” (instead of a classroom full of students).

Coach K first learned the value of good teachers and education at home where he says education was stressed much more than sports.

“I came from a really good family.”

Coach K’s family modeled winning character traits more than they talked about them. “One of the first things they taught me was to be on a good team – family – and to celebrate the successes of anybody in the family. You knew that everyone was pulling for one another.” 

Pulling for students to succeed with winning character traits informs quality teaching. Coach K asserts that one of the traits that good teachers exhibit is a continuing love of learning and being open to new ideas.

“A teacher is in constant search of new knowledge.”

In Coach K’s mind, “A really smart teacher (doesn’t just impart the knowledge he/she has, but also) learns from his/her students…letting them ask questions…asking for their observations.”

Coach K applauding his 2014-15 team before Duke played Army on Sunday, 11/3/14. Photo courtesy of

Coach K applauding his 2014-15 team before Duke played Army on Sunday, 11/3/14. Photo courtesy of

“Learning,” the coach continues,” might be a new word, new terminology that resonates with kids better than the word you’re using.”

Responsible teachers are responsive to students’ current interests and needs. This is especially important when you consider Coach K’s observation that “the attention span of youngsters – listening today – is much less than even a few years ago.”

Coach K willingly shares effective strategies with other teachers and coaches that he says he has learned along the way.

“You have to be careful not to talk too long or too much,” says the winning coach. “Otherwise you’ll lose them (students or players) and you’ll be frustrated.”

Referring again to basketball, Coach K explains that he tells coaches all the time, “It’s not about what you know; it’s about what your players know and what they can do under playing conditions.” The same can be said for teaching a classroom full of kids.

Whether you’re on a court or in a classroom and no matter the level of the students you have the honor to teach, suggests Coach K, a teacher needs to come in prepared, organized, and well aware of how she/he will use the time together.

“You have to spark youngsters’ attention.”

Coach K stresses the importance of engaging kids. “Humor is important,” he believes, “adding music or a joke to somehow get kids involved. Humor breaks things up and sparks kids’ attention.”

Attention is key. You could say that paying attention is another way to show respect.

When it’s game time, Coach K says that he works to make sure that his players don’t get distracted by the crowd, their opponent, or the officials. “So to keep them on task, you do that when you have a time out. You look at them, feel where they’re at, and tell them things that will keep them focused throughout the entire game.”

In “the game of life” the winning character trait of respect is what Coach K calls “one of the pillars that a team needs to have.”

His strategies clearly work. Just look at his record.

Then look beyond his record at the respect his players – past and present – as well as his colleagues show for Mike Krzyzewski.

Coach K helps his teams win with winning character traits and his teaching skills.

Remember, you don’t need to be a magician to work magic in any instructional setting!

Talk with you again soon,

Barbara ♥ The Lovable Poet






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Posted in Attentionology for K-5 Teachers
Barbara Cleary has been serving as a resource to hundreds of educators for more than 25 years. An award-winning writer, producer, teacher, and trainer, Barbara’s focus is on offering easy, fun tools and tricks that support K-5 curricula and assist teachers with classroom management.
Quick tips for common classroom conundrums: K-5
Situation: Young students are getting noisy while you’re trying to teach.

Solution: Hold up "Listen Star," a toy magic wand that you’ve designated to be a cue for quiet. Tell the class, "When you see our friend, 'Listen Star' dance across the classroom sky, that’s your signal to HUSH for a moment."

Related Posts: Let "Listen Star" Work Magic for You