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Being Coachable: The Greats Can Take It

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

Basketball is Psychology XLII

“You can’t improve if you’re never wrong.” --Pat Summitt


Being coachable is defined as being easily taught and trained to do something better. Players who are coachable, don’t just tolerate being told the truth and being held accountable, they welcome and want it.

The Truth Helps

In his book, Why The Best Are The Best, former Boston Celtics assistant coach wrote about what it means to be coachable. “We’ve all heard the expression that ‘the truth hurts.’ I do not believe this at all—provided you have the right mindset. The truth may make your ears red with embarrassment, but the truth actually helps, not hurts. That is the mindset that all the great ones live by. When Kevin Garnett first joined the Celtics, he met with Doc Rivers and asked Doc to tell him the truth if he was going to be his best and the team was going to be its best.”

Kevin Garnett exemplified what it means to be coachable. He wanted to be coached, pushed, held accountable, and told the truth. Mentally strong players have such a strong craving to be the best that they will do whatever it takes to get better, even if it means they look bad in the moment for being wrong. To great players, getting better is more important than looking like they are right.

There is a difference between something being hurtful and something being harmful. If one of your teammates is telling you that you are not working hard enough, it might be a little hurtful, but they are not telling you that to harm you or because they want to embarrass you, they are trying to help.

The difference between thinking the truth hurts and thinking the truth helps depends on if you are focused on the big picture or if you are focused on your current feelings. When you are focused on how you feel in the moment of being coached and held accountable, you are only thinking about how hurtful the truth is. When you are focused on being the best basketball player you can be, you understand that being coached and being held accountable can help you get there, so instead of getting defensive, you welcome it.


Humility is the fast track to improvement. It’s hard to get better at something when you think you know it all. It’s a lot easier to get better at something when you assume you have a lot to learn; that’s the posture of a student. Having the humility to admit your mistakes and weaknesses will allow you to improve at a much faster rate. Know-it-all’s never get better.

The Greats Take It

On May 27th, 1985 the Lakers suffered their worst loss in franchise history; the game was nicknamed The Memorial Day Massacre. The next morning, Coach Pat Riley held a film session with his team. At the time, the Lakers center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was 36 years old. He had already won a record 6 NBA MVP’s.

Head Coach Pat Riley wrote about how Kareem acted in his book, The Winner Within:

"For nearly half an hour, in analyzing the game and reviewing the footage, Kareem was the target. All he did was listen to me, watch the edited tape, and say, 'You’re right, you’re right. I didn’t jump. I didn’t get back. You’re right. I was terrible.'"

"Kareem was demonstrating something about greatness in a player. The truly great ones can take it. Not just from the opponent, but also from their coaches, from the press and the fans. Kareem was strengthening the team’s backbone in the way that he took the criticism. He knew that the more I could target him, the stronger his teammates would become."

How was Kareem able to take coaching and criticism so well? He understood his coaches have the same goals he has: they want to win and they want Kareem to be the best player he can possibly be. He understands that by taking the coaching, it helps him be a better player and it helps his team win.

Action Steps:

1. Maintain the attitude of a student, not an expert.

Michael Jordan once said his best skill was that he was coachable. We’re talking about arguably the greatest player to ever play the game and he claims his best skill was not his ability to jump or score, it was his ability to humble himself, accept being wrong, and learn from it. It would have been easy for Michael to let his successes get to his head. It didn’t matter how much he knew, he wanted to know more; that’s what made him great. He had the attitude of a student, not a know-it-all. He described himself as a sponge, and said he was aggressive to learn.

Notice how Michael called being coachable a skill. A skill means it’s not something you were born with, it’s something you choose to work on to get good at. If it’s a skill, that means it’s a choice. You choose to be coachable when you have an attitude that is eager to learn rather than a know-it-all attitude.

If Kareem had the attitude of an expert, he could have rolled his eyes at the thought of being targeted in the film session and reminded everyone that he’s won 6 NBA MVPs, more than anyone in NBA history. He could have told them he obviously knows what he’s doing so everyone should leave him alone. Instead, he stayed undistracted by his past successes and assumed there was more to learn. He viewed feedback as a gift because he knew it was content for growth.

2. Have a “truth helps” mindset:

The second agreement of Don Miguel Ruiz’s book, “The Four Agreements” is Don’t take anything personally. If you resist taking anything personally, you find immunity in chaos. The gift of this agreement is poise and composure in the midst of turmoil.

Instead of taking it personally, take it objectively like a professional. When you choose to hear the truth objectively, you can use it to help. Amateurs crave external validation because it makes them feel good. Professionals crave feedback because it makes them better.

3. Say thank you:

Accountability is done for you, not to you. When someone cares enough to notice how you can improve and is generous enough to tell you, the most appropriate response is, “Thank you.”

If you want to be average, tolerate being coached hard and told the truth.

If you want to be good, resist the urge to make excuses, complain, blame, or defend.

If you want to be great, welcome and appreciate those who are willing to tell you the truth, because we can’t get better without it.


Written by Julie Fournier

Founder & CEO of Basketball is Psychology



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