How to Win in Life from the Legendary Coach Summitt

basketball through hoop

We lost a great athlete, coach, and all-around amazing woman this year: Pat Summitt. She led a passionate, purposeful life that reached far beyond her seven NCAA Coach of the Year awards, eight national championships, 38 seasons, and 1,098 wins with the Tennessee Volunteers.

Pat & Tyler Summitt

Pat Summitt and Her Son, Tyler

Summitt’s legacy was written with the rise of women’s sports, but is cemented by the character and careers of the Lady Vols she led, and how well she set them up for success. Not only did all her eligible players graduate, but they left college equipped to fight through all life brings.

Summitt understood, more than most, the values competitive sports and mastering teamwork hold, and that personal achievements often come from team success. Work hard, work together, and the accomplishments will follow.

“Teamwork is a lot like being part of a family,” Summitt said. “It comes with obligations, entanglements, headaches, and quarrels. But the rewards are worth the cost.”

Most of us didn’t get the pleasure of being led by Coach Summitt, but her wise words live on and can teach us a lot about being a competitor and working with others. Here are 10 Summitt takeaways to leverage in your own life.

1. It Won’t Be Easy

“Teamwork does not come naturally. Let’s face it. We are born with certain inclinations, but sharing isn’t one of them.”

Any parent of a toddler knows the struggle that starts young; we learn to work with others and share our things and energy, but that doesn’t make the task miraculously easier as we age. Just like a basketball team, with many positions and players who may be more skilled on offense or defense, or in certain situations, the world goes round with people of varying strengths and weaknesses who come together to accomplish great things. Summitt recruited wisely to build her teams, but didn’t stop there; she made her players recognize their differences and work through disagreements or ego to embrace how they needed each other to succeed.

2. Attitude Matters

“Attitude is a choice. What you think you can do, whether positive or negative, confident or scared, will most likely happen.”

Summitt was known for her confidence. And for fostering the same intense outward energy in her players. She might have been concerned about whether they could beat certain opponents, but it was never apparent. After masterfully preparing and practicing to the best of their ability, the Lady Vols were trained to do the very last thing they could, and that was believe. Believe they could win, and think positively, because it didn’t do anyone any good to hit the floor tentatively. They didn’t always win, but they sure thought they could, which is an advantage found in the best competitors.

3. Be Disciplined

“Nine-tenths of discipline is having the patience to do things right.”

Oh, patience. Nine-tenths of adults probably wish they had more! Summitt preached good discipline on a regular basis. It sets a baseline for what you can do to play your part, and for what your teammates (or co-workers or family) can expect from you. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. It takes steady, hard work when you’d rather skip a day or task. But doing the little things, repeatedly, allow people to depend on you—and eventually stretch and do even more than expected.

4. Accountability Is King

“Accountability is essential to personal growth, as well as team growth. How can you improve if you’re never wrong? If you don’t admit a mistake and take responsibility for it, you’re bound to make the same one again.”

Summitt was the first to point out if she could have done something better, or there was a flaw in her game-plan. She also called out her players. While she was sometimes criticized for this, it was a natural continuation of the personal accountability she preached with her players. Trust is everything for a group to be able to work and thrive together, so if something went wrong it was best to own up to it. That didn’t mean they’d dwell, but the acknowledgment alone was worth it. The next step was figuring out what they could do to improve and move forward.

5. You Can Always Improve

“There is always someone better than you. Whatever it is that you do for a living, chances are, you will run into a situation in which you are not as talented as the person next to you. That’s when being a competitor can make a difference in your fortunes.”

Even the best at what they do, including Coach Summitt, have room to improve. Recognizing this, and regularly striving to work harder, do more, is what makes these people the epitome of greatness and a great example for us all.

6. Don’t Underestimate Yourself

“By doing things when you are tired, by pushing yourself further than you thought it could be—like running the track after a two-hour practice—you become a competitor. Each time you go beyond your perceived limit, you become mentally stronger.”

Remember that confidence mentioned awhile back? Summitt carried herself so high and pushed her players so hard because she knew they where each capable of more. People really are miraculous, and so much of succeeding is a mental game. It’s taking risks and pushing harder, not being satisfied with status quo. When you capture this feeling and can instill it in an entire group, your potential is vast!

7. Success Is Relative

“Success is all a matter of perspective. It depends on where you start from, and where you want to end up.”

We talk a lot about starting small and celebrating little victories when it comes to people’s health and fitness journeys, and Summitt understood this well for her players and organization. Success can be everything from making one right decision or shooting a higher percentage to winning that huge game. That means things can still be learned or achieved during an actual loss or failure. This is so applicable to real life. One big goal is reached through numerous steps, and a move backward doesn’t make the ultimate goal impossible.

8. Everyone Needs Help

“Teamwork is really a form of trust. It’s what happens when you surrender the mistaken idea that you can go it alone and realize that you won’t achieve your individual goals without the support of your colleagues.”

Summitt’s words say it all here. Hard work and innate skills and strengths can only take you so far without the support of others—be it buy-in, actual support, or even cheering. Acknowledge you need each other and are willing, and that support system will make any challenge easier.

9. Change Really Is Good

“The willingness to experiment with change may be the most essential ingredient to success at anything.”

Sports are the perfect arena to try different things: Summitt could start a different player, change up the defense, or design a new play. Each led to pretty immediate, concrete proof whether that change was for the good or not. It kept her thinking, and evolving, and her opponents and players on their toes. That willingness to try new things and prepare her players for the inevitability of change helped Summitt succeed on the basketball court and her players get ready for what life would surely bring. Some change is chosen, but a lot is not. It’s how we deal with that change that makes all the difference.

10. Winning Isn’t Everything

“I have a love-hate relationship with losing. I hate how it makes me feel, which is basically sick. But I love what it brings out.” 

Winning really isn’t everything. You learn a lot from losing, and are forced to re-evaluate, which often brings groups together even more. Despite how competitive she was, Summitt used to say it’s all about the people. Sure she wanted to win—and do her very best, while getting each player to do theirs. But those experiences and the relationships they formed, while striving together, was the true reward.

Learn more about Pat Summitt’s spectacular life, career, and lessons through her three novels: “Raise the Roof” (1999), “Reach for the Summitt” (2012), and “Sum It Up: A Thousand And Ninety-Eight Victories, a Couple of Irrelevant Losses, and a Life in Perspective” (2014). 

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Kelly Fitzgerald has a BA in Journalism and MA in Creative Writing, and is the Managing Editor of the Anytime Fitness blog. She’s an avid reader, writer, and life-long learner who describes herself as a curious, sporty Twin Citian who is always observing, perpetually tired, and plagued by common sense.