Sports

What I've Learned from Gregg Popovich

A couple of months ago, I tweeted about Gregg Popovich’s famous dinners.

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The tweet got some traction and I think the themes I mentioned are important, so I want to dig deeper into them here:

Raising other’s expectations of themselves

When Popovich is about to leave Ella Dining Room & Bar in Sacremeto, CA, he turns to Jienna Balsadu, then sommelier at Ella and says:

You’re too good for this place. You’re going to do big things. You’re so young, and you’re so well-spoken, and you’re so knowledgeable. It’s clear that you love this. When you love something like this, you hold on to it. You hear me? I will see you again. It will be somewhere else.

The author, Baxter Holmes explains why this is a big deal:

Being a young woman in a male-dominated industry is daunting. Still, she tells herself, “Gregg Popovich sees something in me.”

As a leader or someone that people look up to, your greatest contributions will come from raising other’s expectations of themselves.

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My most rewarding experiences last year came from mentoring freshmen and sophomores at Northwestern. When students come to college, it’s easy to feel imposter syndrome – the feeling that you’re not good enough to be there with people who seem a lot smarter than you. Having a couple of more years under our belt does allow us an aura of having things figured out, which means that when we tell them that they are better than they give themselves credit for, it matters a lot. I’ve seen nervous freshmen in September turn into confident young adults by the time they return home for summer.

Balsadu had a similar journey:

Four years later, when Basaldu makes the leap and lands at The Morris, an acclaimed eatery in San Francisco’s Potrero Flats neighborhood, she looks back on that night with Popovich. And her voice will crack, recalling the time when this famous coach, known for his gruff exterior, gave her the push she needed — how he walked into her restaurant, recognized her game and helped change the course of her life.

Popovich should be a role model for us – he’s raising expectations outside the industry he works in!

Small, private dinners to build relationships

There is something evolutionary about the 4-6 people threshold that allows for diversity of conversation while at the same time retaining the intimate feeling required for maintaining a ‘safe space’.

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I recently read Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning, where Waitzkin talks about when you’re starting out, you need to be conscious about the mathematics of chess games – you need to think about the possible permutations of the game given a particular move. However, with time, you can feel which positions the endgame is moving towards.

The same is true for relationships. What once required conscious effort becomes effortless when you spend a lot of time with someone.

Former Spurs guard Danny Green agrees:

Dinners help us have a better understanding of each individual person, which brings us closer to each other — and, on the court, understand each other better.

Another former player confirms:

I was friends with every single teammate I ever had in my [time] with the Spurs. That might sound far-fetched, but it’s true. And those team meals were one of the biggest reasons why. To take the time to slow down and truly dine with someone in this day and age — I’m talking a two- or three-hour dinner — you naturally connect on a different level than just on the court or in the locker room. It seems like a pretty obvious way to build team chemistry, but the tricky part is getting everyone to buy in and actually want to go. You combine amazing restaurants with an interesting group of teammates from a bunch of different countries and the result is some of the best memories I have from my career.

If you’re on the same wavelength as another team player, it becomes easier to play together. Getting on the same wavelength requires extended time together. Dinners are a forcing function for spending extended time together.

How to lead after a loss

After Spurs lose Game 6 of the 2013 Finals against Miami Heat, Popovich used the dinner as way to recover:

“Pop’s response was, ‘Family!’” Brett Brown, then a Spurs assistant, later tells ESPN. “’Everybody to the restaurant. Straight there.’”

Popovich is already on his way, making a mad dash in a private car to the waterfront eatery. Tables are rearranged — the team will sit in the center, coaches nearby, a ring of family around them. Popovich orders food. He orders the wine. He sits at the head of a table, takes a sip of wine and gathers himself. As the team bus arrives, he greets every Spur who passes through the door.

Over the next few hours, Popovich works the dining room — talking to players, rubbing their shoulders. “In terms of just trying to just hook everybody up to life support and resuscitate everybody, it was the most amazing display of leadership,” former Spurs assistant coach Chad Forcier says. And though the Spurs didn’t win that series, losing to the Heat in Game 7, they would destroy Miami the following June, in five games.

I don’t really need to explain why an amazing meal and alcohol after a terrible day is great to destress – ask the almost 50% of Americans who drink everyday after work.

What’s fascinating to me is that eating together forces you to deal with the loss and come out stronger together. When you lose, it’s easy to separate and “process” things alone, but eating together before you do that emphasizes that you have a support system to help you get through this. That’s how you build resilience.

Generosity

Then comes the tip, and for this, Popovich is renowned. In 2017, he reportedly left a $5,000 tip on a bill of $815.73 at a restaurant in Memphis, Tennessee, but one restaurant owner who’s served Popovich many times reports that he’ll often tip $10,000 on a “nothing meal.”

Not all of us are double-digit millionaires who can drop triple-digit $100 bills on tips. But Popovich can inspire us to be just a bit more generous. For someone like me, the currency I have a lot of is time. So I commit to helping at least one person every week this summer. Send me how you are going to be generous by sending my an email at sidhartha.jha7@gmail.com or a DM on Twitter at @sidharthajha.


With that, we wrap up the first week of this year’s Summer of Learning! Thanks for following along, and I will see you on Monday. If you liked this or other posts this week, subscribe to my weekly newsletter Sunday Snapshots where I talk about similar topics.