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Coaching Leadership Teams

Dawn Staley’s Rules for Life

Dawn Staley is probably one of the best basketball coaches the WNBA has ever had. She’s also an American Olympic gold medalist basketball player, winning three golds for her country.

What follows are Staley’s rules of life from the Netflix documentary, The Playbook. She’s lived these rules to become a successful coach and an inspiring human being. And not only that, but she’s also inspired several players, coaches, and even fans to instil these rules into their lives.

On to the rules now.


Rule 1: Bring your own ball. When odds are stacked against you, better get creative and make your own rules. For Staley, growing up with her siblings and playing basketball in the streets with other boys in the neighbourhood was a transformational experience. She made playing on the “big boy court” as her goal. And she achieves it by getting creative. Since most didn’t have a ball to play with, she would bring her own and implement a rule — if the older kids used her ball, she gets to play.

It’s a simple yet highly effective rule should you wish to carve out a niche for yourself. Playing by the rules doesn’t cut it anymore. Implementing your own is the way to chart out a path to glory. Think about your favourite brands, start-ups, and business leaders — they’ve all followed this rule to the tee. And life has rewarded them handsomely.

Rule 2: Growth takes place outside of your comfort zone. Possibly one of the most profound rules I’ve come across. It has helped me grow to be a better person, leader, coach, parent, and friend. For Staley, it was the culture shock she experienced while attending a predominantly white university. She’d never thought of race as big deal before that, and the circumstances affected her personally and academically. She was called in by the dean who explained how all growth happens outside the comfort zone.

That little conversation turned things around and pushed Staley to grow in leaps and bounds. It’s also one of the core messages that she never misses to pass on to her players.

Rule 3: Create a home-court advantage. Staley always believed that having fans in the stands can be a game-changer. It’s a testimony of the support and belief people have in their team, that can change how her team recruits players. And as the attendance numbers of women’s basketball games improved, Staley’s team has led the nation in attendance time and again. As a direct result, the players have felt supported and truly special in their home court.

That is akin to your team or company’s support for the initiatives that you or your team takes. Lack thereof can kill the spirit and usually results in an unenthusiastic team delivering lousy performance. And do you create a home-court advantage at the workplace or your business? By selling the team and the leadership on the importance of acknowledgement and support for whatever little or big things the teams do.

Sometimes, you have to know what exactly do you want to jack up the enthusiasm.

Rule 4: The 24-hour rule. Champions have a hard time moving forward, particularly after a significant setback. As a player, Staley lost a National Championship game in 1991 and had a tough time getting over it. She watched the game over and over again, agonising over the defeat.

When she became a coach, she instituted a rule that allowed her team to bask in the glory or mull over the defeat for 24 hours. And not even a minute more. Staley sums it up perfectly, “you’re either going to have the mental capacity to keep moving, or you don’t.”

As a leader, the worst thing you can do to yourself and your team is to stay mentally stuck at something that happened last week. You can’t old and stale events shape your thinking today. I believe the 24-hour rule allows one to snap out of a bad/great state more effectively, without denying one’s emotions.

Rule 5: What is delayed is not denied. Staley’s team lost to Notre Dame in 2015 Final Four. It was a devastating experience for her and her team. Carolyn Peck, a championship-winning coach, gave Staley a piece of the net she’d cut down after leading her team to the national title in 1999.

Staley kept the piece of nylon as a souvenir and continuously used it as a symbol of faith that she will get a breakthrough and win the title. And in 2017, she did! Right after the game, Staley cut off an extra piece of the net to give to another coach just as Peck did two years ago.

There are times in life when, despite your best intentions, you can’t speed things up nor can you slow them down. It’s essential not to get impatient but understand that success might be delayed but isn’t denied. And if you keep at it, you will get there.


While each of the five rules is powerful and worth the study, number five resonated with me the most. It brought tears to my eyes because I’ve experienced it several times before; heck, I still am going through it, and so is everyone striving for a successful in life. That’s how all of this works.

The key is to have patience, faith in yourself, and willingness to play by these (or any of the other rules I’ve covered in this series) rules. Are you game?