The Winner Within


the winner within

Summary of The Winner Within, by Pat Riley

Chapter 1: The Innocent Climb. The innocent climb is the surge that occurs within a team as they are accomplishing more because of the synergy that occurs within a team. Innocence means understanding that the team comes first and being carried along by that; being naive means being ignorant. Innocence doesn’t mean being naive. Teamwork and all of its benefits happen when everyone puts the team first. innocence comes when the leader believes in something and puts him or herself out to accomplish that. Magic Johnson was a leader and great team player because he put the team first and because he looked at everyone on the team and adapted his style so that everyone’s strength’s were accentuated. He also had incredible fire and an innocent enthusiasm which was contagious.

Chapter 2: The Disease of Me. The disease of me starts when people start behaving selfishly, believing that they are more important than the team. When a guy got in great shape after the Lakers’ first championship, Riley called it the disease of me, as opposed to a drive for excellence, because this guy’s efforts to get in shape were so that he personally could be as good or better of a player as Kareem. The disease of me was worsened in the Lakers when Magic went out once and was scheduled to come back; all the marketing people in the Lakers were selling Magic’s return, even though the team was winning without him. The Lakers got upset and selfish about all the attention Magic was getting, especially since they were winning without him. Everyone is important. Too much arguing can be bad and is evidence of the disease of me, even though some companies and teams went through a fad of “venting.” The team has to come first.

Chapter 3: The Core Covenant. The core covenant is what the team agrees upon to be the most truly important things. Riley talks about how on a rafting trip his group began calling itself. The Scorpions, shortly after going through some difficult rapids. Core covenants can be good or bad, positive or negative. Good covenants bind people together, create an equal footing, help people take care of their responsibilities and create the foundation for teamwork. Every team that has accomplished great things has decided, very consciously, what it wants to be, what values it wants to represent. Team’s with negative covenants can be successful, but only for a short period of time. Paul Westhead took a fall as head coach because he was the figurehead for a group of guys who had adopted a very negative and selfish core. A lot of people don’t get what they want right away and must work or live in the trenches for a while before they get where they really want to be. Riley has 3 rules for people to Set the most out of the time they spend in the trenches:

1. Don’t demean the time spent in the trenches.

2. Use any time not spent on center stage to strengthen your powers of perception.

3. Keep reminding yourself that attitude is the mother of luck.

Athletes and professionals all want to trust their leaders, but they are also always

worried that they are going to get screwed. When Riley came to a disunited Laker team, he immediately said to them, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. You are either with me or you are against me.” Everyone on the team pulled together. There were no anonymous sources of dissention in newspaper articles.

Teasing is a positive way of building trust and commitment. Thomas Jefferson said, “I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing. As a leader, you are there to serve your troops, to make them feel positive, worthwhile and important. Riley used to make hotels almost like home by bringing in VCR movies, pool tables and meal buffets. However, he also says that you can’t be subservient to your team. You still have to give them discipline and direction. The essence of a positive core covenant is totally positive peer pressure. This replaces blame and finger pointing with mutual monitoring and mutual reinforcement. Riley talked with his team about the key elements to their success. Everyone agreed to the standards because they had set them. Everyone agreed to monitor each other and Riley agreed to enforce the standards. He told everyone they might not like the enforcement.

Chapter 4: Thunderbolts. Thunderbolts are problems that get in the way of where you are going. They are a part of life. Thunderbolts should teach you to always come back, better than before. Life works out best for those who make the best out of the way things work out. The key to dealing with thunderbolts is your mental attitude. When they hit, you can not give yourself a mental excuse to lose, because then you have as good as lost. Sympathy, especially self-sympathy or self-pity, is like junk food. It has no nourishment and it does not real good. When you lose, Riley doesn’t encourage taking it easily. He encourages you to get angry and upset and to be determined to come back stronger than before. “Life is difficult,” Riley quotes from the beginning of a book called The Road Less Travelled. Life is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. We shape our own reality by what we think about and what we visualize. If you ever say, “it’s ok to fail,” then you have as good as failed. Riley encourages people never to lose their dreams, especially under adversity. “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams,” according to Eleanor Roosevelt.

Chapter 5: The Choke. The choke is what happens when you fail to understand or accept the reality of your competitive situation versus an opponent. Riley doesn’t believe that dynasties choke, because they know what got them where they are and they never take it for granted. Custer was a classic choker. Riley quotee; Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, “Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster…” Don’t over or under-estimate your competitor. Do know yourself: 1) Develop self-confidence; 2) Don’t blindly take on challenges beyond your abilities. There’s a difference between being ready and being prepared. Ready is just being there. Prepared means mentally and physically conditioned and having consciously planned the situation. It’s important to have patience as well. Montesquieu said, “Success generally depends on knowing how long it takes to succeed.” When you meet a challenge prepared, your effort will Row seamlessly. He also encourages people to play for the win and not to be overly cautious. Cautiousness can cause a choke also. You don’t back into success. You accomplish success in a state of total confidence. According to George Schultz, “The
minute you start talking about what you’re going to do if you lose, you have lost.”

Chapter 6: The Breakthrough. Breakthroughs are positive Thunderbolts. Some indicators that they might be about to happen include:

-frustration from knowing great, but unrecognized, sacrifice.

– deep loneliness, but a need to act for others a hunger to reclaim dignity

– a recognition that core healing must take place

– healthy team introspection so the team can move forward

Samuel Johnson once said, “Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.” Breakthroughs occur when people are positive, go through many experiences and keep trying. “A strong and well-constituted man digests his experiences, deeds and misdeeds all included, just as he digests his meats, even when he has some tough morsels to swallow,” the philosopher Nietzsche said to Riley last season. After a particularly bad game, Riley isolated Kareem as the worst performer and showed this to Kareem in front of the group. Kareem took this positively and the whole thing worked. When a breakthrough is about to occur, there will usually be some voice or message which gives the group its marching orders to make the charge. Big Al, Kareem’s father, was with Kareem before a key game the Lakers took over the Celtics. Riley says that he could feel the spirit flowing before the game and knew that something special was going to happen before the game. The deep and old voices are the best at inspiring, but the audience must first be inspired and ready. But everyone does have some positive memory which can be triggered and inspire them. Business breakthroughs often occur not emotionally, but logically. Riley quotes a McKinsey consultant who said, “To a man with a hammer, all problems look like nails.” Looking at something in a different way can be a breakthrough.

Chapter 7: Complacency. Complacency comes when you feel good about who you are and what you have achieved. It is a subtle erosion, and it makes people start feeling entitled to things that they really have earned and have no special right to. Riley says that wise worry is good. Paralyzing worries are bad, but healthy awareness of reality is good. When you stop trying to get better, you’re bound to get worse. Players can not be “game players.” They can’t turn it on and off. They have to always be doing things well and their best to accomplish their best. Being competitive is a great habit, because it guards you from getting too complacent. Riley loves a shot that Ralph Samson hit to beat them in the 1986 playoffs, because that shot shook them out of their complacency.

Chapter 8: Mastery. John Wooden said that “it’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” Excellence is the gradual result of always wanting to do better. Riley instituted something called Career Best Effort after they won the championship in 1987. They started tracking all sorts of stats and measuring guys against their counterparts on other teams. This was his way of spurring the team on to new heights. He encouraged his guys not to try to hit home runs, but to go for small improvements in their performance so that if they all improved just a little bit, then the team would improve a whole bunch. Riley recounts one example of tearing into his team after a loss. He accused them of being quitters, the worst thing you can say to a competitor. Riley calls it temporary insanity, or TI. He says it isn’t an explosion or regular or predictable event. Instead, it is the art of being angry at the right time, to the right degree, with the right people. You should put advanced thought into your TI and you should follow it up with compassion; you also should find out how it went over amongst the group after it is over.

Chapter 9: Upping the Ante. Upping the ante is the opposite of the choke. Focus becomes being excellent, instead of accomplishing excellence. It means pushing yourself further and further to accomplish amazing things. The skipper of a submarine used to give his guys brandy after a real harrowing mission. He was constantly training them and encouraging his guys, over the long term, to be able to become a skipper. Riley upped the ante on his Laker team when he guaranteed another championship just after the Lakers had won their first championship. When you raise the stakes, you need to be sure that you have the resources and the drive to accomplish what you set out to accomplish. Mark Twain said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.” Riley discussed missions as a way of giving a team a long term direction. Long term greatness is a rough road. You have to go after that greatness. You can’t protect anything. Before game 7 against the Pistons, with the Lakers going for their second straight championship, Riley told his guys that the Pistons were going after something big, a championship, but they were going after something even bigger, a place in history.

Chapter 10: Core cracking. When people start becoming selfish and losing their oneness, they lose their core covenant, their implicit agreement to put the team first. The core is what held it all together and if it goes, then the team goes. Vanguard Management, by James O’Toole, talks about how you can tell a deadened corporate culture by the amount of time people spend covering their backsides. He also talks about a yacht club he visited where everyone feared for their jobs so much that they couldn’t be a team. Another type of core cracking occurs with fatigue. When a team gets tired on the basketball floor, they start making mistakes. Fatigue makes cowards of us all. You need able to spot fatigue in order to combat it:

– does it feel like there’s no way to win?

– do the opponents appear out of focus?

– do team members disagree about who the competition is or how to beat them?

– are leaders spending more time settling petty disputes rather than upholding principles and plans?

You beat fatigue by checking your game plan. You beat it by reality checking your opponents constantly. You beat it by stamina and mental training. Riley was constantly in the face of one of his younger players who wasn’t owning up to his mistakes. Riley refused to let him believe anything but that he was responsible for himself and he had to show the attitude of a winner. Management has to be one. Management has to be fair. If it’s not, you’re likely to see core cracking.

Chapter 11: Moving On. Riley moved on and we all move on for growth. Riley used to have “jog-a-logues” thinking about the way things were going to be when he was coach of the Knicks. He visualized everything. Talks with people. Parades of success. All these things in detail. Riley made the Knicks see their own infighting ways by sitting his team down in a room of chairs which were in a circle. Then he told each of the cliques to move to a separate area. Then he told the team that they have some problems and that they need to solve them right now. Then he told each group how they’ve been trying to solve the problems with their own selfish behavior. The guys got angry, but Riley got them to statt talking about real problems instead of placing blame and not working together. Riley also talks about a great motivational speech he gave to the Knicks before a tough game against the Bulls. He told them a story about a scorpion and a frog where the scorpion stings the frog, even after reassuring the frog that he wouldn’t sting him. His point was that you can’t change who you are. A scorpion will always sting. Then he got the team to visualize Nike executives picking the next Michael Jordan poster boy, they guy who is underneath Michael on one of his awesome dunks. He told them that no Knick was going to be a poster boy. And he re-affirmed the basic things which the Knicks stood for: hardworking, defense, aggressive, domination.

Chapter 12: One From The Heart. Riley ends the book with some examples of Showtime. Warriors, people who are committed to excellence in their lives: Michael Eisner, Ted Forstmann, Elizabeth Glaser, Michael Ibanez (a schoolteacher). These are all people who make the world a better place because of the way they are. They are positive, they are committed to excellence.


The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are. Joseph Campbell: Reflections on the Art of Living

It is steadfastness and courage and hope. Morale is the state of mind. It is General George Marshall

One man with courage makes a majority. Andrew Jackson

You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money.  You’ve got to love like you’ll never get hurt.  You’ve got to dance like there’s nobody watching.  You’ve got to come from the heart if you want it to work.  Susanna Clark


I’m not much of a golfer. I don’t have any friends. And, all I like to do the day of a game is go home and be alone and worry about ways not to lose. Bear Bryant

If you do not have some bad loans, you are not in business. Paul Volcker

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours. Henry David Thoreau

Nothing so fatiguing as the eternal hanging of an uncompleted task. William James

When you can not make up your mind which of two evenly balanced courses of action you should take – choose the bolder. General W.J. Slim

I may not be the lion, but it was left to me to give the lion’s roar. Winston Churchill

A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds. Francis Bacon

“Impossible” is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools. Napoleon Bonaparte

You cannot manage people into battle. You manage things; you lead people. Grace Murray Hopper

Facts do not cease to be because they are ignored. Aldous Huxley


Each success only buys an admission ticket to a more difficult problem. Henry Kissenger


In ourselves are triumph and defeat. Longfellow


God gets you to the plate, but once you’re there you’re on your own. Ted Williams


The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams. Eleanor Roosevelt


A great manager has a knack for making ballplayers think they are better than they think they are. Reggie Jackson


We must all hang together, else we shall all hang separately. Benjamin Franklin


A house divided against itself cannot stand. Abraham Lincoln


The force of selfishness is as inevitable and as calculable as the force of gravitation. Hailliard


Anybody who gets away with something will come back to get away with a little bit more. Harold Schoenberg


Great men are meteors designed to burn so that earth may be lighted. Napoleon


Power is not revealed by striking hard or often, but by striking true. Honore de Balzac


Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact. William James



We must either find a way or make one. Hannibal

Ask not what your teammates can do for you. Ask what you can do for your teammates. Magic Johnson




Summary written 12 October 1993


5 Responses to “The Winner Within”

  1. jennifer Says:

    Quote Reference Check

    I believe it was Ezra Pound (poet) not General W.J. Slim that made this quote…

    When you can not make up your mind which of two evenly balanced courses of action you should take – choose the bolder.

  2. Synoptic Vision, James Hansen and Tony Fitzgerald « Clyde Street Says:

    […] both programs left me wondering how an open society might bring about change that goes beyond what Pat Riley describes as the disease of me: “the disease of me starts when people start behaving […]

  3. Steve Golab Says:

    Thanks for posting this article. I read the book many years ago, but found myself referencing it often in my mind today. I really enjoyed re-learning the highlights that you’ve captured above, and also love the quote from Magic at the bottom of your post. Beautiful!

  4. The 2014-2015 Kentucky Wildcats vs. the undefeated field | Bro Jackson Says:

    […] this UK team does share what Pat Riley described in his book “The Winner Within” as a Core Covenant, an agreement among the team as what values they share, what is truly important to them, and theirs […]

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