Greatest Coach You Have Never Heard Of

You know John Wooden, you know Geno Auriemma at UConn or the late Pat Summit but how about Jim Steen? While the coach at Kenyon College the men’s team won twenty­-nine consecutive National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division III championship titles while the women’s teams won twenty­-one.  That record of fifty titles surpasses those of any other coaches in any NCAA sport. I had the privilege of working with Jim’s teams for two of the championships, but even better than that every spring Jim comes to Sarasota with his family and we get together for lunch. His passion and energy and wisdom are so contagious it always gets me charged up. As an aside I have NEVER heard Jim talk about mental toughness!

This is Jim’s 2011 commencement address at Keyon College.

Do you have the imagination to see yourself doing something truly exceptional?

Coaching Session

We’re ready for our coaching session. This is a little larger team than I am used to, but let’s give it a shot. I’m not going to ask you get up and move around or stand up and cheer. This session is definitely not interactive. Like generations of Kenyon swimmers, all you have to do is sit there and take it! Decide for yourself if anything makes sense or if you have a better way of looking at things.

I have three coaching points I want to make with you today, and they all relate to one’s capacity to perform. Before I begin, however, allow me the one convention of this business that I fully embrace, for reasons that aren’t necessarily related to sports. (Steen replaces academic cap with baseball cap).


So, how’s your attitude?

Probably pretty good today. What’s not to be good? You’ve successfully made it from point A to point B and tomorrow you’ll have all the necessary credentials to prove it!

What’s your attitude going to be like on Monday? Or next month? Or next fall? I’m sure some of you have jobs lined up, many of you are off to graduate school, a few of you will be traveling, and still others are uncertain about what you’re going to be doing in the next few weeks, let alone the next few years. From my point of view that’s OK, because regardless of what you’re doing next week or next year, things will change and, in some cases, things will change dramatically. What’s most important in this whole process, however, is attitude.

Back in the mid-90s I had a big, strapping sprinter on my team, with a big booming voice, who won a couple of NCAA titles in the 50-yard freestyle. Fortunately, everybody on the team liked this guy, because when anyone was having a difficult practice, or a bad meet, or an awful day in class, or a problem with coach, his comment was always the same, “Hey, man, it’s all about attitude!” No doubt, an individual of lesser stature offering the same admonition over and over again would have been persecuted! Even though this guy wasn’t the hardest worker on the team, or the most talented, no one ever doubted the direction he was going.

And that’s what’s important to remember about attitude. It’s not whether it’s good or bad, but does it define your direction? If the best path in getting from point A to point B is due north, I’ve had very few individuals on my team who have made the serious choice to head south! People usually fall short because they’re a degree or two off in attitude and, over time and distance that can put you in a place far away from where you would like to be.

You may have honestly assessed what constitutes a journey in the right direction, but if you’re not performing the way you want to perform don’t look at what you’re doing, look at your attitude.

On my team, when I challenge someone’s attitude—and I love doing that—it’s not an attack on their character. It’s a belief in their ability to get back on course.

What you have made of your life today is a result of the attitude you established for yourself when you came to this place in the fall of 2007. Your life in the future will be the result of the attitude you set for yourself when you leave this hallowed ground. If you’re fortunate to have people in your life like you’ve had here at Kenyon—people you trust, people who know and appreciate you well enough to look you in the eye and remind you that you can do better, listen to them and make the necessary adjustment in your attitude. The worst position to be in is not slightly off course, and it’s doubtful that any of you are deliberately going to head due south. The worst position to be in is a belief by you, or those around you, that you couldn’t possibly do any better than you’re currently doing!


We’ve pretty much redefined attitude as it relates to performance. Let’s take a look at your capacity to prepare.

How is your work ethic?

Is it helping you or hurting you in your capacity to perform? During your time on the Hill did you give it your best? Or did you avoid putting in the time and effort necessary to fully take advantage of your opportunities?

Regardless of how you performed at Kenyon, we can all agree—whether we subscribe to the 10,000-hour rule or not—that a sustained period of focused attention and applied effort is absolutely essential in getting better at anything that really matters. And, yet, hard work, in my experience, is not the sole determinant of one’s capacity to achieve. In fact, one’s sense of what can be accomplished in any endeavor—what is truly possible—is often compromised by too much hard work and too little imagination. All work and no play may make Jack a dull boy, but all work and no imagination will most definitely make Jack an under-performer. Of this I’m absolutely convinced!

It’s been my experience that the hardest workers are not always the most prolific performers. The correlation between grinding it out, day in and day out, and the capacity to perform at transcendent levels does not always appear to be direct. In discussing this with my fellow coaches on the faculty over the years, I’ve picked up on similar sentiments. The student who puts in the work is not always the student who is the most creative and engaged in their thinking. If you have a limited imagination—a limited concept of what’s possible—then performing in a truly exceptional manner at any level, in any arena, is improbable at best, irrelevant at worst.

You may have the talent to excel. You may have the intelligence to excel. You may have the work ethic and competitiveness to excel. But the real question is: do you have the imagination and creativity to continuously ‘reframe’ your reality so it is consistent with your highest aspirations? Imagination fuels perspective and perspective puts one in touch with the bigger picture. The bigger picture, in turn, allows for more possibilities and more ideas. Performing at one’s best begins with the creation and expression of an idea—nothing more, nothing less.

Do you have the imagination to see yourself doing something truly exceptional? Certainly it’s difficult to sustain a leap of the imagination that isn’t, in part, grounded in the knowledge and appreciation of one’s inherent abilities. But it’s been my experience that people greatly under value their capacity to perform and, as a result, their capacity to achieve.

Imagination can be improved. Committing the best of yourself to any worthwhile endeavor requires that you do so. By attaching your efforts to whatever it is you choose to do in a way that stimulates your imagination, you enhance your capacity to perform at any level. To quote no less a ‘performer’ than Albert Einstein on this subject,

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

Threats vs. Challenges

My final coaching point of the day: It’s my contention that in any given moment one lives one’s life in one of two ways, either under a threat or for a challenge. In performing when it counts, it’s one or the other, under a threat or for a challenge. If, as Einstein says, “Imagination will take you everywhere,” then living your life under a threat will take you nowhere.

Perceived threats, often resulting in fear, invariably compromise our capacity to perform in the manner we most desire. And there are all sorts of perceived threats that ultimately reduce us in stature, making us feel small, insignificant, and powerless. There is the threat of failure. The threat of not measuring up. The threat of pain. The threat of humiliation. The threat of illness or injury. The threat of not being appreciated or valued. The threat of being exposed for who we are. The threat of not being understood. And the list goes on and on.

It’s so easy to live one’s life threatened by the outcome we fear that we deaden our senses to the process, content to merely occupy time and space, satisfied with a half-life of sorts. We go through the motions, occasionally wake up, look for our shadow, and quickly scurry back into our den of predictability.

Sound familiar?

And yet it is possible to reframe our threats into challenges and get a much better return on our performance investment with little more time and effort involved. In doing so, you first have to wake up. You have to be among the living! A conscious decision needs to be made that you’re not going to allow the same threats to keep undermining your performance.

Second, you have to be honest with yourself, recognizing and acknowledging that which most threatens you. It has to be disclosed to someone you trust. It can’t continue to remain a secret.

Third, you need to cultivate the two qualities we talked about earlier that are fundamental to one’s capacity to perform—discipline and risk—and then you need to know how and where to apply these qualities most effectively in reframing threats into challenges. Discipline and risk, when applied directly to living one’s life for the challenge, have a way of offsetting the threats that tend to compromise our capacity to perform.

Ask and answer the following questions:

  • Do you have the capacity to see the challenge in any situation in which you feel threatened?
  • Do you have the discipline to prepare for and stay focused on the challenge?
  • Are you willing to risk predictability in pursuit of the challenge?

If the challenge itself becomes your truth in any endeavor, can you really be threatened? Risk waking up to see your world for what it truly is—a playing field of limitless challenges designed for your personal edification and enlightenment. That being the case, and it is, what threat, if any, awaits you? Only one. Not playing the game.


Herein concludes our coaching session, but on Monday you start a new game. The good news is your attitude, imagination, and ability to see challenges where previously you saw only threats has been sharpened significantly during your time at Kenyon.

David Brooks, in a recent New York Times column, suggests that high performing individuals “begin with two beliefs: (1) the future can be better than the present; and (2) I have the power to make it so.”

When you leave the Hill this weekend accept the challenge of starting over, attempt to perform well in some capacity, and, if you are successful in becoming a somebody at something (and many of you will), I would offer you the following advice Jon Stewart gave his audience at a show in Columbus a few weeks ago:

“Be proud of who you are, but don’t wield it as a club.”

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak to you today.

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