The 5 Main Components of Winning

When Jerry Krause was General Manager of the Chicago Bulls, he once said to Michael Jordan the oft quoted expression, “There is no I in TEAM.” Jordan retorted by saying, “But there is an I in WIN.”

How do you win in athletics? To win in athletics, you need to have five things. They are the five essential ingredients to success in any area of life. They’re essential to any leader’s success.

1. Talent

I coached basketball for 44 years – 10 at the high school level and 34 at the collegiate level. I have no doubt that talented players are necessary to win.

Coaches that think they can win their teams because they’re geniuses are wrong. They are absolutely crazy. Although mediocre players are possible to make competitive with coaches, it takes more players to win championships.

One caveat about gifted players. Only talent will win you championships. It’s only talented players who are willing to play together that win at the highest level.

When I was coaching at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois, we had three outstanding players who came to us at approximately the same time – Billy Meyers, Paul Stachowicz, and Dave Wilhelmi. They were all outstanding players who could play at a higher level than ours. There were also talented people who complimented them.

Within a matter of seconds, I was a competent coach. It’s funny how that works! I believe that we won 19 of the last 21 games. Also, at their venue, beat a Division I Team, finished runners-up in the National Catholic Basketball Tournament. Additionally, two other teams, which won approximately 25 games each, won the National Catholic Basketball Tournament. This season was one game away for the NAIA National Tournament. 

Without our three guests, could we have achieved that level? NO

2. Sacrifice

A championship team requires special people. Although most of us appreciate awards and recognition, it is important that great teams have players who are prepared to give up their personal glory to help the team.

Some athletes may find this difficult. These athletes won’t win big if their selflessness is not embraced and they are not committed to the team-first philosophy.

St. Francis was the place where we placed first or second in Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference for fifteen of our eighteen year period. In each of the fifteen years, we were in contention for the title.

There were many talented athletes in our team who wanted to win. It was a blessing to have such a great group of players. From their high school athletic years, they already knew it was about “we,” not “I.” 

Ten of our team members gathered to help a friend who had lost his wife. They have remained committed to TEAM long after their athletic careers. 

3. Do it!

Winnable teams are prepared. I have always believed in the 5 P’s – Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. The athletic world is a game of practice and victory. The preparation is key.

While I have made many mistakes in my coaching career but this one is the most memorable. At the time, I was just a rookie coach and learned a crucial lesson.

As a coach at Providence High School New Lenox in Illinois, we had a fantastic start. We beat schools that were much larger than ourselves. I believe we began the season 10-1, losing only to the previous year’s Iowa State Championship team by 2 points.

We had one weekend left before us, and we would be playing two other teams that were much better than we. They simply had more players than us. Inadvertently, I said to our players that I had been pushing them for the past 5-6 weeks, and that I would let our practices go if they needed it. 

We were completely outplayed by the second team who came to our gym and took us all through it. We had to play the next night on the road, did not recover from the previous night’s loss, and lost again. 

This is a great lesson for Coach Sullivan.

Winning doesn’t always mean being first. Winning means you’re doing better than you’ve ever done before.” —Bonnie Blair

4. Gameplan

Coach Jack Ramsay, the outstanding college and pro coach, used to stress, “Defense is the great equalizer.” We believed that and spent considerable time studying opponent’s game videos. We were looking for the “little things” we could do to disrupt their offensive execution. Sometimes, a small adjustment can mean all the difference in winning or losing.

To advance to the national tourney, we had to defeat a strong team. Their offense was excellent and they used post play effectively. After many hours of study, we found one “little thing” that could eliminate fifty percent of their entries into the post. It is unlikely that anyone noticed that we made the changes, but that was what led us to nationals.

The basis of our game plans was hours spent studying video. Due to the time and effort involved, only the coaches were able to do this. We then broke down only the key points where we could disrupt our opponent’s offensive rhythm. Because we didn’t want to overwhelm our opponents with tape, these key points were the ones we presented to our players.

The game plan was divided into five sections. The first step was to give the game plan in writing. Then, we talked the players through it. This was followed by walking through the opponent’s offense and showing our players where we could stop their offensive flow. Following this was a brief segment of film work that again highlighted our pressure points. The plan was usually reduced to just one page the day before each game.

Basketball was invented after the life of Benjamin Franklin, but he sure got to the essence of a game plan, or all planning, when he wrote, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”

5. Strategy at the end

To win, you must have a plan for your game’s end. It is called the Two-Minute Drill in football and can be used by some quarterbacks to gain significant yards.

Two interesting ideas have emerged in basketball that could prevent teams from winning at the final whistle. The first is when you win at the game’s end and the second when you lose.

When winning with little time left, I have seen teams not be able to inbound the ball after an opponent’s score followed by their time-out. To inbound the ball during crucial moments, great teams set up plays that use different alignments. They will defend the lead to win.

You must also have strategies that you can use to win if the team loses. Your players need to know the basics of how to make a five second call and steal an inbound pass. They also need to be able to tell when to foul. These points must be followed with an alignment. 

Based on the level of preparation teams have for their game strategy, I’ve seen both potential wins and losses become losses.


These five strategies are not only applicable to athletics, but also for other areas of life. Leaders in all organizations can use them.

  1. TALENT – Leaders must surround themselves with talented people.
  2. TOGETHER – Leaders must work with their talented people to buy into it’s all about “us,” not “me.”
  3. PRACTICE – Leaders must instill the 5 P’s in their group – Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance.
  4. GAME PLAN – Leaders must organize strategic planning for their organization.
  5. STATEGY END OF GAMES – Leaders must develop back-up plans, especially when losing at the end of a quarter.

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