12 Life Lessons from Legendary Basketball Coach Pat Summitt

A basketball going through a hoop.

As the longtime basketball coach for the University of Tennessee’s Lady Volunteers, Pat Summitt became an icon in the world of college sports. Racking up 1,098 career wins, 16 SEC titles, and 8 National Championships, Summitt remains the winningest coach in men’s and women’s NCAA basketball history.

While Summitt’s hugely impressive record on the court catapulted her to fame, it was her inspirational leadership that made her a legend. Known for her tenacity and generosity of spirit, Summitt always gave 110%, whether she was coaching the Lady Vols or raising money to cure Alzheimer’s, a disease that she tragically succumbed to in 2016.

Pat Summitt strongly believed that the key to success in basketball and in life is having a guiding philosophy. In her 1998 book Reach for the Summitt, Coach Summitt outlined 12 principles called the Definite Dozen that she implemented at the University of Tennessee. Rocky Top Sports World has shared the Definite Dozen below, along with a few quotes and anecdotes from Pat Summitt and those who knew her best.

1. Respect Yourself and Others

Three-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker, who played for the Lady Vols in college, told ESPN that Pat Summitt was the embodiment of respect, “No matter who needs her – from the last person on the bench to a manager to whoever – she knew everybody by name and treated them as if they were her own.”

2. Take Full Responsibility

Pat Summitt knew that being an effective leader can mean making tough decisions, admitting mistakes, and holding yourself accountable for your failings. As Summitt writes on her website, “How can you improve if you’re never wrong?”

3. Develop and Demonstrate Loyalty

For Pat Summitt, loyalty was not unilateral, it had to be given to be received. Joan Cronan, the director of women’s athletics at the University of Tennessee, said that Summitt “loved her family and players with a fierceness equaled only by that renowned stare of hers.” After Summitt revealed her Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2011, that same loyalty flooded back to her with an overwhelming show of support popularizing the slogan “We Back Pat.”

4. Learn to Be a Great Communicator

Summitt was an excellent communicator who was well known for her rousing halftime speeches. On her website, Summitt writes that active listening, body language, eye contact, and even silence are all important aspects of effective communication.

5. Discipline Yourself So No One Else Has To

Pat Summitt was a champion of self-discipline because “discipline helps you finish a job, and finishing is what separates excellent work from average work.” As a coach, Summitt was tough on her players, but she also inspired an atmosphere where players were tough on themselves.

6. Make Hard Work Your Passion

In her book Reach for the Summitt, Pat shares her secret to victory, “Here’s how I’m going to beat you. I’m going to outwork you. That’s it. That’s all there is to it.” Summitt developed her strong work ethic growing up on a dairy farm, where she was doing chores every day because “cows don’t take a day off.”

7. Don’t Just Work Hard, Work Smart

While success requires a lot of effort it is also “about having the right person, in the right place, at the right time.” Summitt suggests knowing your own strengths and weaknesses and those of your teammates so you can support each other.

8. Put the Team Before Yourself

Pat Summitt believed that individual success is a myth; no one has achieved anything all by themselves. Whether you are a leader or a role player, everyone has an important function on a team. Summitt once said that “teamwork is a lot like being part of a family. It comes with obligations, entanglements, headaches, and quarrels. But the rewards are worth the cost.”

9. Make Winning an Attitude

Coach Summitt knew that negativity won’t get you anywhere. Instead, she stressed that “attitude is a choice.” She encouraged her players to “think positive thoughts daily” and “believe in yourself.” When you put in the hard work needed to win, confidence is a natural byproduct.

10. Be a Competitor

For Pat Summitt, being competitive is a “survival instinct” and a great way to send a message to your opponents. Summitt once said, “You can’t always be the strongest or most talented or the most gifted person in the room, but you can be the most competitive.” As a coach, Summitt went out of her way to seek out challenges, like scheduling a game against the notorious UConn Huskies in the regular season.

11. Change Is a Must

Throughout her storied career, Pat Summitt constantly modified her coaching style and always strived to improve. Reflecting on the power of change, Summitt said, “No one feels strong when she examines her own weakness. But in facing weakness, you learn how much there is in you, and you find real strength.”

12. Handle Success Like You Handle Failure

Pat Summitt taught her players to learn from losses, consistently reexamine their strategy, and always set new goals. In one of her most famous quotes, Summitt counsels, “You can’t always control what happens, but you can control how you handle it.”

About Rocky Top Sports World

Girls playing basketball at Rocky Top Sports World.

Located minutes away from downtown Gatlinburg, TN, Rocky Top Sports World is one of the best tournament destinations in the United States. With seven fields, six basketball courts, 12 volleyball courts, team rooms, and an onsite grill, our 80-acre athletic campus has everything you need for an amazing sports event. To see a complete list of our upcoming tournaments, browse the Rocky Top Sports World Events Calendar!