Last year, when COVID-19 hit, the Golden State Warriors were already having a disappointing season. They had lost players to retirement and injuries, and they went from making the National Basketball Association finals for five straight years to having the worst record in the league. Ultimately, the San Francisco team was one of only eight not invited to join the NBA’s bubble during COVID-19.
Head coach Steve Kerr, who spoke at Health Matters 2021, Stanford Medicine’s annual community health symposium, said it was crucial that, during a challenging year, the team “maintained our dignity and our values and our work ethic.”
“I think it’s really important to maintain your values and your moral code, whatever it is that guides you,” said Kerr, in a conversation with Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “It’s especially important in times of crisis.”
Health Matters, held online this year through May 15, includes talks and Q&As that explore the latest advances in medicine, health and wellness, as well as an hourlong webinar for high schoolers interested in careers in medicine or medical research. The virtual Health Hub offers on-demand classes, demonstrations and community resources.
“At Stanford Medicine, nothing matters more than the health and well-being of our community. We acknowledge that it has been a difficult year, yet I find hope and inspiration from how we, as individuals and organizations, have innovated and collaborated to confront COVID-19 and reimagine our future,” Minor said. “As we move forward with cautious optimism, we want to pause and reflect on what we’ve learned and how we can best prepare for what’s ahead.”
In a wide-ranging interview with Minor, Kerr discussed his approach to building and inspiring high-performance teams, how he supports the players’ well-being, and the seeds of his social justice advocacy.
Kerr explained that his coaching philosophy is built on four principles: competitiveness, joy, mindfulness and compassion. After the team’s discouraging 2019-2020 season, he said he tried to enhance those values every day.
“We compete every day. We keep score, we make sure there’s winners and losers, and everyone’s feeling that vibe. There’s got to be joy in the gym … . But we have to coach with compassion and understand the difficulties of whether it’s a season like we had last year, where everything goes wrong, or the pandemic hits and the world seems to be going sideways,” Kerr said. “And if we can teach mindfulness, which is probably the biggest challenge of all in modern life, we can put all that together and teach our players perspective in how to perform under pressure.”
The NBA coach emphasized the importance for leaders to cultivate an authentic culture.
You have to nourish yourself. You have to fill up your own cup every single day to have the energy to lead others.
“When you’re trying to inspire a group of people, it’s easy to have values or write slogans on the wall, but if those things don’t come to life, then they don’t mean anything,” Kerr said. “You have to hire people who embody those values too. There’s never been a player in the NBA or any professional sport who embodies joy more than Steph Curry. So, if joy is one of my values, and I’ve got Steph Curry on my team, it’s pretty easy to make the team feel that joy every single day.”
Minor noted that Kerr urges his players to take time for themselves and the things they care about outside of the game. The coach said he believes the key to professional success lies in being well-rounded. Hiking with his wife and dog, playing golf, cooking, and reading good books all give him the peace of mind and energy to coach, Kerr said. He encourages his team to find their own sources of joy.
“You have to nourish yourself. You have to fill up your own cup every single day to have the energy to lead others,” Kerr said. “Sometimes in our society, we glorify people who are workaholics, and if somebody’s in a high-pressure job and they’re seen out hiking or playing golf, they can actually be criticized: ‘Why isn’t that person in the office?’ I think that’s insane.”
Throughout his career, the Warriors coach has used his platform to speak out against social injustice. While sidelined during COVID-19, Kerr talked publicly about racial inequality, including the deadly shootings of African Americans at the hands of police.
He said that growing up in an academic family — his father was a professor at UCLA and his mother was an educator — and living in several different countries led him to reflect on inequality and social injustice.
“That was probably the best education that I ever received, seeing the world at a young age and seeing how different cultures operate, seeing different people around the world, understanding how fortunate we are as Americans, and how fortunate I was to be raised in a really great family that was providing me all this love and support,” Kerr said. “I think all that led to a more global perspective and an understanding that there’s a lot of people suffering out there and it’s important for all of us to chip in and help.”
Minor noted that some professional athletes have been hesitant to get a coronavirus vaccine, which Kerr acknowledged as stemming from both an “era of disinformation” but also a “natural wariness” toward medicine among Black athletes.
“Many of the African American players in professional sports have expressed a reluctance, and that comes because of the racial disparity and the racism that has existed in the United States for hundreds of years,” Kerr told Minor. “You’ve got generations of Black families that have felt, understandably, skeptical about medicine.”
Most of the Warriors have been vaccinated, and the team has made public service announcements to promote the vaccine, Kerr said.