Zen and the Art of Coaching Basketball

A Review

Our daughter Molly, a gifted athlete, was the author of one of my favorite stories as a parent. She was playing basketball on a team coached by a man who screamed at both his players and the referees. At one of her games, in the middle of the second quarter, her coach erupted in anger, running onto the court to berate the referee. Molly had had enough. She ran after him, grabbed his arm, yanked him back to the team bench, and told him in no uncertain terms: “If you do that again, I’m quitting the team.” Amazingly, the coach behaved himself for the rest of the season.

The sad thing is that Molly never played basketball again. The coach had ruined it for her. She was tired of being put down and yelled at. She needed a coach like Ben Guest.

Zen and the Art of Coaching Basketball is a memoir of Guest’s brief but highly successful career as a basketball coach. Guest became fascinated with the game when his Dad set up a basketball hoop on their driveway for his younger sister who had become a member of her first team. This opportunity led Guest to both take up the game and study it, a passion that continued throughout high school and college.

In 2000 he joined the Mississippi Teacher Corps. He taught English at Simmons High School in Hollandale Mississippi where he became the assistant basketball coach. His mentor, the head coach, motivated his players by yelling, cursing, and embarrassing them. Following that first season, Guest attended two coaching clinics to hone his skills led by well-known Division 1 college coaches where the same tactics were employed. It is, therefore, not surprising that when he landed a head coaching job the next year he ran the team using those tactics. The team finished a disappointing ten and thirteen.

Guest left teaching at the end of that year to pursue a PhD in education. After completing his degree, he worked as an educational consultant in Atlanta. One morning in 2012, walking to his favorite breakfast spot, he saw a sign for an introductory meditation class. He took the class, and it changed his life. The practice of meditation taught him ego control, to stay in the present moment, and to accept what is. It put him in a place where he felt connected to all people, a place of empathy and compassion.

To go back a little, Guest had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Namibia in 1997. Sitting alone in his apartment in Amherst Massachusetts in the spring of 2013, he remembered his Namibian experience with great fondness. The result: he returned to Namibia that fall to teach in a private, international high school. He began coaching basketball again at a public high school in the capital city of Windhoek. A year later, with no outside financing, he established a team for the Khomas Basketball Association, Namibia’s professional basketball league.

In the fourteen years between coaching jobs, Guest thought a lot about coaching basketball and was determined to do it differently. He started each practice with meditation. Imagine ten professional athletes meditating before each practice and each game. He decided his role would be to teach fundamentals and to make practices fun for his players. This was about them, not him. He coached both stars and back benchers alike and made sure all members of the team got playing time during games. During practices, he built his players up with support and encouragement rather than berating them with insults. During games, he let them play with little direction from their coach. He saw his role as reducing their stress levels and staying out of the way.

One of his greatest challenges was to create trust among his players. This was particularly difficult because most of his Namibian players had never dealt with a white authority figure. To his players, he was “an alien from outer space.” He handled this situation in two ways. First, he was careful never to ignore, tease, or humiliate one of his players. In addition, he became a mentor. He was there for his players 24/7 if ever they needed his assistance in some way.

The results were phenomenal. His high school team was undefeated in conference play, losing the championship game by a mere four points. He was named high school coach of the year. His start up professional team was five hundred during their first regular season together giving them the last spot in postseason play. The team had made marked improvement throughout the season; and, in a series of stunning upsets, went all the way to eventually win the championship game by five points.

This is an important book because it provides clear evidence that spiritual practices work. Imagine if the members of Congress meditated before the start of each session. In the tradition of Thich Nhat Hahn, it might lead to compassionate speech and deep listening. Imagine if Christians spent more time learning how to make God’s presence a reality in their lives and less time reading scripture and reciting creeds. Imagine what a different world it would be if people like Vladimir Putin took their deep grievances to meditation rather than allowing them to play out on the world stage.

There is only one sad consequence from this book. It is so well written that I’m afraid Guest will never coach basketball again. I think a novel or another riveting nonfiction book is in his future.


Dr. Rick Herrick (PhD, Tulane University), a former tenured university professor and magazine editor, is the author of four published novels and two works of nonfiction. His most recent books: A Christian Foreign Policy, A Man Called Jesus and Jeff’s Journey.

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