7 Creativity Lessons I Learned from Tar Heel Basketball - Christine Kane

I know. I know.

I’m not supposed to do sports. After all, we creatives are more about reveling in the smell of crayons, the angle of moonlight on the river, and the beauty of the ocean at sunrise.

Not the blast of the buzzer, screaming at the coach to use a time-out, or shouting in glee as a three-pointer swishes through the hoop effortlessly.

Yet, here I am. In love with the Carolina Tar Heels. And it’s not because I know basketball, or because I know four corners, or how to set a screen. It’s because I love the process, the stories, the passion – and yes, the similarities between basketball and being an artist. In fact, over the years, the Carolina Tar Heels have taught me something about Creativity.

So, in honor of the new NCAA Champions, here are seven unexpected Creativity lessons I Learned from the Tar Heels…

1 – Systems and Habits. Not Feelings and Reactions.

In his book Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, David Halberstam devotes two whole chapters to Dean Smith’s Carolina basketball program. He describes the team’s daily practice as stunning. First, because of how quiet it was. And he goes on to say, “The next thing was how brilliantly and carefully organized it was, with a schedule posted each day that outlined how each minute of practice would be used.”

In other words, no one is waiting to decide whether or not they “feel like it.” The system is in place before the practice begins. There’s a schedule.

Creativity thrives in systems and habits. The creative-types I coach are always amazed at their productivity levels when we create a schedule for their weekly practices and writing sessions. They no longer spend their time reacting to their days with emotion and drama. Now they have a system. Dean Smith would be proud.

2 – Get a Coach.

Here’s where athletes get it right. They get coaches. From the start, they have coaches and mentors. Lots of them. No athlete in his right mind doesn’t have a coach.

Yes, it’d be nice if the coaching model were built into the creative life. But this is where we can be the change we want to see in the world. For now, we’ll have to learn to invest in ourselves enough to hire coaches, ask for mentors and create a support system that doesn’t let us turn into strung-out loners. Coaches help us get where we want to go.

3 – Success Brings Critics.

Before Monday night’s championship game, a search on the web turned up all kinds of nasty articles, blogs, and video snippets, the sole purpose of which was to trash various UNC players, the coach, and the fans.

Many people are terrified of critics. They twist and contort themselves and their creativity into tiny boxes in hopes that no one will notice them shine.

It’s pointless. Snarky people are everywhere. Critics pick apart successful people because they don’t know how to do it themselves.

Keep your focus on your work in the world, and let the snarky people ruin their own lives with their negative vibes. As Tyler Hansbrough (all of 22 years old) said after he won the championship, “How many of you can say you’re a national champion? I can. That’s right. I can. My critics can’t.”

Nor can they ever. They’re too busy being critics.

4 – Have fun.

Michael Jordan tells a story of Dean Smith in the final seconds of the 1982 championship game against Georgetown. Carolina was down by one point and with possession of the ball. During a time out, Smith outlined the play, and then paused, looked up at his players and asked, “Isn’t this fun?”

I remember this when I’m frustrated by my writing, or when a song isn’t working, or when I’m overwhelmed with ideas, or when I begin to think I should’ve gone to law school. Creativity is all about cherishing the unknown, living with insecurity, and always asking yourself, “Isn’t this fun?”

Or, as Roy Williams put it: Enjoy the ride.

5 – Three-Pointers Can’t Replace Steady Performance.

Sometimes a team makes a run and suddenly leads by 9 points. The other team, in total panic, might try to come back by rushing down the court and randomly shooting three-pointers. That’s because three-pointers are a seemingly quick way to get back on track. If they’re doing it from desperation, it rarely works. That’s because they’ve stopped playing to win – and now they’re playing not to lose.

Creative types are often holding out for the “big thing.” The Record Deal. The Gallery Opening. The feature in the national magazine. Something – anything – to rescue them. They’re running around trying to get the three-pointers. But it rarely works.

Nothing works like consistent, solid, steady forward movement. That way, when the three-pointers happen, they’re just icing on the cake.

6 – Passion is required. (Oh, and sometimes it makes you use swear words.)

I always crack up when the camera hits a coach after a bad call just as he’s belting out a stream of profanity so articulate that even the blind can read his lips. It’s a part of the passion. And sometimes you get caught up in it. (I’m just glad I don’t have cameras hitting me at certain moments!)

Even though I write about being creative and conscious, it doesn’t mean that you don’t occasionally get totally angry, or completely lost in grief at a disappointment. That’s the beauty of passion. And passion is crucial.

The beauty of consciousness is that you can choose to get up the next day and start your habits and systems all over again.

7 – Keep Shooting.

In the last weeks of this tournament, Danny Green missed some baskets.

Well, actually, what I mean to say is this: He missed almost every basket he shot. Three pointers, two pointers, lay-ups. He just missed them. And he’s a brilliant shooter.

The media went nuts. Everyone was wondering what was wrong. All kinds of drama and speculation.

Roy Williams’s advice to Danny?

“Keep shooting.”

Which he did.

Within a few games, he was back on track.

Sometimes we’re off our game. The words don’t come. The passion is gone. We’re tired. Life gets us bummed out.

In those times, you can decide it’s all over, you’re washed up, nothing is worth doing anymore. Or you can take Roy’s advice and keep shooting.

  • Lauren


    Thanks for all of your words of inspiration! When the “dirt” starts to come in or challenges appear, I turn to your blog to become inspired and plug through the boring choices in a creative way!! It truly has worked and I thank you for every word.


  • Ninn

    Thanks for number 6.

  • Ellsea

    I know when I come here, I’ll always get a good boost or reminder to keep me on track, and today’s no different – thank you!!

    I need to ‘keep shooting’ … even though this novel is driving me to distraction & I’m having to drag every word kicking and screaming onto the page, if I keep at it, I’ll break it and get it *done*.

  • JenQau

    Thanks Christine – great post. Especially #2 – why is it sports people get a coach straight away, but the rest of us are ‘weak’ if we look for outside help. And #7; just keep doin what we know you do well – it will all click back into place!

  • Mindful Mimi

    What a great comparison. There is creativity in everything. I try to have a schedule for it. But sometimes it get eaten up by work, kids, tiredness. All excuses, I know.
    I still need to get a coach – thinking to start with your uplevelyourlife series…
    I try to ignore the critics. But sometimes they can make you really unsure about yourself and everything you are doing.
    I always try to have fun but I am also someone who likes immediate results 🙂
    The passion is there and I keep on shooting.
    Thanks for this lesson.

  • Ron Corbin

    Christine, i could ramble on and on, but these are the most inspirational words i’ve heard in a long time. When my youngest started kindergarten, i decided i better focus more attention on raising my kids than trying to become a “rock star”. Nine years have passed. I became a basement musician of sorts. The negative side of that is i haven’t worked like i used to…like your point 1 states, a schedual is important. Creation is an art and a science. So i’ve been working on schedualling time for me to “work”. But that leads me to your 2nd point: a coach. I do not have that person in my life. My wife is not that person. She not against me doing anything i need to do, but she’s not a “coach”. How would you suggest i find that person? I look forward to any suggestions you have.

    Have a great Resurrection weekend, Ron

  • Jesann

    Thank you for #3 and #7. Definitely words I needed to read today.

  • Marina

    Thanks Christine, this post was really inspiring. The connection between winning at sports and at creativity (and life) was unexpected but very true.

  • Mary Miller

    Passion is passion, and Christine, your passion for the Tar Heels is inspiring. I absolutely love how you find avenues of creativity everywhere. Once again, this post came at the most perfect time to guide me through a challenge. I believe that’s the mystic part of this masterminded blog, like-minded folks reading your blog and inviting the Universe bring guidance through your writing. Thank you! Happy Easter!

  • Christine Kane

    Thanks everyone! And catherine — Playing for Keeps is truly one of the best books I read last year. Lots of fun to read!

  • Sherri

    You just made me look at sports in a whole new light. You pulled some insightful lessons from this context. Thank you for the tips!

  • Catherine Cantieri, Sorted

    Another excellent post! I really loved #1, especially the line “Creativity thrives in systems and habits.” I just finished writing a free eBook called “How to Harness a Hobgoblin” that’s about creating systems and habits for unleashing your creative productivity! (It’s available at my site, if anyone’s interested.)

    #1 really captured my imagination. I love my martial arts studio, but I can’t deny that I’d be delighted to come to practice one day and find that there’s a schedule for what we’re going to do.

    I’m going to have to read that Halberstam book on Jordan!

  • leslie

    I do not know why, but reading this post made me think back to my week-long session with Lou Tice (New Age Thinking) a loooong time ago. He often quoted people like Fred Akers and Lou Holtz, and their stories amazed us. People could learn a lot about themselves from all three of these guys.

    Thanks for the way-back memories! 😉

  • sara

    excellent! the thing about sports, too, is that it is the ultimate in-the-moment activity… just like when you’re in that lovely zone of creativity where you are unaware of the time, etc.

  • Walter Hawn

    Love it when your authentic voice and passion comes through, Christine! Sports IS creativity, raw, bounded by fewer rules than ‘fine art’ but still circumscribed enough that we can watch, marvel and exult. One of the great artists of our time was Mohamed Ali, and you mentioned Jordon, and there’s Jabbar, and Bird, and Walter Payton, Joe Montana, Lynn Swann and several others on the same bench.

  • Giulietta Nardone

    Hey Christine,

    Excellent article.

    Creativity lives everywhere! It’s not the outcome, it’s the process. Love #3 about the snarky people. I was there myself before I discovered the process. Has anyone not been guilty of snarkiness at some point in his or her life? If you feel snarkiness coming on it’s a good indicator that something’s amiss.

    Rebel at large

  • Joe S

    No need to apologize to start the article Christine, “creative types” sometimes display their creativity in a sport, not 100% of it in some form of the arts or crafts…

    Great article as usual, I really enjoyed this one in particular.

  • Anna

    Who-hoo! Go Heels! All so true…and you’re a lot of fun to watch a game with!

  • April Nance

    This is awesome! Lots of my creative, artist friends sometimes don’t “get” my passion for the Tarheels. Thanks for making so many eloquent connections. BTW, I’m going to miss those seniors!

  • L.

    These are great, and can be applied to my law practice to keep me moving forward. I found 5 to be especially relevant. I’ve noticed the last few “3-pointers” I’ve shot for have missed, but all the other baskets I’ve scored. And those all add up in a big way. I often remind myself that there is no one client that is going to make or break my practice.

  • Sue

    Christine, this is awesome! This was so fun to read and so true. (I loved your passion for the Tarheels btw!) For all the reasons your articulated so well, I’ve always loved playing and watching sports. As a kid, and especially a girl, they also teach us a lot about our own strength, and how to channel passion.

    I love this article!

    And yeah, Jake was pretty happy about his pick for #1!!!

  • Louise

    This article is great! I can feel the great energy in American Sports and the connections you make are so on track in what’s to be done creatively. Wonderful.
    Thanks Christine!