XPS Book Review: The Winner Within by Pat Riley

11/27/2023 4 min. reading

In this XPS Monday Series, we are reviewing a book by one of the most respected coaches in NBA history, Pat Riley. 

Published in 1993, when Riley was Head Coach of the NBA New York Nicks, The Winner Within by Pat Riley is as relevant now as it was then. 

Pat Riley has had one of the most successful NBA coaching careers of all time, with the Nicks, Los Angeles Lakers, and Miami Heat. Between his time at the Lakers and Heats, Riley has won five NBA titles and dozens of other league and award-winning games and titles. 


Why should coaches read The Winner Within by Pat Riley?

The Winner Within is a New York Times bestselling book from one of the greatest NBA coaches of all time.

After winning 5 NBA championships (four for the Lakers and 1 for the Heats (1982, 1985, 1987, 1988, 2006)) in 2012, Riley received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the NBA Coaches Association.

Pat Riley is described as “the Godfather” of NBA coaching and won numerous Coach of the Year and NBA All-Star Game Head Coach awards throughout his impressive career. 

“Pat Riley is a true master . . . no one committed to success can afford to miss this opportunity to learn from the coach of the decade.”―Anthony Robbins, bestselling author of Awaken the Giant Within 


Top Lessons from The Winner Within by Pat Riley

One of the most important lessons coaches and players can take away from The Winner Within is the importance of teamwork. 

Teamwork that leads to victory can only be achieved by players learning to put aside an ego-driven problem that Riley knows affects athletes in any team and sport. He calls this the Disease of Me. 

Based on a coaching career that went from 1979 to 2008, Riley will have seen the Disease of Me in many forms. When star players take up too much of the limelight, taking the shine off the rest of the team, or in younger players who don’t get as much on-court time. 



Here’s what he says about this problem:  

“When the Disease of Me afflicts the strongest members of a team or even its coaches, they develop an overpowering belief in their own importance. Their actions virtually shout the claim, ‘I’m the one.’”

“When the Disease of Me infects the weakest members of a team, the people who create about 20 percent of the team’s effectiveness feel shut out from the spotlight. They come to believe they’re really deserving of 80 percent of the rewards, and develop a tunnel-visioned fixation on upping their share of the material take.”


He shared some thoughts on how to solve it: 

“Teamwork doesn’t appear magically just because someone mouths the words. It doesn’t thrive just because of the presence of talent or ambition. It doesn’t flourish simply because a team has tasted success.”

“My driving belief is this: great teamwork is the only way to reach our ultimate moments, to create the breakthroughs that define our careers, to fulfill our lives with a sense of lasting significance.”

Counter-acting the Disease of Me is one of many roles that coaches play (and something they need to watch for in themselves too), and this is how to go about it: 

  • Share and celebrate wins together⏤but don’t allow the team to get complacent 
  • Never allow one or a small handful of players ⏤ no matter how great they are ⏤ take all of the glory, the limelight, and positive publicity from the wins and victories 
  • Ensure younger, less experienced players benefit from your coaching experience and the experience and success of star players 
  • Spend even more time learning from losses, to overcome these challenges in the future and avoid repeating the same mistakes 
  • Take a holistic view of coaching⏤it’s as much about strength and performance, conditioning, avoiding injuries and recovering from them, teamwork, continuous training, diet, sleep, nutrition, and mental health as pure coaching
  • Coaching is as much about leadership, setting an example, communication, and creating a culture of teamwork as it is about ensuring athletes are fit, ready, and focused on the next game. 

One of the star players Pat Riley worked with during his time at the LA Lakers was Earvin “Magic” Johnson

Magic Johnson is considered one of the greatest NBA point guards of all time. Despite his fame and incredible talent, Riley says he was a fantastic team player: 

“Magic was an avid student of all the styles of basketball. Instead of crushing his teammates under his own greatness, he studied their styles and figured out how he, as the man controlling the movement of the ball, could help get the most out of the abilities they had. He dealt to their strengths.”

As a coach, that’s the best way to harness top talent. Ensure star players are encouraging and supporting everyone on the team. That way, the team can support star players effectively and everyone wins, everyone gains, and the whole team can achieve greater wins working together than they can trying to stand out as individuals. 

When it comes to achieving those amazing wins, such as a championship game or winning a league, Riley says: 

“When a milestone is conquered, the subtle erosion called entitlement begins its consuming grind. The team regards its greatness as a trait and a right. Halfhearted effort becomes a habit and saps a champion’s strength.”


Riley also knows and understands the value of worrying healthily: 

“That’s why a wise worry is good: not a paralyzing worry, but a healthy awareness of realism. It roots out budding self-satisfaction.”


In our opinion, The Winner Within by Pat Riley is well worth reading and just as relevant for athletes and coaches now, in any sport, as it was when it was published. 

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