Coach K, the winningest college basketball coach, on reconsidering “no pain, no gain.”
You don’t get to 946 wins (and counting) without enduring a little pain. So when legendary Duke basketball coach Mike “Coach K” Krzyzewski first noticed pain in his groin at the start of the 1998 season, he did what he always had: pushed through. By March Madness, he was coaching from a stool on the sidelines, nearly immobilized by osteoarthritis.
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“We lost in the national championship and I really feel, in looking back, if I’d had my hip replacement surgery earlier it might have been different,” says the coach, who ultimately had both hips replaced in 1999 and 2002.
Now Coach K has joined a national campaign to spread the word about the benefits of joint replacement surgery, sponsored by DePuy Orthopedics. The campaign’s website, HadIKnownThen.com, features a letter from Coach K to his younger self along with similar missives from other joint replacement patients about their regrets in delaying surgery.
We caught up with Coach K early one morning before practice to find out how the experience changed his approach to health and aging—and made him a better coach.
Spry: In your letter, you write that you long ago learned to “tolerate discomfort” in pursuit of your goals, but that you were wrong to ignore your hip pain for so long. What advice do you have for baby boomers—especially those who’ve always been fit—about how to approach their bodies and pain as they get older?
Coach K: I think the very first thing is to understand the fact that we are who we are, and we’re successful and we’ve done a good job because we have been persistent. We have been determined. We have not let obstacles stop us. But sometimes there are obstacles like health challenges that aren’t going to go away because you’re being strong. You have to get help. You have to get an operation. In this case for me, I had to get hip replacement surgery. I didn’t listen— I was stubborn. And as a result, I lost mobility and I was in constant pain. I became less of a person that I would normally be, and it hurt my career. There are some obstacles that you have to take care of right away, and for a lot of people that’s hip or knee replacement. You just have to get it done.
Spry: How did living with chronic pain affect your life? You mention that you had to battle that before anything else you took on during the course of a day, and that took a lot of energy.
Coach K: Well, it wears you out. You’re in constant competition, because the pain doesn’t go away. I took a lot of different medications that people probably no longer would advise you to take, but 13 years ago, I did. I was probably hurting another part of my body by avoiding the pain! But the main thing was that I was worn out all the time. So I didn’t have energy. I wasn’t the same person with my family, and I certainly wasn’t the same person with my team. And that’s why I got into this project with DePuy and one of the great authors in this country, Ellyn Spragins, and this campaign about writing letters to your younger self about what you would do differently. I think it’s fascinating for people who are going through arthritic issues.
Spry: Has that experience changed your approach to coaching, or your philosophy as a coach about pain and “toughness”?
Coach K: Well, two things. First of all it made me appreciate what I do and movement. You don’t appreciate that until you lose it. As a result of that appreciation, I think I now have even a better appreciation for my own players and their training—when they have an injury and generally how to take care of themselves. I think you have more empathy as a result of going through an experience like that.
Spry: How have you changed your fitness routine since the replacements?
Coach K: I’m able to maintain a good fitness routine now that I have two artificial hips. I probably could run, but I’m 65! You don’t have to run—you can walk fast. So I do a lot of walking. Instead of pounding, I do a recumbent bike almost every day. I do a little bit of strength and weight training work just to make sure my legs especially are strong for my profession. And you know what I do more now than I did 15 years ago? I stretch. When my team is stretching before practice, I stretch and that’s helped me a lot.
Spry: Have you changed your approach to your health overall?
Coach K: The thing I learned going through the hip replacement is “Listen.” Listen to the medical people. And I now believe there are a lot of ways to be healthy—not only the normal ways we do things but integrative medicine, massage, mental things that you can do to put you in a good state of mind all the time. A few years ago, I never would have done acupuncture, but now I have. There are a lot of great things people are doing in medicine and there’s not just one way of doing it. We have to find out what’s best for us.