John Wooden is the greatest college basketball coach of all time, in fact, it's not even close. 10 times his teams have won the NCAA championship. The coach with the second-most championships, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski has 5. Wooden's run is all the more incredible since his 10 came in a 12-year period, including 7-in-a-row. Meanwhile Krzyzewski sprinkled 5 over a 24-year period.
You might not expect to find much wisdom in the obsessed world of college basketball. When we imagine college sports, many of us think of false machismo or even cheating. The pursuit of victory trumps everything, or so we imagine.
But Coach Wooden is the source of some of the most remarkable insights. He even practiced an almost Buddhistic non-attachment in his coaching. Of course, he loved to win and wanted to win. But Wooden created a unique definition for winning. And he remained loyal to it even under the immense pressure of his job.
John Wooden passed away in 2010 at the age of 99. After his run as the greatest basketball coach of all time, he became a speaker, consultant, and author. It's easy to see why, as his wisdom was legendary.
And in 1997, author Steve Jamison convinced Wooden to put his teachings into a book. It's called Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court. It's one of the most impactful short books you'll ever read and has been widely praised.
Below, we'll explore some of the most impactful teachings of this remarkable man. In doing so, it will become obvious how his wisdom relates to our own lives.
Coach Wooden's Definition of Success
It'd be easy to assume that winning was everything to coach Wooden. Many of us think of 'win-at-all-costs' coaches like Bobby Knight, who once threw a chair on the court in a fit of anger.
The ethos of doing whatever it takes to win is what we expect from legendary coaches and players. UCLA (football) coach "Red" Sanders even said, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." There are no doubt many like Knight and Sanders, but Wooden took a different tact and, in the process, achieved an even better result.
It starts from Wooden's definition of success, which he got from his father. Wooden's dad summarizes taught him: "Try your hardest in all ways and you are a success. Period. Do less than that and you have failed to one degree or another."
But, is it that really simple? His father's advice sounds like feel-good, pre-packaged, words-of-wisdom you'd give a child after losing in Little League. It sounds naive. The result must matter, right? If you do your best and don't win, then you've still failed, right?
Not according to Wooden. In his belief system, giving a maximum effort to every area of preparation meant you can sleep easy at night. You'll know you've succeeded before the results are in. Sounds crazy, but in Wooden's formulation success is independent of the result.
Knowing you've done your absolute best means you can detach yourself from the result. Wooden's philosophy played out remarkably well in his coaching career. He explained to his players that:
"If you prepare properly, you may be outscored but you will never lose. I wanted our players to believe that to their very souls because I know it is the truth. You always win when you make the full effort to do the best of which you're capable."
Once Coach Wooden earned his reputation for being an elite coach, it became easier for UCLA to recruit prospects. The greatest of his players is the all time NBA leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. As you can imagine, UCLA won several championships while Jabbar was on the roster. Those and the teams with fellow legend, Bill Walton, were some of the greatest college teams in history.
Yet, Wooden seems to have even more pride when speaking about one of his unheralded teams. In 1962, UCLA lost in the semi-final of the national tournament. But Wooden said,
"Was I disappointed we were outscored? I am still disappointed we were outscored -- but I was never dejected. Mostly what I was, and am, is proud. Our team was outscored, but we were winners. I had the greatest pride in how the players prepared, progressed, and performed."
What would your own life look like if you took as much pride and joy in the preparation as in the result? For most of us, the result is all that matters. But not enjoying the preparation weakens our result. It makes sense if you think about it, because we're less likely to work hard if we don't enjoy the process. Taking this attitude to every aspect of life allows us to remain unattached to the outcome. We can improve both the final outcome and have greater peace of mind while living our lives.
Practice as You Want to Perform
Wooden was legendary for his attention to detail. He tells one story that illustrates just how much detail he put into training his players. At the beginning of every year Wooden started teaching his players from the ground up -- literally focusing on their feet first.
Wooden required players to take a foot measurement so a shoe specialist could fit them. The players thought they knew their shoe size, of course. But Wooden knew that most parents buy shoes too big for their kids so they can 'grow into them.' Many, if not most players had gotten used to playing with shoes too big. Reasoning that improper fitting should could cause trouble, he made fitting mandatory.
But the foot education didn't stop there. Two weeks before the first practice, he gathered his players for a lesson on how to wear socks. He would demonstrate his technique for rolling the socks on, then checking for creases or folds. Just as with wearing shoes that are too big, Wooden knew that socks with creases could cause blisters and that blisters meant a worse performance.
Finally, he gave his players a detailed lesson in tying their shoes. He taught them to lace them snug but not too tight then double tie each shoe so there's no chance of it coming undone. Why did he do all of this?
Well, in his own words:
"I believe in the basics: attention to, and perfection of, tiny details that might commonly be overlooked. They may seem trivial, perhaps even laughable to those who don't understand, but they aren't. They are fundamental to your progress in basketball, business, and life. They are the difference between champions and near champions."
But his footwear practices were just the beginning. His attention to detail extended everywhere, especially the actual practice. NBA great Bill Walton explained what Wooden's practices were like:
"...he constantly moved us into and out of minutely detailed drills, scrimmages, and patterns while exhorting us to 'Move... quickly... hurry up!' It was wonderfully exhilarating and absolutely intense.
In fact, games actually seemed like they happened in a slow gear because of the pace at which we practiced. We'd run a play perfectly in scrimmage and Coach would say, 'OK, fine. Now re-set. Do it again, faster.' We'd do it again. Faster. And again. Faster. And again."
Have you ever heard the expression that 'the way we do anything is the way we do everything?' Wooden lived this. By focusing on tiny details, he assured that players would perform during the game.
The game doesn't happen in slow motion, so why practice that way? Our job is to prepare ourselves as best we can for what's coming. We must put our best effort forward, but we can't control the outcome.
It's possible that even our best effort won't be good enough to win a championship. But in the game of life, our best preparation and best effort is often more than enough to succeed. We can learn so much from Coach Wooden. His values almost seem to be from another world. But in truth they are simply timeless values that many of us have forgotten.