John Wooden, Thank You for Being Such a Great Teacher

Kevin LindseyAnalyst IJune 5, 2010

WESTWOOD, CA - JANUARY 29:  Former coach John Wooden of the UCLA Bruins watches as the Bruins take on the University of California Golden Bears at Pauley Pavilion January 29, 2009 in Westwood, California. UCLA won, 81-66.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

I have been pretty fortunate as a coach who has been regularly in the baseball dugout or on the basketball sideline for the past 15 years.

I will not be remembered for the 10 NCAA championships that I won.  Nor will I be remembered for an 88-game winning streak.

I do feel that I have, however, made a positive impact on the lives of many youngsters with the letters that I have received from players and parents at the end of the season. 

I even have a couple of hand-made trophies which declare that I was, at least in the eyes of some, the “coach of the year.”

While I never had the privilege of speaking personally with John Wooden about coaching, I feel that I have been very fortunate to gain wisdom from the Wizard of Westwood from reading his books, listening to his interviews and contemplating the hidden gems within his quotes.   

1.        If you don't have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?

How often, when I first started coaching, did I fail to appreciate how much time I needed to spend prior to practice figuring out how I was going to explain each element of a fundamental in practice to my players. 

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The essence of a good practice is determined by how much time the coach spends prior to practice breaking down what fundamentals need to be addressed and how the information is going to be conveyed.   

2.       A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.

Looking directly into their eyes, speaking calmly to them, and not publicly embarrassing players is just the beginning for a coach.   

Respecting the player as a person at all times, good and especially bad, as if he was one my sons is what I always try to keep in mind.

3.       Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.

I always wondered if the fixation of players to focus on the aspect of their game that is beyond their talent or experience at the beginning of the season brought a wry smile to Wooden as it has mine. 

I know Coach, I need to remind them of the importance of executing what they can do and to take pride in being consistent in what they are able to accomplish.   

4.      It's the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.

I was always amazed that Coach Wooden’s former players would recall that their mentor would never speak about wins and losses; Wooden would only focus on the fundamentals and what they needed to do to improve as a basketball team.

If you take care of the fundamentals and focus in on ensuring the execution of the little details, the wins will take care of themselves.  Can you imagine, which Wooden preached, never scouting your opponent and focus only upon ensuring you were properly executing your game plan?

5.      It's what you learn after you know it all that counts.

The game of basketball is simple yet complex.   The rules and basic components don’t take long to understand.  

Similarly to many things in life, once one has gained a basic understanding of a subject, one believes that they know all there is to know on the subject.  

However, the secret to truly understanding a subject is the willingness to humble oneself to continue to learn about the subject.     Coach, I will try to continue to humble myself each day and continue to learn.

6.      Be quick, but don’t hurry.

As a former point guard, I have always appreciated this gem.   Control the tempo of the game to put the other team on their heels, but yet don’t play at such a frenetic pace that you create turnovers and bad possessions.

7.      Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.

This is my favorite quote from Coach Wooden because Wooden from all accounts lived up to his words.    He never mentioned his accomplishments at UCLA.  

While he would acknowledge accolades calling him the greatest coach of all time, Sporting News, he was very clear that it was impossible for anyone to discern the greatest coach in any one sport let alone among all sports. 

8.      What you are as a person is far more important that what you are as a basketball player.

One of my favorite stories concerning Coach Wooden is when he was coaching at Indiana Teacher’s College (now Indiana State). 

In 1947, Wooden's basketball team won the Indiana Collegiate Conference title and received an invitation to the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (NAIB) National Tournament in Kansas City.

Wooden refused the invitation, citing the NAIB's policy banning African-American players as one of Wooden's players on the team was African-American player, Clarence Walker. Another instance of Wooden doing what was right.

In 1948, Wooden again led Indiana State to the conference title. The NAIB reversed its policy banning African-American players that year and Wooden coached his team to the NAIB National Tournament final, losing to Louisville.  The last time Coach Wooden would lose a National Championship.

9.      Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.

I used to define the success of my team by how many wins they achieved during the season then I realized that such a measuring stick was generally woefully inadequate in providing a real measure for success.   We play to win the game, right? 

Then I began to ask myself, did I get everything out of each player on my team?  Don’t be satisfied in improving the skill level of the stars or the starters but rather did you wring out the talent, effort of each player such that it is clear to even the casual observer that every player got better during the season?

I had a son that played for a mythical city wide recreation title last year and my most cherished memory of the season was a mom, who professed to care so little about basketball, coming up to me after the season to say she could how much "everyone" improved on the team.

 10.   You can't live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.

Yes, you can have a good day when you focus on improving yourself but in order to hope to achieve living a perfect day it most include a selfless act for someone else.

It is baseball season in my house.  One of my three sons had a game last night that was an exciting affair, as the game was against a team that had some of the best pitchers in our league. 

The game was a one-run game in our favor which ended on a strike out with two runners in scoring position.    The team and I celebrated the victory, but I reminded them that they could still play better and that there was still room for improvement. 

I wanted to conduct a mini-tutorial on hitting...but then I realized that what I really needed to say to them was something more basic and fundamental. 

I realized that I needed to tell them that in order to be successful that they need to have faith in themselves and their abilities. 

I also reminded them that all of the coaches on the team had faith and confidence in each of them and that they should have faith in themselves.

Tomorrow, we will have practice.  Tonight, I will put in the time to prepare for what I need to do and say at practice to improve our fundamentals. 

Of course, none of the coaches will talk about wins and losses, but rather we will focus on what fundamentals we can improve upon as a team. 

When the opportunity presents itself, as it often does, we will also talk about life lessons, such as being true to yourself and believing in your abilities.

Thank you, Coach Wooden. I truly appreciate the example you set for all of us as a coach, but more importantly as a person.