Lessons from Basketball’s Greatest Coach

At 97 years of age, John Wooden is a legend in the coaching profession. In 1999, ESPN named him The Greatest Coach of the 20th Century.

The list of honors garnered by Coach Wooden during his coaching career is unrivaled.

  • Over the course of twelve years, his UCLA Bruins basketball teams won ten NCAA Championships, including an astonishing seven in a row from 1967 to 1973. For comparison’s sake, no other men’s coach has won more than 4 NCAA titles.
  • He led his teams to four undefeated seasons; no other coach has had more than one undefeated season.
  • His teams set a record by winning 88 games in a row, including 38 in a row in the NCAA Tournament.

Winning: More than the score

After glancing at Coach Wooden’s record, a person may be misled into thinking Coach Wooden was a man preoccupied with winning. However, nothing could be further from the truth. For Coach Wooden, competition was never about comparing his team to the opposing squad. Despite all of the victories, trophies, and championships, Coach Wooden never spoke to his team about winning.

John Wooden was college basketball’s greatest coach because he kept score differently than any other coach. Rather than measuring success in terms of wins and losses, he focused relentlessly on potential and improvement. Coach Wooden would grow livid if his players loafed when the team was ahead by 20 points, and he could be thrilled with his team’s performance – even when they lost by 20 points.

Leadership Application: When businesses focus exclusively on market share or the bottom line, they run the risk of overlooking or undervaluing the people, processes, and systems that drive results.

Practice: Not perfection, but preparation

When questioned by reporters about missing team practices, current NBA star Allen Iverson gave a disdainful tirade on the pettiness of practice. “We’re sitting here, and I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we’re talking about practice. I mean, listen, we’re sitting here talking about practice, not a game… how silly is that?”

For many sports fans, Iverson’s comments were emblematic of the arrogance and me-first attitude of an athlete in the National Basketball Association. If nothing else, his words revealed his underlying attitude: I’m an NBA superstar; I’ve arrived; I’m good enough to skip practice; practice doesn’t matter, it’s my performance on game day that counts.

To John Wooden, such an attitude would have been reprehensible. Coach Wooden’s style was best noted for his keen attention to detail and the rigors of his practice regimen. In his words, “If you prepare properly, you may be outscored but you will never lose. You always win when you make the full effort to do the best of which you’re capable.”

For Coach Wooden, winning happened when the stands were empty and the spectators absent. He loved the day-by-day discipline of practice. By convincing his team to give their best effort at practice, he coached them to perform at a higher level than opponents. As a result, he enjoyed unprecedented success when games were played and championships were on the line.

Leadership Application: Challenge your people to give top effort every day, and prepare to the point of excess. If you don’t tolerate sloppiness when the team prepares, then they will perform better in pressure situations.

Peak Performers: More than Talent

John Wooden gained an advantage over other coaches because he had a superior method of selecting players. While most recruiters scoured high school gyms solely in search of talent and athleticism, Coach Wooden began his search from a different vantage point.

When selecting players, Coach Wooden’s primary consideration was the student’s transcript. For him, a student’s discipline in the classroom spoke volumes about the young man’s priorities. Coach Wooden wanted players who recognized their primary responsibility was to earn a college degree rather than excel on the court.

When evaluating potential recruits, John Wooden’s second criterion was the student’s family life. Did the student respect his parents or guardians? Did the student treat his siblings kindly? By looking into a potential player’s family life, Coach Wooden measured the player’s ability to build healthy relationships. He knew relational skills were essential for establishing teamwork and camaraderie.

John Wooden’s third consideration when selecting talent was the composite evaluation of six coaches. He was leery of basing his analysis on a single performance. By diligently consulting the opinion of six coaches, Coach Wooden measured consistency. He wanted to avoid selecting players who gave top effort one night only to withhold it on another evening.

Coach Wooden’s final criteria for selecting players were quickness and talent. He wasn’t naive. He knew speed and natural ability were uncoachable and irreplaceable. Even so, he refused to select a player until he felt comfortable with the young man’s priorities, relationships, and track record of consistent performance.

Leadership Application: By looking blindly at talent, leaders end up with malcontents who place personal gain above team spirit or talent-rich sluggards who rarely give their best effort. When hiring, consider an interviewee’s life priorities, relational history, and career accomplishments. Don’t discount talent, but never elevate it as the sole quality in a prospective teammate.

This article is used by permission from Dr. John C. Maxwell’s free monthly e-newsletter ‘Leadership Wired’ available at www.injoy.com.

© 2008 – 2014, John Maxwell. All rights reserved.

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