Lessons Learned from John Wooden
“Peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you’re capable.” – John Wooden
John Wooden was a living legend. He was also one of the most successful basketball coaches of all time and he lived a simple life focusing on personal excellence, personal integrity, love, and balance.
When I first heard John Wooden during an interview, what struck me was the simple rules he lived by that helped him make meaning and find happiness. It was the first time I heard somebody say that success is “peace of mind.” His way to achieve it was simple too – give your best where you can.
What I liked most about his approach is his pattern of focusing on what you control, and realizing that the rest is a by-product that may or may not go your way. For example, you can play your best game, but still lose. You can build your character, but your reputation may not match. You can make your best plays, but that doesn’t mean the score will show it. Rather than chase or focus on the by-products, focus on the “getting there” and playing your best game, from the inside out.
If you want to start with the personal side of Wooden, I recommend watching John Wooden’s Love Letter (4:35).
25 Lessons Learned from John Wooden
Here is my collection of lessons learned from John Wooden:
- A doer makes mistakes. If you’re not doing, you’re not learning. Everybody makes mistakes. It’s what you do with them that counts.
- Academics are enduring. Getting an education is a #1 priority. Wooden made it a point to his players that they were first and foremost a student (the student part of “student athlete”). Wooden said, “If you let social activity take precedence over the other two (education and sports), then you’re not going to have any for very long.” Wooden also said, “Sports are kind of like passion and that’s temporary in many cases, but academics — that’s like true love and that’s enduring.”
- Agree to disagree, but don’t be disagreeable. According to Wooden, “We can agree to disagree, but we don’t need to be disagreeable.”
- Be on time, no profanity, and don’t criticize. Wooden learned this from his Dad. He had three rules for the students he coached: 1) never be late (start on time and close on time), 2) not one word of profanity, and 3) never criticize a teammate.
- It’s not whether you won or lost, it’s if you played your best game. If you won, but didn’t play your best, then you didn’t really win. If you lost, but you played your best, then you didn’t really lose. Wooden said, “Never mention winning. My idea is that you can lose when you outscore somebody in a game, and you can win when you’re outscored.”
- Coach for life, not just the game. Wooden promoted the idea of a “teacher coach.” Wooden said that as a coach, you “teach” sports. However, according to Wooden, a coach has to be more concerned about the overall learning, than just the sport or just winning the game. Wooden said, “It can be done in a way that’s also helping them develop in other ways that will be meaningful forever.” It’s about building habits and practices that support students for life. Wooden credits the fact he was a teacher before he became a coach, helped him organize his time better and learn that he has to work with each individual a little differently.
- Don’t let your limits limit you. Don’t let limits get in the way. Wooden — “Don’t let what you cannot do, interfere with what you can do.”
- Don’t whine, don’t complain, and don’t make excuses. This is another trio of rules Wooden learned from his Dad — “Don’t whine, don’t complain, and don’t make excuses — you get out there and whatever you’re doing do it to the best of your ability. No one can do more than that.”
- Everybody is unique. As a teacher, Wooden learned early on the importance of paying attention to each individual. He learned that he had to work with each individual a little differently, and that no two are identical. They can be alike in many respects, but they aren’t identical. He learned that each student or player would have different strengths and weaknesses and that he would have to vary his approach to help them unleash their best.
- Failure is not fatal. Keep going. Don’t let setbacks stop you. Carry your lessons forward, and change your approach. Wooden said, “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.”
- Focus on character over reputation. Your reputation may vary. It’s your character that counts and it’s what you can control. Wooden said, “If you make the effort to do the best of which you’re capable, trying to improve the situation that exists for you, I think that’s success and I don’t think others can judge that, and I think that’s like character and reputation. Your reputation is what you are perceived to be, and your character is what you actually are, and I think the character is much more important than what you are perceived to be.”
- It’s the company you keep. Wooden enjoyed being a teacher and a coach because he felt he was in great company and he was shaping the future. Wooden would say, “those under your supervision are the future.” According to Wooden, “A coach is like the teacher who once was asked why she taught; they asked me why I teach and I replied, where could I find such splendid company …” They aren’t just students or players, they are future doctors, etc.
- It’s the journey. It’s the getting there that’s fun. Wooden said, “Cervantes said, ‘The journey is better than the end.’ And I like that. I think that is — it’s getting there. Sometimes when you get there, there’s almost a letdown, but it’s the getting there that’s fun.” Wooden would say, ““I liked our practices to be the journey, and the game would be the end … the end result.”
- Journal for reflection and growth. According to Wooden, he journaled for all his players, and this is a difference that made the difference. The journal is how he could focus on little distinctions and really fine tune the practices and drills to be more specific and relevant for each player. It’s how he personalized the practices. It’s this personalization and paying attention to strengths and weaknesses that really helped him bring out the best in each player.
- It’s courage that counts. Courage is what keeps you going. Wooden said, “Success is never final, failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”
- Keep your emotions in check. Wooden was strict about keeping his players’ emotions in check. He didn’t want anybody to be able to tell whether his team had won or lost, just by looking at them. He didn’t want his team to get overly emotional about their wins, or overly emotional about their losses. Instead, he wanted a focus on whether they played their best and that only each person would know whether they really gave their best for the situation.
- Make each day your masterpiece. Wooden made the most of each day, by design. Wooden – “Make everyday your masterpiece.”
- Make the effort to be the best you can on a regular basis. According to Wooden, “If you make your effort to do the best you can regularly, the results will be about what they should be, not necessarily what you’d want them to be, but they’ll be about what they should, and only you will know whether you could do that … and that’s what I wanted from them more than anything else.”
- Never try to be better than someone else. This is another lesson Wooden learned from his Dad – “You should never try to be better than someone else. Always learn from others and never cease trying to be the best you can be. That’s under your control. If you get too engrossed and involved and concerned in regard to things over which you have no control, it will adversely affect the things over which you have control.”
- Patience is a part of progress. Success comes slowly. Expect change to happen slowly and to have patience along the way. Wooden said, “Whatever you’re doing, you must have patience” and “there is no progress without change, so you must have patience.”
- The score is a by-product. The score is hopefully a by-product of doing the right things. Don’t focus on the score, focus on what you’re doing and give your best. Wooden said, “I wanted the score of a game to be a by-product of these other things, and not the end itself.”
- The best player is the one who gets closest to reaching their full potential. According to Wooden, whoever gets the closest to reaching their full potential is the best player.
- Success is “peace of mind.” Wooden had a simple measure of success – peace of mind. According to Wooden, “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”
- Lead by example. Wooden said that way back, during his early years of teaching, a specific saying made a great impression on him – “No written word, no spoken plea, can teach our youth what they should be, nor all the books on all the shelves, it’s what the teachers are themselves.”
- You’re part of a team. Wooden truly believed that the sum of the whole is more than the parts. Wooden would say, "A player who makes a team great is more valuable than a great player."
Some people define success in a way that’s perpetually beyond reach. Wooden defined success in a way that’s within your grasp:
Peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you’re capable.
Pyramid of Success
John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success consists of a set of philosophical building blocks for winning at basketball and winning at life.
The building blocks of the pyramid are as follows:
- COMPETITIVE GREATNESS
- POISE, CONFIDENCE
- CONDITION, SKILL, TEAM SPIRIT
- SELF-CONTROL, ALERTNESS, INITIATIVE, INTENTNESS
- INDUSTRIOUSNESS, FRIENDSHIP, LOYALTY, COOPERATION, ENTHUSIASM
12 Lessons in Leadership
Here are John Wooden’s 12 lessons in leadership:
- Lesson #1: Good Values Attract Good People
- Lesson #2: Love Is The Most Powerful Four-Letter Word
- Lesson #3: Call Yourself A Teacher
- Lesson #4: Emotion Is Your Enemy
- Lesson #5: It Takes 10 Hands To Make A Basket
- Lesson #6: Little Things Make Big Things Happen
- Lesson #7: Make Each Day Your Masterpiece
- Lesson #8: The Carrot Is Mightier Than A Stick
- Lesson #9: Make Greatness Attainable By All
- Lesson #10: Seek Significant Change
- Lesson #11: Don’t Look At The Scoreboard
- Lesson #12: Adversity Is Your Asset
For more information on Wooden’s 12 lessons in leadership, see his book, Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organization.
Top 3 John Wooden Quotes
Here are my top three John Wooden quotes:
- “Make everyday your masterpiece.”
- “Be quick but don’t hurry.”
- “The most important word in our language is love. The second is balance — keeping things in perspective.”
John Wooden Quotes
Here are additional quotes by John Wooden organized by A-Z:
- “A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.“
- "A player who makes a team great is more valuable than a great player."
- “Ability is a poor man’s wealth.”
- “Adversity is the state in which man mostly easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.”
- “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”
- “Be prepared and be honest.”
- “Be quick but don’t hurry.”
- “Consider the rights of others before your own feelings, and the feelings of others before your own rights.”
- “Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”
- “Don’t measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability.”
- “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”
- “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.”
- “Flexibility is the key to stability.”
- “I liked our practices to be the journey, and the game would be the end … the end result.”
- “I’d rather have a lot of talent and a little experience than a lot of experience and a little talent.”
- “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?”
- “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.”
- “It isn’t what you do, but how you do it.”
- “It’s not so important who starts the game but who finishes it.”
- “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”
- “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
- “Material possessions, winning scores, and great reputations are meaningless in the eyes of the Lord, because He knows what we really are and that is all that matters.”
- “Never mistake activity for achievement.”
- “Our tendency is to hope that things will turn out the way we want them to, so much of the time, but we don’t do the things that are necessary to make those things become reality.”
- “Sports are kind of like passion and that’s temporary in many cases, but academics — that’s like true love and that’s enduring.”
- “Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”
- “Success is never final, failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”
- “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”
- “Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.”
- “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team.”
- “The most important word in our language is love. The second is balance — keeping things in perspective.”
- “The worst thing about new books is that they keep us from reading the old ones.”
- “There are many things that are essential to arriving at true peace of mind, and one of the most important is faith, which cannot be acquired without prayer.”
- “There is no progress without change, so you must have patience.”
- “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”
- “What you are as a person is far more important that what you are as a basketball player.”
- “Whatever you’re doing, you must have patience.”
- “Winning takes talent, to repeat takes character.”
- “You can’t let praise or criticism get to you. It’s a weakness to get caught up in either one.”
- “You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.“
John Wooden Resources at a Glance
Wooden has a large collection of books and videos to draw from. For simple scanning, I organized Wooden’s collection of resources into the following buckets: Sites, Books, and Videos..