4 Life Lessons From Legendary Coach, John Wooden


I am fascinated by a story former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden shares in his book Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections. At the first squad meeting before the beginning of each season, Coach Wooden would take the time to personally show his players how to properly put on their socks.

“Carefully roll the socks down to the toes, ball of the foot, arch and around the heel, then pull the sock up snug so there will be no wrinkles of any kind.”

After they finished with one foot, Wooden would have the players move on to the next foot with the same meticulousness and carefulness. Once the players had finished putting their socks on, Coach Wooden would have them carefully inspect their feet to make sure there were no wrinkles, folds or creases present.

It may seem more like a scene from Full Metal Jacket. After all at first glance, it does sound excessive. But Coach Wooden had his reasons.

“Wrinkles, folds and creases can cause blisters. Blisters interfere with performance during practice and games. Since there was a way to reduce blisters, something the player and I could control, it was our responsibility to do it. Otherwise we would not be doing everything possible to prepare the best way.”

John Wooden emphasized to his teams that winning wasn’t their objective. Rather their goal each and every season was to perform to the best of their abilities. And in order to do so, he wanted his players to know that details create success. Besides being a fantastic coach, Wooden was a humble, introspective man who led his players on and off the court. His lessons are applicable to anyone looking to become better version of themselves.

1. “Adversity often produces the unexpected opportunity. Look for it. Appreciate it and utilize it. This is difficult to do if you’re feeling sorry for yourself because you’re faced with adversity.”

Everything that happens to us can serve some good. We just have to keep our eyes open to find it. One of my favorite stories from Graham Hunter’s excellent book on the Spanish soccer team is when former Spanish coach Luis Aragones talks about his side losing to France in the 2006 World Cup.

“…we simply couldn’t compete with a team like Germany because of their physical power, but now our rivals cannot live with the tempo of our one and two-touch circulation of the ball.”

Aragones and the Spanish Federation noted that Spanish players were too small to compete against the tougher and stronger European teams. To combat this “disadvantage”, Aragones’ implemented a playing style that emphasized quick passes and short movements. Spain couldn’t outmuscle the opposition. So they dribbled around them, en route to victories at consecutive Euro tournaments (2008, 2012) and at the 2010 World Cup.

2. “The time to prepare isn’t after you’ve been given the opportunity. It’s long before that opportunity arises. Once the opportunity arrives, it’s too late to prepare.”

Thinking through the sports analogy, a coach would never call on a player who wasn’t physically fit to play. He has to be physically fit. Then if he’s called on, he’ll be ready to go. Similarly, you have to be ready for the opportunity you want long before that opportunity shows up. For example, Gerard Pique came back to FC Barcelona in 2008 to serve as a backup to starting defender Gabi Milito. But in May of that year, Milito suffered a season ending injury and Pique was thrust into the starting lineup. By the end of the season, the 21-year-old would become one of the best players in not only Spain but also the world.

Sports fans will point out that Pique had played in Barcelona youth teams and such was already familiar with the system. But the point remains that he was ready to contribute long before he was called on.

I read The Education of Millionaires when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life post college graduation. Author Michael Ellsberg emphasized the importance of learning Sales and Marketing. He said that both would be a component of any job or any role that we undertook. I internalized his advice and began reading all I could on the two, even when I didn’t have a job.

Fast forward a few years later and as a Waze intern, I was asked to sell our Ad Product. I had no prior tech sales experience, but all the books I read, seminars I attended and conversations I had about sales and marketing allowed me to hit the ground running. I think it was one of the reasons why I went from a Waze intern to a Waze Sales Rep by the end of 2012.

3. “I wanted to win. But I understood that ultimately the winning or losing may not be under my control. What was under my control was how I prepared myself and our team. I judges my success, my “winning” on that. It just made more sense.”

Speaking of college, the only D I ever received on any paper or exam was in an accounting midterm. But I was proud of it because I had studied my tail off to understand material I still struggle with. I walked out of Dr. Pawar’s class knowing that I most likely got a 60% on it. But I wasn’t bummed and I wasn’t sad. Because I knew I had prepared for it. And if you prepare to the best of your abilities each and every time, then you’ll never “lose” so to speak, regardless of the outcome.

I think often times we’re unhappy with our results because we compare our outcome to someone else’s. Instead we should be benchmarking our efforts against our own preparation. It’s the only fair thing to do.

Coach Wooden knew that the only thing he and his players had control over was their preparation. And as such, that’s what he judged them on. If his team performed to the best of their abilities and still came up short, then they didn’t lose, they were simply outscored.

“You always win when you make the full effort to do to the best of which you’re capable.”

4. “I also believe that things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out.”

Even when we’re not in control of a situation, we’re still responsible for how we react and what we do. So if you have full power over your thoughts and your mind, why would you choose NOT to make the best out of whatever is in front of you? John Wooden led his UCLA teams to ten NCAA titles in twelve years. And seven of those championships came in consecutive fashion. He was a winner. Not just because of the accolades but because he always did his best.

“You never fail if you know in your heart that you did the best of which you are capable of. I did my best. That is all that I could do.”

And that’s all that we can do. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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