Updated: Aug 27, 2021
In this classic autobiography, legendary coach John Wooden discusses his life and the philosophies that drove much of his storied career. Considered America's "winningest" coach, he led the UCLA Bruins to an unprecedented 88-game win streak, 10 NCAA basketball championships, with seven of those in a row from 1964-1973, and four undefeated seasons! And while all of that is impressive, we shouldn’t forget that John Wooden led not only his high school team to State Championships, but he also led Purdue to a NCAA Championship as a player.
The book chronicles his formative years growing up in Indiana, and follows along pivotal life experiences that shaped him as a husband, father and coach. His life, in the depression era made him tough and strong-charactered, with unwavering honesty and self-discipline. His life was crafted from an extraordinary set of circumstances that forged grit, determination, and sportsmanship, in turn cultivating an extraordinary amount of resilience in his work ethic and tenacity.
Coach John Wooden molded himself into the image of two key men: His father, which we can see memorialized through the seven-point creed that Wooden received as a gift from his father the day Wooden graduated from grade school, and his coach at Purdue University; Piggy Lambert, who infused a coaching style built around self-confidence, a positive attitude and fierce competitiveness.
The book follows each of his magical seasons and pays tribute to the many players that bought into his vision of success, including NBA greats Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul Jabbar (formerly Lewis Alcindor). Wooden coined his own definition of success as, “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.”. This type of success sits atop Wooden’s famous Pyramid of Success:A pyramid built on the characteristics and traits that Wooden had compiled over the years, as he worked with successful people, narrowing the list to down to 25 common behaviors.
The Pyramid of Success, in my opinion, is the most important element of John Wooden’s coaching career and life. Wooden started working on his Pyramid of Success in high school and developed the concepts over the next 15 years, finally completing it in 1948. The original Pyramid drawing was on his office wall the spring that he accepted the head coaching position at UCLA. The pyramid has become his legacy. Still today, teams and organizations use Wooden’s pyramid as a teaching tool to inspire greater performance and success. The pyramid has been likened to a set of building blocks of skills that you acquire and stack on top of each other, with the goal of becoming the best version of yourself.
At the very center of the pyramid is skill. Skill refers to our “knowledge and ability to quickly and properly execute” a fundamental skill within our chosen craft. Simply put, Wooden knew that you could not achieve success unless every player on the court could consistently perform their fundamental skills quickly. Wooden reviewed the pyramid and it’s concepts with each team at the start of each season framing it in the context of building one’s life. The cornerstones of the pyramid are industriousness and enthusiasm, but he emphasized that “No building is better than its structural foundation, and no man is better than his mental foundation”.
Wooden understood the mental game. He understood that having the right mental approach to your work was the key to success, and he knew that if you weren’t enthusiastic, you couldn’t perform at your best. This is where Coach Piggy Lambert’s fiercely competitive style of play came into effect. Wooden’s aggressive, full-court press approach changed collegiate basketball, and his “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” style along with a “We are going to crush you” mentality yielded phenomenal results.
John Wooden’s teachings and coaching style will be studied and emulated for years to come, and he has already had a major impact on my approach to coaching, but one line in particular struck a chord with me when Wooden said that “No coach should be trusted with the tremendous responsibility of handling young men under the great mental, emotional, and physical strain to which they are subjected unless he is spiritually strong.”
While it is very clear that Wooden was a devout Christian, I believe that what he was saying was not necessarily that a coach should be religious, but rather a coach should place an emphasis on the deepest values and meanings by which we live life. A coach should be on a path of personal growth and transformation themselves, enriching their own lives, being an example to those they have influence over. John Wooden considered himself more of a teacher than a coach, which is in line with how American sport psychology pioneer, Dr. Coleman Griffith viewed coaches, “...more than an instructor. He is a teacher, in the ancient sense of the word...a character builder” (Griffith, 1926, p.2).
Wooden’s approach to life and teaching others is impressive, but I can’t help but reflect on how important it was for him to have the foundation that he did. His parents were hardworking and poor, tough but compassionate. Wooden had great parents who believed that parenting, teaching and coaching were all one in the same.
I am excited to continue to glean knowledge from the legacy that John Wooden has left behind. Wooden earned respect by being tough, fair and honest, and he maintained respect through industriousness and enthusiasm. Anyone who coaches anyone would be doing themselves a favor by learning and adopting John Wooden’s philosophies.
Griffith, C. R. (1926). The psychology of coaching: A study of coaching methods from the
point of psychology. New York: Scribner’s.
Wooden, J., & Tobin, J. (2004). They call me coach. Chicago: Contemporary Books.