Tag Archives: John Wooden

“It’s Basketball… Get Over Yourself!”

I have a read a lot of coaching texts over the years.  And biographies.  And autobiographies.  I learnt a lot from all of them.  But at some point, I started to become disheartened.  In the books, the coaches did everything right, and never compromised.  The players eventually saw the wisdom of the coach and did exactly as he wanted.  The coach received the just rewards for his skill and wisdom.  There seemed to be a huge disconnect between the world of coaching in the books I read and the one that I was experiencing personally.

But over time, I read different books and I learnt that not every player liked John Wooden.  Or even respected him.  I learnt that Bill Walsh didn’t dominate every season.  Even though he was a genius.  I learnt that Pep Guardiola let this players talk him into changing tactics.  What?!?  I learnt that Alex Ferguson put his team in the wrong hotel before a big match.  Really?!?  And most all I learnt that coaching is just like everything else worthwhile; a multifaceted activity that sometimes you get right and sometimes you get wrong and sometimes you don’t know why.  I was reassured.

At this point in my life / career, the books that interest me the most are ones like Platonov’s book.  Resources that highlight the craft of coaching and talk about the practicalities of it.  The best current resource for that is San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.  I recently came across a video of a clinic he gave to coaches in Berlin a couple of years ago.  It is great, no bullshit advice for coaches.  The main takeaway?  Choose character.  And if you are wrong about someone’s character? Get rid of them and start again.  Here are a couple of my favourite quotes.  Or you can watch the whole video below.  Or both.

On working with jerks – “You want to enjoy yourself. Seasons are long.  There are lots of different situations that you are in.  You wake up in the morning, you’re a grown man or a grown woman, you want to spend your day with jerks?  You want to hate yourself when you go to practice because you have to put up with this idiot? … Get rid of them.  Start at the basic bottom line of character.”

On responding to winning and losing – “Bust your ass, do the best you can do, … and go for a beer.”

On responding to winning and losing – “If you win, act like you do it all the time and you didn’t do anything special.  If you lose go back to work, try figure it out.”

On timeouts – “The players go to the bench and I bring the coaches out here, and we talk, and make the owner think we know what we’re doing.  That we’re thinking about some strategy that’s really cool and we’re just talking about where we’re going to go to dinner after the game. Sometimes you gotta play the game a little bit.”

On timeouts – “You think everything you say (in a timeout) is gonna make them better.  They’re not gonna get better during that game!  You’re just wasting your time. So instead of telling them six things … Pick something!”

On timeouts – “I think timeouts are really important.  They calm guys down… Do what you gotta do. Briefly!  Succinctly.  The let them go back and play.”

On standing back during a timeout… “It helps some guys be better leaders because they don’t want to say some things in front of the coach… They’ll talk to each other a whole lot more if they’re together than if we’re over them all the time.”

On goal setting – “That process. That pride in work on a daily basis is what grows the spirit and what grows the character and what makes them feel like… they deserve to win the championship. Your team has to feel like they deserve it. Like they worked harder than everybody else… the mental as much as the physical part.”

Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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“You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learnt” – Part Two

A couple of days ago I tweeted (What! You didn’t know I was on Twitter? Then go here.) an old post on coaching and learning.  For a quick refresh, the title is a quote by John Wooden.  The basic interpretation is that the coach is responsible for learning by the player; until the player has learnt, the coach has not been successful in his teaching.  Coaches must intuitively understand this at many levels, particularly as they often stress accountability to their players.  But I digress…

Discussing this idea today, a point was made to me that I thought was worth adding to the ‘literature’ on the topic. The biggest reason that a player does not do what you ask them is that they think they are already doing it.  Imagine the stress of the player who thinks they are doing what is asked of them, but are still not having success and are still subject to the ‘feedback’ (often negative) of the coach.

In this case, further explanation by the coach cannot make things better. He needs to modify his approach

Sometimes, video feedback is useful to show the player what the coach sees and what he is actually talking about.

Sometimes, the coach has actually not explained clearly enough to the player what the words he is using actually mean.  So the player is understanding a different thing from that which the coach asked.  Most often the player will NOT say ‘I do not understand’. It is ALWAYS the coach’s responsibility to recognise the situation.

Sometimes, the word/s used doesn’t resonate with that player.  Different words have different meanings for different people.  The coach may have to tailor his communication for each individual.  And sometimes that word/s that resonate are not actually anything to do with the topic at hand.

Sometimes, the player does not understand how the technical requirement fits with the tactical / game requirement.  In this case it is the context that must be explained rather than requirement itself.

Whatever the details, it is the coach’s responsibility to ensure learning occurs.

The lesson, as always, is, pay attention to John Wooden.  And your players.


Don’t Despair, Also The Greatest Fail

Coaching is difficult.  During the course of every day, some situation is sure to arise that tests our training plan, our tactical concept, our patience, or even our personal sense of right and wrong.  On a bad day, it could be all of these. Each time one of these situations occurs we track back to our philosophy, our mentors, our research and our experience to learn how we should deal with it, all the time knowing that our ultimate responsibility is to the team and our egos must be appropriately subjugated.

It doesn’t seem to matter how much we prepare, how diligent we are and how much passion we have for our work, at some point, sooner rather than later, we will be in a position where we must compromise.  And when we compromise it is easy to feel like a bad coach.  I have read ‘Sacred Hoops’.  And ‘The Score Takes Care Of Itself’.  And ‘They Call Me Coach’.  Those coaching legends** never had to compromise.  They were wise and smart and firm and disciplined, and because of that they always had success and never had to compromise.  More than once I have sat reading one of those texts at the end of a tough day and despaired that I could be anywhere near as good I want to be.

On those days it is easy to lose perspective, both of our work and the work of others.  We remember of ourselves only the (too many to count) times that we have been forced to compromise and of our mentors and idols only their unfailing wisdom and success.  Of course reality is never, ever how we imagine it is especially our perception of others (and especially the ‘truth’ passed down in their own autobiographies).  Perhaps in moments of stress we should remember the failures of others to remind ourselves that coaching is an inexact science and an imperfect art.  So here is a list of some of my favourite failures, compromises and misconceptions, all of them big ones, to make you feel good about yourself.

  • Alex Ferguson (recounted in a Pep Guardiola biography) after 25 years at Manchester United made a mistake in organising the accommodation for the Champions League final that cost his team the match, or at least left them far from their best condition.
  • Pep Guardiola (from a different biography) allowed his players to talk him into compromising his tactical beliefs for a big match, and lost.
  • John Wooden (from his biography) did not begin his famous winning streak until his 16th!! season at UCLA.  And his famously close relationships with his ex players did not begin until long after they finished playing.
  • Bill Walsh (from his biography) despite being credited as a genius and with changing the game, had many more only just above average seasons as dominant ones, often barely making the playoffs.  His style of play become the dominant style of play, but it did not dominate others during his career.
  • Doug Beal (from his book Spike!) compromised his rules many times for one player, who ultimately quit the team anyway.  The team still won the Olympic gold medal.
  • The unnamed coach, whose best player decided they did not like the shirt the team was supposed to wear that day, who then individually went to all other rooms to inform the team they would wear a different shirt that day.  The team finished the season as champions.

** Phil Jackson, Bill Walsh, John Wooden

Quotes – Part 5

Over the last couple of years on the facebook page I have posted quotes that jumped out at me from various sources.  Here is the third collection of some of them. In no particular order.  Part 1 is here.  Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here.  Part 4 is here.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle

“It’s about players making the plays for the team to win, I just try not to screw it up.” Bill Belichick

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Leonardo da Vinci

“On good teams coaches hold players accountable, on great teams players hold players accountable.” Joe Dumars

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

“Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better.” Pat Riley

“In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm… in the real world all rests on perseverance.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Take the time to cultivate leaders on your team. Recognize that yours is not the only voice that your team wants or needs to hear.” Coach K

“Keep it simple, when you get too complex you forget the obvious.” Al Maguire

“It’s not the will to win that matters—everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.” Paul “Bear” Bryant

“I will study and prepare, and someday my opportunity will come.” Abraham Lincoln

“The secret of success is to be ready when your opportunity comes.” Benjamin Disraeli

“A decision can’t be judged solely on its success or failure. There are as many successful bad decisions as failed good ones.” Mark Lebedew

“Skills can be taught. Character you either have or you don’t have.” Anthony Bourdain

“If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.” John Wooden

“The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Albert Einstein

“You can do more. You can always do more.” Dan Marino

“EVERYTHING we do must be better than what our opponents do.” Jim McLaughlin

“The most important thing in coaching is communication. It’s not what you say as much as what they absorb.” Red Auerbach

“By throwing problem-solving and randomised situations at them, we found we were getting better long-term learning” Wayne Smith (All Blacks Coach)

“If anyone could do it, why haven’t they?” Mark Titus

“Coaching is about effect. If you have to yell at them from the sidelines, you have not coached them.” Anson Dorrance

“No coach has ever won a game by what he knows; it’s what his players know that counts.” Bear Bryant

“A good coach is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary.” Marius Stucke

There are far more ways a coach can screw things up than there are ways for him to make things better.” Mark Lebedew

“Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it, because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process we will catch excellence.” Vince Lombardi

“Sometimes you look in a field and you see a cow and you think it’s a better cow than the one you’ve got in your own field. It’s a fact. Right? And it never really works out that way.” Sir Alex Ferguson  

“A jockey does not have to have been a racehorse.” Arrigo Sacchi


Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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What Does John Wooden Have In Common With Casanova?

 Casanova was on his deathbed when someone knocked on his door, repeatedly asking to speak with him.  Casanova’s doctor replied that it would be impossible, given his patient’s critical state.  Only his closest relatives could see him.  When he heard the noise outside, Casanova learned about what was going on and gave orders to let such an insistent character in.  He would have something important to tell him, for sure.  When he finally came in, the young man said: “Mr Casanova, you have made love to over twelve hundred of the most beautiful Italian women…” Casanova interrupted him.  “Fifteen hundred.” “Okay, okay.  Fifteen hundred of the most beautiful women of our country. But how did you do it? You must tell me your secret.”  Casanova signalled at him to come closer, winked conspiratorially, and whispered in his ear: “I asked them.”

I have no reason to believe that John Wooden ever sought out the writings of Casanova.  This was a man who married his first girlfriend and continued to write regular letters to her long after her passing.   However, if he had ever read the above story, I feel confident that he would have nodded approval at its lesson, if not necessarily its direct context.  For encapsulated in the above story is not only the secret of Casanova’s success in his field, but also of Wooden’s in his.

At the end of each season, he would do a complete review including all of his training plans.  He would then decide which area he wanted / needed to improve for the coming season and set about learning everything he could about the topic.  The greatest resource in this quest for knowledge was other coaches.  He would find the coaches who were experts in that area and… ask them.  Sometimes he would write letters.  Sometimes he would visit them.  But always he would learn.

The lesson is, the Terry Pettit Principle holds: You learn about coaching from everywhere.  And to that I will add the newly invented Casanova/Wooden Principle: Ask!


The Casanova story is reported in Jose Mourinho: Special Leadership: Creating and Managing Successful Teams by Luis Lorenco.

The John Wooden story is reported in many places, among others in his biography, reviewed here.


Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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Companion Book Theory

A while ago I came up with a theory (to use word in the loosest possible sense) that all biographies, particularly autobiographies, should be read in companion with another book from a different source.  Only then can the reader truly achieve a reasonable understanding of the subject.  With insight and imagination I called it the ‘companion books theory’ and mentioned it again in my John Wooden biography post.

I was reminded of the concept when watching an interview with Ramachandra Guha, the author of a new Gandhi biography.  As someone who has obviously read my blog, he begins with the statement ‘you can’t trust a subject’s autobiography’.  He goes on to talk about Gandhi’s life and pose questions such as what would have happened if he had been better at being a lawyer.  Interesting and entertaining by itself.


Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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The Wooden Companion

John Wooden is by any measure a coaching icon. In the first instance, there is his record as a coach: ten NCAA championships in twelve seasons while coaching some of the greatest college basketball players ever.  Then there are the teachings that survived his career, highlighted by his Pyramid of Success and his definition of success.  His teaching methods were studied to determine how other coaches should coach (here and here).  He was famously revered by his players.  His position in the coaching world is unassailed.  And yet what really hit home to me how wide his reputation has spread was while travelling with an Italian coach in the US.  After going our separate ways in a shopping centre (when in Rome… as they say), we met up again and he breathlessly explained in his extremely broken English how he had found a whole shelf of books on and by John Wooden.  “You know about John Wooden?”, I asked.  “Of course!”, he replied with a look of confusion.

It was then with great anticipation that I read the first comprehensive biography of him (Wooden: A Coach’s Life) almost as soon as it came out.  I had three goals in reading the book. Obviously to read the story of his life, hopefully to pick up some new insights and also to get some balance about his life and coaching under the ‘companion books theory‘.  I succeeded in each of those three goals and learnt four important things about John Wooden and maybe great coaches in general.

Competitiveness – Wooden was really competitive.  He didn’t show it always to his team in the sense that he never spoke of winning, but he really wanted to win.  He was a inveterate trash talker with referees and opposing players and loved to beat his players at shooting contests and pool.  This was a same lesson as when reading the Phil Jackson biography (incidentally the only interesting thing in an otherwise non inspiring rehash of a dozen other books).  It should go without saying that successful coaches are more competitive than even every day coaches but it is not something that is often written about.  The coaches themselves never write about it in their own books because in the end, competitiveness is unpleasant and uncomfortable and often borders on the antisocial.  And nobody wants to write about that in their own books.

Compromise – Another thing you will never read in a coach’s book is how he compromised his principles.  Most coach’s books are idealised versions of that coach.  He writes a book to tell a version of himself that he wants others to think about, or to sell a product.  The coach’s own story is always about how success is the result of his strong (and at least by implication, unique and unbending) principles.  Wooden was no different in that regard.  All of his writings speak of his principles and tell stories such as the time he forced his star player to cut his hair and shave his beard.  But as in all real life coaching stories, success requires strong principles and many compromises.

Relationships – As I mentioned he was famously revered by his ex players.  But it turns out that almost without exception, while they were playing for him they respected him personally and his skills as a coach, but did not like him and had virtually no relationship with him outside of the training and playing environment.  The close relationships he had with his players all began long after he had finished coaching them.  That was certainly something of a revelation.

Preparation – One thing that I had heard before but definitely bears repeating is his study and preparation.  Each off season he made it a point to review all of his old practice plans and to study one specific area of the game.  To study the game he called and visited other coaches who were known to be experts in that area.  In one particular instance related in the book he filled over 30 notebooks during one off season.  He won the championship that season.  Apparently how you stay at the top is continually study and prepare.  Who knew.

If you are interested in coaches and coaching I would recommend Wooden: A Coach’s Life.  I would not recommend Phil Jackson: Lord of the Rings.


Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

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