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John Wooden – Lessons in Work Ethic

Posted by Orrin Woodward on January 22, 2011

The following article is written in memory and thanks to John Wooden. His book, simply titled Wooden, co-authored with Steve Jamison, impacted me immensely.  I sincerely thank Mr. Wooden for the life he lived and the legacy he left. God Bless, Orrin Woodward

On October 14, 1910, in Hall, Indiana, into a Dutch-Irish family, John Robert Wooden was born.  The farmhouse, where he grew up, had few of the modern day conveniences, like running water or electricity, but young John was given something much greater by his parents, an unbeatable work ethic.  In Wooden’s nugget filled book Wooden, written with Steve Jamison, he reveals the secret to his superhuman work ethic, “My dad, Joshua, had great influence on my own personal definition of success, . . . . one of the things that he tried to get across to me was that I should never try to be better than someone else.  Then he always added, ‘But Johnny, never cease trying to be the best you can be. That is under your control. The other isn’t.’ . . . . The concept that success is mine when I work my hardest to become my best and that I alone determine whether I do so, became central to my life and affected me in a most profound manner.”  Wooden may not have won every contest he entered, but he was rarely, if ever, outworked.  This legendary work ethic, one of the cornerstones of Wooden’s success, led a farm boy from the fields of Indiana, to UCLA, in Los Angeles, leading to ten NCAA titles in his last twelve years, including a record seven in a row.  There are many qualities that can be learned from John Wooden, but central to his philosophy and life was his mastery of his profession by the consistent and persistent work ethic over time.  

As a player at Purdue University, Wooden was not blessed physically with a Michael Jordan frame, but he maximized what he was given, quickness and speed, through sheer determination and work ethic.  In fact, Piggy Lambert, Purdue’s coach for 29 years, said that Johnny was the best-conditioned athlete that he ever coached in any sport.  Strong words of praise from Lambert, who won 11 Big Ten basketball titles as head coach at Purdue. Wooden said, “Later, I applied the same philosophy to our teams: focus all your effort on what is within your power to control. Conditioning is one of these things. How your mind functions is another.”  Wooden’s legendary work ethic, led Purdue to the 1932 Helm’s Foundation unofficial national championship, and him into the college hall of fame.  But to Wooden, the fame of winning was secondary to the inner peace of knowing that one has done his personal best.  Wooden’s definition of success exemplifies this, “Success is the peace of mind that is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”  In other words, one can lose, but still win, if he did his personal best.  On the other hand, one can win, but still lose, if he didn’t do his personal best.  This philosophy imbued all of his teams with an unquenchable drive for excellence night in and night out.  Wooden believed that the external scoreboard was secondary to the internal scoreboard, where players competed more against themselves, rather than the competition, to reach their potential, he explained, “Championships were never the cake; they were the icing. Doing our best was the cake.”

Wooden coached high school basketball for eleven years before moving into the NCAA by accepting the head coaching position at Indiana State.  After two years there, in which Wooden led his Indian State team to the NAIB finals, Wooden, in 1948, accepted the head coaching position at UCLA.   He was led to believe that UCLA would soon have a state of the art basketball facility to support his efforts.  However, the promise wasn’t fulfilled until nearly seventeen years later, forcing his UCLA teams to practice under less than optimal conditions.  To say that the UCLA facilities were outdated would be an understatement, with many modern high schools having better training facilities. It’s hard to imagine, but Wooden’s future UCLA dynasty practiced basketball on the third floor of the old Mens Gymnasium, the same floor that both the gymnastic and wrestling programs used for their practices, many times simultaneously.  In fact, the place was infamously labeled the B.O. barn, from its lack of ventilation along with the inherent smells emanating from hard working athletes.   Wooden shares, “For sixteen years, I helped our managers sweep and mop the floor every day before practice because of the dust stirred up from the other activities. These were hardship conditions, not only for the basketball team, . . . You could have written a long list of excuses why UCLA shouldn’t have been able to develop a good basketball team there.  Nevertheless, the B.O. barn was where we built teams that won national championships in 1964 and 1965. You must take what is available and make the very most of it.”   When one studies Wooden, a recurring theme seems to be, that whatever the situation, by applying disciplined hard work, it will be conquered. Instead of waiting for conditions to improve, thus helping the team improve, Wooden focused on improving the team through a spirited effort that eventually led to improved surroundings.

Few recognize, that it took Wooden sixteen years to put all the puzzle pieces together, launching the dynasty in 1964 with UCLA’s first NCAA title.  Most people are too impatient with the success process, applying hard work for a day, a week, or maybe even a year, expecting to be a champion without the full 10,000 hour investment.  How many people are willing to invest sixteen years, with no titles, yet remain as committed, if not more so, at the start of year seventeen?  But Wooden, in his mind, viewed things differently, his teams were winning long before their 1964 NCAA title, because his teams strived to reach their full potential. Wooden, in his book, Wooden on Leadership, also written with Jamison, describes his philosophy, “There is a standard higher than merely winning the race: Effort is the ultimate measure of success. . . . When it’s over, I want your heads up. And there’s only one way your heads can be up – that’s to give it your best out there, everything you have. . . . To my way of thinking, when you give your total effort – everything you have – the score can never make you a loser. And when you do less, it can’t somehow magically turn you into a winner.”   For most champions, it’s that extra effort, when everyone else is out of gas, that makes the difference between victory and defeat.  Wooden tapped into the inner motivation of his players, helping them to fulfill their potential, leading to practices that were more intense than the majority of the games.  

Over and over in life, one finds that hard work creates its own luck.  Examine the chain of events, leading to Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul Jabbar), one of the all-time most recruited collegiate athletes, attending UCLA.  Because Wooden instilled pride into his teams, expecting superior work ethic, regardless of the practice conditions at the B.O. barn, UCLA overcome the hardships, winning two consecutive championships.  Because they reached the finals, the games were aired on T.V. before a national audience.  One of the interested fans, who watched the games was a young Lew Alcindor, who became intrigued with the burgeoning UCLA dynasty.  Alcindor interest in UCLA led to a commitment from the athletic director, J. D. Morgan, to finish building the Pauley Pavilion by the fall of 1965, in time for the basketball season.  Another case of L.U.C.K. – Laboring Under Correct Knowledge striking again.

With the coming of Lew Alcindor age, UCLA began a near unbeatable streak.  After Alcindor’s exit to the pros, Bill Walton and the “Walton gang” continued the dynasty, not missing a beat.  The impressive list of records and accomplishments border on the unbelievable. Wooden’s UCLA teams won a record 7 consecutive championships, at one point, they won 88 consecutive games in a row.  Much has been written of the 10 championships in 12 years, but that isn’t where UCLA’s competitive greatness was formed.  The UCLA dynasty began 16 years earlier, when a young coach, created a culture of excellence, founded upon a simple concept, that hard work applied to reaching your full potential was winning, regardless of what the external score displayed.  By creating this work ethic culture at UCLA, Wooden, despite poor practice facilities and lack of height, competed consistently against universities with better funding and recruiting.  Wooden and his team’s finest hours, were the years on end, sweating it out in the B.O. barn, refining his 10,000 plus hours of mastery in the coaching field, leading to the dynasty that everyone reads about.  As Joe Frazier, the great boxer said, when referring to his miles of running performed before daylight in preparation for his title fights, “If I cheat when the lights are out, I will be found out under the big lights.”  Although Wooden and his teams didn’t win any NCAA championships during that fifteen years, they achieved something infinitely more important, the self respect developed from giving their personal best everyday. It’s called the ‘mirror test’, can one look in the mirror, win or lose, and know that it was a personal best performance? If it was, then competitive greatness will be formed, and if it wasn’t, then no amount of trophies, recognitions and awards, will erase that fact or allow one to look in the mirror with pride. Wooden passed the mirror test with flying colors, coaching for 40 years, refining his craft, winning, by his definition, by reaching his, and his teams, full potential.

To the sports community, Wooden’s teams seemed to appeared out of no where, lighting up the NCAA tournament regularly after 1964, but to the few in the know, those who witnessed first hand the rest of the story, Wooden’s last 12 years of external winning, were simply the fruits of his first 27 years of internal winning, a true testament to the worth of investing 10,000 hours to master one’s craft.  Champions invest their 10,000 hours, typically in anonymity, when mastery is reached, they splash upon the world scene, similar to the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the famous American poet, who wrote, “The heights by great men reached and kept, Were not attained by sudden flight, But they, while their companions slept, Were toiling upward in the night.”  Today’s society, so focused on getting into the win column, will shortcut the process of success, eschewing the hard work for any gimmick, drug, or maneuver that satiates their misguided definition of success.  This makes Wooden’s timeless advice more relevant today than ever.  Wooden would tell them that winning is an internal, not an external event, that the moment one cut corners, one only cheats themselves, stealing from their own futures.  Dave Meyers, the captain of Wooden’s last championship team, shares a powerful story that captures the difference between society’s and Wooden’s definition of success:

“As a pro, absolutely nothing else mattered but winning. If you missed a shot or made a mistake, you were made to feel so bad about it because all eyes were on the scoreboard. Winning was all that mattered and all anybody talked about: “We’ve gotta win this game,” or “We shoulda won that game,” or “How can we win the next game?” Win. Win. Win.

Coach Wooden didn’t talk about winning – ever. His message was to give the game the best you’ve got. “That’s the goal,” he would tell us. “Do that and you should be happy. If enough of you do it, our team will be a success.” He teaches this, he believes it, and he taught me to believe it.”

It seems that everyone, who knew Wooden, learned this valuable lesson of life, that if one handles the inner scoreboard, the outer scoreboard will take care of itself.   Imagine the impact that could be made in society, if Wooden’s philosophy of success and hard work, were adopted by the top leaders in every field.  Leaders, instead of emphasizing the outer scoreboard of life, would teach people to reach their full potential on the inner scoreboard, helping people to pass the ‘mirror test.”  When enough people in the organization or team can pass their personal ‘mirror test,’ the external scoreboard is nearly assured.  Dynasties are created, when, rather than looking at the outer scoreboard, being dissatisfied only when one loses, a team, instead studies their personal inner scoreboards, always identifying some area of dissatisfaction to be improved further through hard work and continuous improvement.  John Robert Wooden passed away, on June 4, 2010, after 99 years of life, but not before passing along his success legacy to the world.  Wooden’s life exemplifies what legendary sportswriter, Grantland Rice once wrote, “For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, he writes – not that you won or lost – but how you played the game.” Wooden knew how to play the game of life, modeling character, honor, passion, hard work, and a fidelity to all who knew him.  He leaves a powerful legacy, passing the baton of excellence onto the next generation of leaders, displaying what is possible through faithfulness, hard work, and persistence.  In closing, Wooden wrote these prophetic words in his book, Pyramid of Success, “I am ready to meet Him (the Lord) and I am eager to see my wife, Nellie. . .”   Wooden is with the Lord and his wife Nellie, hearing the words, “Well done thy good and faithful servant.”

2 Responses to “John Wooden – Lessons in Work Ethic”

  1. […] is a lot to be learned from sports figures, particularly coaches. In his new book, Resolved, Orrin Woodward highlights the character of one famous basketball coach, John Wooden, who set an NCAA record of […]

  2. […] is a lot to be learned from sports figures, particularly coaches. In his new book, Resolved, Orrin Woodward highlights the character of one famous basketball coach, John Wooden, who set an NCAA record of […]

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