John Wooden: 5 Insights of a Great Man

Okay. First, I’d like to say that I’m kind of an obsessive person. If I land on something great I will see it all the way through. This summer it’s been the late, great basketball coach John Wooden. I love to attempt multitasking, but the only way I do it successfully is to listen and clean at the same time. That’s a great cleaning tip! Clean and learn by listening to TED Talks, podcasts, etc.

I want to write a few different insights I’ve gained from Wooden–not the typical ones you find in the videos or blog posts.

  1. Love your students. 

Wooden describes how important love was in teaching his students and his players. He truly had their best interest at heart. His players spoke of how he watched them intently; praising them for their good plays, redirecting them in the right ways, and always demonstrating to them how they were important, but also in what ways they were vital to the team. Basically, he made sure that each team member felt significant. Isn’t that what the human soul longs for–belonging, acceptance, significance. Wooden built that into each one of his players. One team member stated, “Wooden focused on making us great individuals, and then showed us how that worked in the context of the team.” Wooden was fully vested into his team, but more importantly in each team member.

One favorite poem that Wooden recited spoke straight to my heart.


2. Be a Storyteller. 

Wooden in all of talks recited poetry, even in his late 90’s! His ability totally captivated me. Can you imagine standing in front of your students offering a lesson and then just offering the perfect poem to include in the discussion and knowing it by heart. To me that demonstrates a true commitment to the craft and love of learning. Wooden challenged me to put to memory some of my own favorite verses.

Check out this Ted Talk by Wooden.

John Wooden Ted Talk

3. Have High Standards. 

Wooden held high expectations for his players. He wanted his players hair cut a certain way, clean shaven, suit and tie. He believed in coming to practice on time and ending on time. However, he was calm. Firm but calm. The consequences were clear and the students knew it. Wooden was so vested in each of his players, they didn’t want to let him down. They never pushed the boundaries too far. Check out this one video as Wooden navigated through the sixties with his players.

Coach Wooden and Players Hair Struggles

Coach Wooden built the relationships through excellence. He loved them, but also had firm expectations of them. As a result, the kids soared.

4. Wooden’s  Pyramid of Success Didn’t Happen Overnight

It took Wooden fourteen years to build his pyramid of success. He was looking for a visual to illustrate what he wanted to communicate to his students in order for them to be successful. Who waits fourteen years these days? Did you know that most humans have the attention span of a goldfish? Sounds crazy, but true! Check out this article from Time Magazine You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish. Wooden, born in 1910 grew up poor on a small farm. His father read poetry to him nightly, and he worked daily in his studies and on the farm. This lifestyle developed will power to be patient and he knew great things take time. Greatness doesn’t happen overnight. All great things take time. Be patient and have faith.


Now, there are two scriptures that I keep in my desk. In my lowest moments, I’ve personally failed in these areas, but as Wooden states, “I’m not what I outta be, I’m not what I should be, but I may be better than I would have been if I didn’t know these bits of wisdom.”

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 

Galatians 5:22-23 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Place those two scriptures together and that equates to character and integrity, which is reflected in Wooden’s pyramid. Something we can all strive for on a daily basis.

5. Make Each Day Your Masterpiece.

When I was a teenager, I always began the year with such big expectations. I had my perfectly organized Trapper Keeper. Yeah, I’d tell myself, this year it’s going to be different. This year I will be on it! Well, as you can guess by week three I started sticking my Social Studies papers in my English notebook and my math papers…well..who knows. Then, I  actually ran across my childhood diary the other day. I opened to a random page, I was starting ninth grade, and all I wrote was…”School starts tomorrow–barf.” As you can see I was destined to be an English teacher. My point is it took me until college to really enjoy school and excel. I let my expectations and goals overwhelm me into ambiguity. Just take it one day at a time. In fact, take it one hour at a time. Set short goals, and keep accomplishing them for that day. Doesn’t that remind you of another scripture:  Matthew 6:25-34 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?  Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your lifeAnd why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.” In the end, do the best with what you have, build each day with excellence and soon you will be living the life that you desire or at least be closer. Best of all, you will feel peace. 

Finally, Coach Wooden has inspired for me to choose love as my one word for the year. Over the past two years I chose steadfastness and consistency, which are great words for achievement. But, I’ve learned to that it’s not all about achievement, at least not in that way. Relationships built on love, patience, kindness build the foundation for all real lasting achievement to take place whether it’s with your spouse, children, siblings, friends, colleagues, or students.

I added this video of Wooden in a previous post, but I’m going to add it again. I encourage you to learn about this wonderful man whose wisdom brought peace to my heart at the end of the school year. I hope you find encouragement from him, too.

Values, Victory, and Peace of Mind






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