I happened to come across a copy of Toastmaster with John Wooden on the cover and a lengthy piece inside titled, "The Wooden Way." The article only briefly mentions his career as a basketball coach and, instead, emphasizes Wooden's later career as a motivational speaker.
About two years ago, I happened to come across a copy of Toastmaster (the October 2008 issue) with John Wooden on the cover and a lengthy piece inside titled, "The Wooden Way."
Curious as to why a speakers' publication would feature a story about the legendary UCLA basketball coach, I brought the magazine home to read and reread and now share with others.
Many remember John Wooden (1910-2010) as the basketball coach who led his UCLA teams to 10 national championships and amassed 88 straight victories.
The Toastmaster article only briefly mentions his career as a basketball coach and, instead, emphasizes Wooden's later career as a motivational speaker who used his Pyramid of Success as a model for leadership training. The Pyramid of Success had its origin in Wooden's earlier experience as an English teacher in an Indiana high school.
I felt an affinity for Wooden because I, too, was a high school English teacher, and I was at UCLA when he was coaching basketball. Not that that makes me unique. There must have been thousands of former English teachers at UCLA during Wooden's 27 years there (1948 to 1975). He was coaching basketball at UCLA in 1952 when my husband and I were there for two years –– my husband as a faculty member and I as a graduate student. (As a side note, we lived on campus in vets' housing with two young children. Our rent was $29 a month, including utilities.)
Wooden had been coaching basketball at UCLA since 1948 and it wasn't until 15 years later that his team won its first national championship, so we had no idea he would become so famous.
As an English teacher at South Bend Central High School in Indiana in 1934, he reportedly regarded his coaching duties as secondary to his responsibilities as an English teacher. He believed that teaching the fundamentals of English grammar was the same as teaching the fundamentals of basketball: explanation, demonstration, correction and repetition. In both the classroom and the gym, he believed criticism must always be given in a gentle way.
“When I was an English teacher, I found out some parents made their youngsters feel they had failed if they didn't get an A or B. I never liked that definition of success," he told the Toastmaster interviewer. "I wanted to come up with something that I hoped would make me a better teacher and give those under my supervision something with which to aspire, other than high marks in the classroom or more points in athletic endeavors."
The first two cornerstones of Wooden's Pyramid of Success never changed from that experience in an English classroom: industriousness (working hard) and enthusiastic (enjoying what you are doing). Between these two cornerstones, he later added friendship, loyalty and cooperation. Gradually, he built the pyramid, adding other attributes, such as initiative (“Make a decision! Failure to act is often the biggest failure of all.”) and condition (“Ability may get you to the top, but character keeps you there –– mental, moral and physical.”).
Wooden's advice on giving criticism would seem to be applicable to many relationships –– coaches and teachers, of course, but also bosses, parents, and even spouses.
“Make sure that they receive very little criticism, but when there has to be some criticism, it must be done in a gentle way that will not be embarrassing and definitely not in front of others. You may need to take them aside and talk it over, but never do so while you're mad. No yelling; it has to be done in a gentle fashion, and with a pat on the back is best."
The Wooden Way hardly sounds like it comes from a basketball coach whose team won more championships than any other in NBA history. Consider this:
“My bench never heard me mention winning. My whole emphasis was for each of my players to try to execute the fundamentals to the best of their ability. Not to try to be better than somebody else, but to learn from others and never cease trying to be the best they could be; that's what I emphasized more than anything else."
Wooden had three rules for his teams (the additional applications in parentheses are mine –– you may want to add more):
1. Never be late. Always be on time. It's very important. Whether to practice, to the table, to the bus, to your classes (to your job, to an appointment, to a meeting, to church).
2. You must never criticize a teammate (or a co-worker). That's the leader's job. It's never your job.
3. I would not tolerate profanity from anyone any time. I'd blow the whistle... (or call time out, walk away, or ...)
Long after I've forgotten how many straight wins and how many NBA tournaments Wooden's teams won, I'll remember his words to live by embodied in the Wooden Way.
Wooden's concluding words to the Toastmaster interviewer might serve as a guide for all of us as we struggle to keep the resolve in our New Year's resolutions:
“You must believe in what you're doing, that what you're doing is the proper thing, the right thing. And you must have faith that things will end up as they should. Providing, of course, that you do the things that you should do to help it become that reality."
That's the Wooden Way.
Barbara Gunn is an Oak Ridge, Tenn., resident and frequent columnist.