What I Learned From The Greatest Coach Of All Time

John Wooden

I recently finished the book “Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court” by Coach John Wooden. For those that don’t know, John Wooden is arguably the greatest coach of all time. Of any sport. He coached basketball at UCLA from 1948-1975. Here are a few of the things he accomplished during his tenure:

-10 national championships – 7 of them in a row from 1967-1973.

-88 consecutive win streak

-38 straight NCAA tournament wins

-Lifetime winning percentage of over 80 percent

In terms of career success, few people have experienced more than John Wooden. And yet, after finishing this book, it seems that his outcomes were actually a by-product of his own definition of success. After dwelling on what success really means for over a decade, he came to define it as: Success is peace of mind that is the direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.

It’s important to analyze how his definition is different from our usual concept of success. The most glaring difference is that in John Wooden’s definition, he gets to determine if he was successful.

All too often, we let our own success be determined by the opinions of others. The success of an orchestral career is often measured by the “tier” of orchestra a musician wins a job in.. As a student and even into the beginning of my professional career, I felt I would never truly be successful until I won a big job. And who gets to determine if I would be able to win an audition with a bigger orchestra? The audition committee. In effect, I had chosen to let my self worth be determined by a committee of people who don’t really know me at all. I was hoping their approval would validate me and allow me to consider myself a success. Spoiler alert: John Wooden’s way leads to a much healthier mindset, more happiness, and much more real success. 

Achieving Your Goals Or Maximizing Your Potential?

The entire book is filled with incredible wisdom that caused me to slow down and contemplate whether my priorities were in the right order. His ideas led me to ask myself important questions like: Does my career matter to me more than my family? Am I trying to achieve great things so I can prove I am worthy? Am I letting the opinion of others drive my own growth?

One point stuck with me and has begun to define how I think about my relationship with my instrument. He was reflecting on our letter grading system from school, and how a student that earns a “B” is viewed as more successful than a student that earns a “C”. From an objective state, this makes sense. But it’s not the full story.

What if the student who received a “C” grade worked to their full potential, while the student who received a “B” was actually capable of earning an “A”, but they didn’t work to maximize their potential? Who is actually more successful? Here are Wooden’s thoughts:

I didn’t like these parents’ way of measuring success and failure because it was unfair. I felt a child who worked very hard, tried his or her very best, and received a “C” grade had a higher level of personal success than a more gifted youngster who got a “B” but didn’t put forth a full effort. For parents to think their youngster, a child who might have only average ability in English, had failed with an average grade after performing to the best of his or her ability seemed unfair to me.

If You Tried Your Best, Did You Really Fail?

Think back to a performance you had where things didn’t go how you had hoped. Maybe you missed a lot of notes, or maybe you were so nervous that you had a great deal of unintentional vibrato. Think back to the way you prepared. Did you do your best? Did you do everything you could do with the information you had to do the best you could do?

Now think about how you felt after that performance. Did you feel like you failed? That you didn’t measure up to some arbitrary measure of what you should be able to do based on what others can do or what others might say you should be able to do?

Wooden’s book speaks regularly of his desire for the players he coached to measure their person success by how close they got to their absolute best. It’s just as true in music as it is in basketball. If you truly prepared to the best of your abilities, you should be happy with any performance result. If you had gaps in your preparation that led to shortcomings in your performance, then you know what to work on for next time. Music is a very honest enterprise. You only get out what you put in.

My Personal Mission Statement

Although I have achieved things that others might deem successful, I now understand that I was often the “A” student receiving a “B” grade. I was doing enough to get by, but I wasn’t concerned with maximizing my potential as a musician or a person. I was stuck in a rut of doing the same thing all the time with no desire to find a way out.

Instead of aiming to be successful in the eyes of others, I believe my time is better spent asking myself, “If I could do anything, where should I start?” I may never be able to win a job in a “bigger” orchestra. I also may be able to far outgrow what a “bigger” orchestra could provide. I’m not sure which is right, but I do know that it’s up to me to find out.

In a world where success is determined by others, the word becomes arbitrary and meaningless. What one might deem to be a success might not matter to another. When success is designed by others, it is possible to live an entire life and not “be successful”. 

In a world where success is determined by whether you maximized your own potential, you decide through your efforts whether you get to call yourself a success or not. John Wooden says it much better than I ever will:

You have little say over how big or how strong or how smart or rich someone else may be. You do have, at least you should have, control of yourself and the effort you give toward bringing out your best in whatever you’re doing. This effort must be total, and when it is, I believe you have achieved personal success.

Until next time,


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