The following article appeared in the
November 2004 issue of Science of Mind magazine (www.scienceofmind.com).
From the Socks Up:
The Extraordinary Coaching
Life of John Wooden
By Mitch Horowitz
For John Wooden,
it all begins from the socks up.
On the eve of his
ninety-fourth birthday, the man considered Americas
winningest coach recalls a simple, but decisive routine that he used with each
new seasons players during his twenty-seven years of coaching UCLAs legendary
basketball team to unprecedented victory.
On the first day
of practice, the coach would tell his hotshot recruits, Gentleman, today were
going to figure out how to put our shoes and socks on. Some players would blanch.
Wooden would calmly explain that most players are benched for blisters, and the easiest
way to avoid them is to pay attention to the basics. He would meticulously show them how
to roll up their socks and tighten their laces. I wanted it done consciously, not
quickly or casually, he said. Otherwise we would not be doing everything
possible to prepare in the best way.
It is pure Wooden
simple yet ingenious, zeroing in on what really matters most. A coach of
extraordinary achievement he led UCLA to an unequalled ten national championships,
eighty-eight consecutive victories, and a more than 80% win record Wooden continues
to inspire unusual loyalty nearly thirty years after his retirement. Since leaving the
basketball court, Wooden has become a twenty-first century Will Rogers a man whose
straightforward words and unadorned style of living exercise enormous pull on those around
him. His 1997 book of observations, Wooden, is
one of the top-selling titles of its kind. In 2003, he was awarded the Presidential Medal
of Freedom. Today, athletes, reporters, and everyday people alike dote on him for advice
though Wooden prefers to speak of suggestions or opinions
rather than advice.
suggestions are often disarmingly simple lessons culled from childhood years on an
early 20th century farm in Centerton, Indiana. Indeed, Wooden
is a living link to an era in which wisdom was hard-won and time-tested, in which it
rarely came from the literature of self-improvement that is so prevalent today. I
tried to rely on the teachings of my father to begin with, Wooden told Science of Mind, introducing one of his key
precepts: Dont be too concerned with regard to things over which you have no
control, because that will eventually have an adverse effect on things over which you have
control. In other words, put your shoes on properly before you start to worry about
what the other team is up to.
the things within a persons control such as attention to detail and
dedication to hard work are more important than the talents with which someone is
born. Ive had some players that didnt have great natural ability,
he says, but they learned to do things properly and maybe they couldnt
do them with the grace and quickness that the more natural athlete could, but they would
still get the job done. You couldnt have great teams if they were all like that, but
I dont think you can have a great team without some like that.
coached many superstars including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton he
never wavered from a dedication to the basics repeatedly drilling players in
passing, shooting, and running. If you get to the point where you think you know it
all, youre going to stop learning, he says. I would not permit fancy
stuff in the teaching of my players at all. It is another Wooden hallmark: he speaks
rarely of coaching, and more frequently of teaching.
In an era in
which sports is increasingly dominated by flash and cash over substance and values,
Woodens folk wisdom may appear to mark him as a man from the past until one
realizes what is so universal in his enduring appeal: His credo is available to everyone,
and it comes down simply to hard work and preparation, both mental and physical.
Failure is not making the effort to execute near your own particular level of
competition, he will say, prepping a listener for one of his most oft-used
expressions: Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Now, in some cases, the other
fellow is just better than you are, and thats no failure.
A Gentle Strength
the everyman who achieves excellence through steadiness and continual effort. It is
unsurprising that the figure he most reveres is perhaps historys greatest underdog:
Abraham Lincoln. I think of Lincoln as the common
man, he said. He came up under very difficult circumstances in many ways;
educated himself in many ways; but Lincoln never put
himself above others.
many expressions from memory, and a favorite of his from Lincoln is:
Theres nothing stronger than gentleness. Wooden witnessed this principle
in the life of his father, Joshua and it became, in a sense, his north star as a
coach. I saw my father in rather simple ways that somehow had a deeper effect. You
might see fractious horses that some people would be having trouble getting gentled down;
maybe they were stuck in a gravel pit and were pulling against each other back and forth,
and I saw dad walk over to them, and they were stomping and frothing at the mouth, and dad
would talk to them, pat them, and before long they gentled down and then hed take
the reins and theyd pull right out. I never thought about it at the time, but as
years went by and I looked back I saw there was a gentleness about him. Physically he was
not a heavily muscled man, but he was a strong man because he knew how to use his strength
in different ways to maneuver. But in these other things, in his speaking and in his
corrections, there was a gentle way.
Wooden would use
this approach to control his temper during various storms such as an episode years
ago when a rival coach falsely accused him of using profanity on the court. Though he was
tempted to angrily confront his accuser, he let the incident pass. You never really
forget, but I think you can forgive without forgetting.
A Man of Faith
on Wooden was the religion of his youth and the girl he shared it with, Nell Riley.
I was baptized with the young woman who was to be my wife later on, the only girl I
ever dated, in 1927, Wooden says. We were juniors in high school and she was
the only girl I ever went with and we had a relationship and she suggested that we join at
the same time. I dont want to say that I accepted Christ at that particular time
because of the fact that I did this primarily because she wanted me to. But my acceptance
came gradually as time went by.
years of marriage to his high school sweetheart was a partnership that would mark his life
and present him with his most anguishing challenge following his wifes death
in 1985. Although she had been ill for several years, Wooden professed to be totally
unprepared for Nells passing. He was reported to be depressed, lingering around his
house and rarely venturing outside, friends said. But eventually his famously indomitable
Wooden took great
solace from the Bible, a copy of which sits in each room of his home today. His favorite
passage, 1 Corinthians 13, reads in part: Beareth all things, believeth all things,
hopeth all things, endureth all things. It is yet another theme that marks his life:
I do believe that adversity makes you stronger, he says, And I do
believe in many ways, perhaps not in financial ways, that adversity from hard work does
make you able to accept the more difficult things as they would come along later in your
continues to be major factor in Woodens life. He reads Scripture daily, attends the
First Christian Church of his childhood, and professes deep admiration for evangelist
Billy Graham, who is a personal friend.
In matters of
faith and in other respects, Wooden is unmistakably traditional. Coaching during the
tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, Wooden was sometimes considered conservative by the standards
of the day. When a player once asked him to cancel practice to honor an anti-Vietnam
protest, reports have it that the look on the coachs face could have curdled milk.
Practice continued as planned. And yet Wooden possessed an extraordinary touch for dealing
with players from a wide range of backgrounds and outlooks, including the seven-foot-plus
Lewis Alcindor, the future superstar who would change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
A reporter in my presence asked one of my black players: Tell me about your
racial problems, and he said: You dont know my coach, do you? He
doesnt see race at all, he sees ball players and he turned and walked
away from him. I was very proud of that.
later tell the Los Angeles Times, I
learned more from Alcindor [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] about mans inhumanity to man. I
never realized how cruel people can be
Like how people would make remarks with his
hearing Look at the big freak! and things of that sort.
Belief In Self
For the all the
fame and publicity that came with UCLAs success, Wooden has always been motivated by
an inner force. I do believe that the only pressure that amounts to a hill of beans
is the pressure you put on yourself, he says. In fact, while coaching for UCLA, he
reportedly never earned more than $32,500 a year for the job.
occupies the same unassuming San Fernando condominium that
he shared with his wife since the early 1970s. A man of uncomplicated tastes, he politely
refuses most gifts and has resisted corporate entreaties for product endorsements.
Visitors have noted the modesty of his home relative to his fame, a sign that his values
matter more than wealth. If I dont feel comfortable doing it, he has
written, then Im not going to do it, regardless of how much money they want to
I may not have their money, but I do have my peace of mind.
In this sense,
Wooden has found lasting comfort in the core attribute that he spent a lifetime
cultivating in players: belief in self. In
times of crisis, the best players wont start forcing things and getting away from
what got them there in the first place. I believe its the confidence they have in
themselves, without being over-confident. The better ones believe in themselves, probably
more than anything else.