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Winning Wisdom

Legendary coach offers keys to real success

The college basketball season will soon begin, and it will be the first season in almost a century that begins without its greatest coach being here to follow it. For it was last spring that John Wooden, “The Wizard of Westwood,” passed away just a few months shy of his 100th birthday.

All of us who have ever coached young people admire and strive to emulate this great coach. And it’s really not because he won more NCAA championships than anyone else. Rather, it’s because of the masterful job he did of motivating and changing forever the lives of the young people fortunate enough to come into contact with him, whether it was in his high-school English classrooms in Dayton, Ky., or South Bend, Ind., or on the hardwood of the famous Pauley Pavilion at UCLA.

Wooden taught much, much more to his students than basketball. He was, like the best teachers and coaches, a master teacher about life and the search for success. Though Wooden won many championships in his long career – 10 NCAA basketball championships in 12 years – he never measured success by wins and losses. Rather, he had a simple, but very challenging definition of success that is something I would like all students and young people to know and truly internalize. Success, Wooden felt, “is the peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”

Success is the feeling that comes from knowing you did your very best.

It’s not about who drives the hottest car, has the coolest clothes or vacations or has the most money. The person who is successful has the peace of mind that comes from knowing she did her best.

In his many years as a teacher and coach, Wooden developed a blueprint for success. He called it the Pyramid of Success. It’s based on:

Industriousness – Hard Work: There is no substitute for this, whether it’s in your sport, art, music, dance, writing, or school work. Hard work is truly the best building block for success.

Friendship and Cooperation: These are often overlooked keys, but almost all success requires that you relate well to others. Knowing how to give and take is crucial. “Listen if you want to be heard. Be interested in finding the best way, not in having your own way.”

Loyalty: To yourself and to all those depending on you. Keep your self-respect.

Enthusiasm: It brushes off on those with whom you come into contact. It’s easy as a youngster or teenager to “dis” enthusiasm, but the older you get, the cooler it gets.

The next level of the pyramid has higher-order attributes:

Self-Control: Wooden says, “Discipline yourself and others won’t have to.”

Alertness: Be observing constantly. Stay open-minded. Be eager to learn and improve.

Initiative: Cultivate the ability to make decisions and think alone. Do not be afraid of failure, but learn from it.

Intentness: Set a realistic goal. Concentrate on its achievement by resisting all temptations and being determined and persistent.

For all students, whether you are an athlete or not, you need to know that how you play the game of life really matters. Grades dishonestly achieved hold no glory. Rewards without true achievement are hollow and meaningless. Striving to always do your best, even though you may fall short, will bring lasting rewards, great satisfaction and success.

Wooden tells us, “For me, how you play the game – and prepare for it – really does count. In fact, it counts most of all. Why? Because even winning can become routine. Striving ceaselessly to get better and better and better – and doing it – never becomes routine.”

Coach Wooden is now gone. But his values live on. All of the coaches and teachers who touch the lives of our children can learn a great deal from this humble man and his timeless wisdom. Here are some of my favorite inspirational quotes from “The Wizard of Westwood”:


“Respect every opponent, but fear none.”


“The best way to improve your team is to improve yourself.”


“Be quick, but do not hurry.”


“It is amazing how much we can accomplish when no one cares who gets the credit.”


“Time spent getting even would be better spent getting ahead.”


“It is never simply a case of win or lose, because I do not demand victory. The significance of the score is secondary to the importance of finding out how good you can be.”


“Talent is God-given; therefore be humble
Fame is human-given; therefore be thankful.
Conceit is self-given; therefore be careful.”

The world of sports and the world in general can certainly become better if we consider the wisdom of Coach John Wooden, 1910-2010.


Mark Heller is head of school at Academy at the Lakes, a PreK3 – 12th grade independent school that serves students and families from northern Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties. Visit academyatthelakes.org for more information.

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