5 Minute Listen

A John Wooden Wannabe

Early on, I had an obsession with Coach John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach. My obsession equated to me reading every book written both by him and about him. He was known for his “maxims”—witty sayings like: “Be quick, don’t hurry,” “You handle things; you work with people”, and “Peaks and valleys belong in the Alps, not in the temperament and emotions of a leader.”

So, I’d pace around in practices, sprinkling these maxims in where I saw fit, to motivate the team and build character.

At the start of every year, I would even hand out Coach Wooden’s famous “Pyramid of Success” to every player on the team, which contained his 15 values and virtues, like enthusiasm, self-control, poise, and competitive greatness. Over the season, I would spend time “teaching” these values by giving the team talks on each value—though if you asked the players, they might have called them “sermons”!

If you asked whom I modeled my coaching after, I would have, without hesitation, said, “Coach John Wooden.” With his “Pyramid of Success” hanging above my bed and pasted inside my practice-planning notebooks, I thought I was on my way to become the next Wooden.

Except, I wasn’t.

The Hard Truth

After one Saturday morning practice, years into coaching high school basketball in Tennessee, a parent dropped by to chat with me as I got ready to head out the door. Now, typically, when parents approached me, I would tense up. However, this particular parent was gentle and quiet; a man who lived by his Christian faith. So, I was ready to listen—well, at least more than usual.

The father asked if we could sit down to chat, as he had a concern he wanted to share with me. I could sense his uneasiness; what he was about to share with me was clearly difficult for him.

“When we brought our son to this school, we were really excited that he would have you as a coach. You have shared with me, the other parents, and the team what you value as a coach. As I look around the walls of your office and locker room, it is clear to me you admire and value many of the same things John Wooden and other great coaches value: Character.”

“While you value things like hard work, a positive attitude, self-discipline, and respect for others, the individuals you play in the games don’t seem to mirror many of these qualities at all. Laziness, negative attitudes, lack of discipline, and selfishness are behaviors that seem to be tolerated in your program.

“More importantly, when I see how you handle yourself in the heat of a game, I don’t see many of your values manifested in the way you act. Swearing. Yelling at referees. Poor body language. Harshly criticizing others. A man who doesn’t look or sound like someone who is in control. These are the things I see, what the other parents see, and most importantly, what the players see.”

Honestly, hearing that feedback was one of my most painful moments in coaching. Not because it wasn’t true; it was painful because I knew it was true. As I attempted to swallow the hard truth that the parent had just unloaded on me, all I could muster was, “Thanks for letting me know.”

When Your Behaviors Don’t Match Your Values

“Handouts and discussion were meaningless, unless team members could see lots of evidence of the ‘Pyramid’ in my own behavior as a leader and a coach. Your own personal example is one of the most powerful leadership tools you possess. Put it to good use: Be what you want your team to become.”

—Coach John Wooden

I wish I could tell this was the moment it all changed for me. I wish this “moment of truth” had hit me so hard that it became a turning point in my coaching journey. Except, it wasn’t. It would take a lot of people who cared about me a long period of time to let me in on the truths of my behaviors. It would take a lot of inner reflection on numerous occasions when I felt I had “hit rock bottom”.

The real truth is that every one of us—even the John Woodens of the world—needs these moments of truth daily. We don’t wake up one morning a great coach and a great person; it’s a never-ending process. An important moment for me was when I realized and acknowledged that my personal journey of self-improvement as a coach had no final destination. I would never “arrive”. And if the day ever came when I thought I had arrived as a coach, then it would be time for me to get out of coaching.

So, instead of spending the majority of my time and energy focusing on how to “fix my players” and “change their parents”, I started out on a journey to change myself. I knew I had to look at everything I did as a coach, both on and off the court, and I needed to see whether I was modeling the virtues of selflessness, discipline, and effort. It was time I stopped talking about character and started building character—in myself!

Develop Your System for Improvement

When we sit back and look at where we are as a person, and then we envision who we want to become, sometimes, it can be a little overwhelming. And the truth is that, if we listen to all the criticism we get as a coach (which, at times, can be a lot of criticism), it can get very confusing.

This is why we need to develop a system for improvement. This system will empower certain people to give us feedback, and will enable us to learn from the criticism and feedback of others. But, it also requires us to be mindful; to listen to what we know in our heart.

-J.P. Nerbun

Next week’s article will give you some very practical ways in which you can start to develop your system. If you don’t already, subscribe to the weekly newsletter so you don’t miss it.