John-Wooden

John Wooden

There are three styles of coaching. There are coaches who really don’t do much. You don’t hear a lot about them because they don’t last very long. There are coaches who lead by fear, manipulation and intimidation and call it motivation. They throw tantrums, chairs and the occasional punch. Winning is the only thing. Losing is a disgrace. You do hear about them. Then there are the coaches who teach and do so with compassion and respect. It is the development of the person and the person’s skills and maturity that is important. You learn from both winning and losing. In Chinese philosophy, they are developing de, or virtue. You also hear about these coaches.

John Wooden was a remarkable basketball coach. I remember in one of his books on coaching he wrote that he never told his players to go out and win. He wanted them to do their best. He was proud of them when they played their best and still lost a game. He was upset with them if they won but didn’t do the best they could.

You can lose when you outscore somebody in a game. And you can win when you’re outscored.” John Wooden

There are schools with excellent academic traditions that struggle with the external definition of excelling in big time athletics. Perhaps the school has never won a football championship or even made it to the NCAA D1 basketball tournament. Students may be charged large fees to support programs at least partly because alumni want to stay at what they consider to be a high level. I think that sometimes after graduation, people lose sight of what was meaningful for most of the students. Instead they want to be able to brag like the big powers – the ones who are great farm teams for the pro leagues and whose players may not have to necessarily meet standards other students do, who are not paid for the sports they play, and are fungible. That is a generalization, but there is a long history of NCAA sanctions on programs (who were caught), stories of players whose lives don’t turn out so well who were given passes instead of responsibility and respect, etc. The emphasis on winning can easily cause us to lose the focus of teaching and instilling character and virtue. And most programs outside the power conferences lose money on the “big time” sports. A school needs to have as many sports opportunities as possible for students to ensure a well-rounded education. There are advantages to D3. Schools need to be more concerned with who they are and what they provide to their students rather than how they are judged by others on the bowl game and tournament stage.

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” – John Wooden

I would encourage schools to be concerned with the process more than the outcome. What are our priorities for all our students? What values do we want to be known for? When you focus on winning as the outcome, you almost inevitably encourage cheating. That is true not just in sports but in anything, for example, Enron. The culture there pretty much guaranteed that decent people would do illegal and unethical things to get ahead and stay in the game.

“If there’s anything you could point out where I was a little different, it was the fact that I never mentioned winning.” – John Wooden

The focus on winning is an external motivation. Those who don’t burn out and who have a love for something (a sport or any other skill) tend to be more internally motivated. You want to get better at what you do. You run your own race, not someone else’s, and the outcome takes care of itself. To focus on the external is to invite burnout and to lessen cooperation. When little children are allowed to come up with games on their own, they tend to be cooperative and egalitarian. We develop a sense of fairness early. But when adults become involved, competitiveness and hierarchies start to dominate, and it can get ugly rather quickly.

So what should a school’s mission be?

“In the end, it’s about the teaching, and what I always loved about coaching was the practices. Not the games, not the tournaments, not the alumni stuff. But teaching the players during practice was what coaching was all about to me.” – John Wooden

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