During The Great Depression, a boy named John was growing up on farm in Indiana. Times were tough, but everyone in the family did what they could to help, and Dad raised the boys with a philosophy based on this quote:
Never try to be better than somebody else. Just try to be the best you can be; never cease trying to be the best you can be. That’s in your power. The other isn’t.
They worked themselves to exhaustion to make it, but ended up losing the farm to bankruptcy.
Despite his difficult childhood, John never gave up or settled. He focused on his studies—he wanted to be a teacher—and took up basketball as a hobby. He did what his dad told him: be the best you can be because that’s in your power.
By the time he graduated from college, he was one of the best basketball players in the country. The Boston Celtics offered him a spot on their team, but he declined—he still wanted to teach.
In his first year, he decided to help his school by becoming the coach for every sports team. The basketball team, though, wasn’t very good, and they had a losing season.
John decided to refine his coaching strategy—he didn’t like that his players had given their all, but still felt like losers after having a bad season. He went back to what his dad had told him and his brothers as a youngster: If you maximize your potential, you’ve won. It doesn’t matter what the scoreboard says.
He removed the word “win” from his coaching vocabulary and focused, instead, on helping his players simply become the best people they could be. Part of that was simply teaching them how to tie their shoes.
That first season as a basketball coach was a losing one, but it would be the last one he’d ever have for more than 29 years that included 10 NCAA titles.
This is the story of John Wooden, the man with the winningest record in the history of basketball and often considered the greatest coach—of any sport—to have ever lived.
How did he achieve such a legacy without ever focusing on winning? And what can you take away from his philosophy to get to the top of your own game?
The truth is, he did focus on winning, but his definition was different than you’d expect.
The Wooden Legacy: How Tying Your Shoes Right Makes You A Champion
When reporters would ask Wooden what his secret to winning basketball games was, he’d sometimes answer that he just made sure his player’s shoes were tied properly.
That sounds like a joke, but it was no joke to him. In his later years—after retiring from basketball—Wooden would speak a lot about his time coaching. And, while everyone wanted to know how he recruited players or ran drills, those things were never important to him.
Wooden never worried about winning basketball games. Instead, he reveled in being a teacher. And his lessons were designed to help his players become the most successful people they could become.
His theory was that if he could instill the discipline in his players to be the best they could in school, at home, and in life, he could consider himself successful, and winning basketball games would be a byproduct.
So, while he ran drills at practice just like any other coach, he spent just as much time teaching his players how to behave and succeed off the court. He had three simple rules every player had to follow:
- Never be late. This rule taught players to respect their responsibilities. A player who respects their role will take their responsibility seriously. You can’t become a champion if you can’t even show up to practice on time.
- You must always be neat and clean. This rule taught players to respect themselves. No matter what you do in life, you cannot consider yourself a success if you don’t respect yourself.
- No profanity. This rule taught players to control their more base urges. If they could handle themselves in this respect, they’d never put themselves in situations that would create bigger problems for themselves or the team.
Wooden’s rules were non-negotiable. There’s a famous story of a sloppily dressed Bill Walton being kicked off the bus to the airport on the way to an important matchup, and Wooden benched players in the middle of a game if he heard them swear.
So, it was no joke that Wooden won by teaching his players to tie their shoes properly. His success was in getting them to maximize their potential in all areas of life. Winning basketball games was a side effect.
How can you use the lessons Wooden left his players to become better at what you do?
Coach Wooden’s Practical Advice For Becoming The Very Best
Coach Wooden left us with all kinds of examples for getting to the top of your game, but if there’s one that stands out the most, it’s that winning is about improving yourself, not beating the competition. From the beginning of his career, he abandoned the idea of beating other teams and worked instead to get his players to improve themselves.
And he did that not by focusing on basketball, but by improving his players in all aspects of life. He learned when players respected themselves and played their top game in life, they won lots of basketball games.
You might not be an athlete—or even trying to become one—but Wooden’s philosophy can help you master anything. And you can follow his three rules from above in your own pursuits.
- Trying to become a better writer? You need to show up to practice on time. Set a period each day that you’ll sit down to write—regardless how inspired you feel—and do the work to get words on paper (or screen, as it may be). That’s what you have to do to coax the best work from yourself.
- Want a promotion at work? Clean up your act. That means more than dressing your best. It means keeping your desk tidy because you respect the work you do. It means cleaning up your diet and not drinking on work nights—putting good fuel in your system that doesn’t hold you back. Look sharp, be sharp as they say.
- Want to start a big, healthy habit or break a bad one? No swearing, then. Train yourself to exceed at smaller tasks to prove you can take on the bigger ones. By taking charge of the smaller details in your life, you set the stage for the bigger ones to sort themselves out automatically.
Whatever it is you’re trying to excel at, these are rules that focus your energy on improving yourself—the one and only thing you get full control over. And when you master the things you control, that’s real success.
Your homework today is to implement Coach Wooden’s rules for success into one area of your life you want to improve. How can you adapt the rules to your own pursuits?