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John Wooden

Hope for the best, but…
The truly great understand the importance of thorough preparation

The Greatest Coach of All Time (as selected by his peers) celebrates his 99th birthday today! Former UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden would be the first to tell you that “he” didn’t win 10 national championships, the young men he “taught” are responsible for those banners.

His teaching methods were often unconventional… but always effective.

Perfect example: The first day of practice at UCLA was always a day full of anticipation and excitement as the new recruits awaited the arrival of Coach Wooden, known affectionately as the Wizard of Westwood. As they waited, each wondered what secrets of the game, what strategies for winning would spring forth from the famous coach on Day One.

Abraham Lincoln, one of Coach Wooden's seven mentors, once remarked, "If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend six sharpening my ax." Evaluate your to-do list each day, and then figure out exactly what smalls steps need to be taken to complete each item. Don't worry if you don't see much progress at first - just remember that time spent in preparation makes the final result possible. “Please take off your shoes and socks,” Coach announced to the team,seating himself upon a locker room bench. “I’m going to show you the proper way to put them back on.” The new players looked at one another in disbelief – had the old man lost him mind? What on earth did this have to do with basketball? Not wanting to question their leader, they all complied and waited for what would come next.

“Now, when you pull on your sock,” he said showing them through example, “I want you to make sure that there are no wrinkles or gaps,” as he put his own socks on. “Make sure your heel is full seated in the heel of the sock; run your hand over the toes and make sure to smooth out any bumpy areas.” Then he showed each player how to properly lace his shoes and tie them snugly so that there was no room for the shoe to rub or the sock to bunch up

wooden3As Coach Wooden got up to leave the locker room for the gym, the players behind him were silent, still wondering what their coach could possibly be doing by starting out the season talking about shoes and socks. Here they were, the best schoolboy players in America, and this legend had just spent 30 minutes teaching them about shoes and socks.

Just then, Coach Wooden would turn around and, with a glint in his eye, say ‘That’s your first lesson. You see, if there are wrinkles in your socks or your shoes aren’t tied properly, you will develop blisters. With blisters, you’ll miss practice. If you miss practice, you don’t play. And if you don’t play, we cannot win.

“If you want to win Championships, you must take care of the smallest of details.”

Coach then walked away, his first practice complete.

Tips from the Great Ones

John Wooden understood the importance of the little things in terms of preparing for something bigger. Many people thought that he was a great coach because he had such a talented collection of players, but the students who played for him knew better: Coach Wooden was great because he focused on the small, basic tasks that are the building blocks of every major victory.

wooden4I have had the privilege of learning from John Wooden for more than 10 years now, and every time I visit with him, I learn something new. His secrets are rarely about anything dramatic but instead, are focused on the tiny details of each day that most of us overlook. Because he takes the time to look after the basics, Coach Wooden is prepared to tackle the larger issues that come his way with calmness, thoughtfulness, and wisdom. Those lessons are the foundation of his newest book, A Game Plan for Life: The Power of Mentoring, which was released today by Bloomsbury Press.

Each of his 10 National Championship seasons began with that first practice lesson on shoes and socks. When I asked him why he felt that was such an important starting point for his teams, he answered me with one of his famous proverbs: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

What is it that you need to make sure that you are prepared for today? What small steps do you need to take to make sure that you are properly equipped for a bigger task that lies ahead? Consider each goal on your list in its most basic form, and determine from there where you need to begin. Maybe it’s something as simple as cleaning your desk so that you have a clear workspace without distraction.
Maybe it’s making that phone call that’s been bugging you, so that your mind is not occupied with something other than the main task at hand. Take the time to smooth out all of the wrinkles that could cause blisters in your day.

Preparation doesn’t start when the buzzer sounds to begin the big game; it starts with the first action at the first practice on the first day of the season. Greatness is not achieved in a moment – it is the result of hundreds of small acts of preparation along the way. Just ask Coach Wooden.

P.S. For any of you who might be interested, a website was established to allow those who wanted to honor Coach Wooden to send him a happy birthday wish.

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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