The late John Wooden, former UCLA basketball coach, amassed a record that may never be equalled. 10 NCAA Division I championships. 7 National championships in a row. 88 Consecutive victories. Over 7 seasons, between 1966 - 1973, his team lost a total of 5 games!
Yet, he never focused on winning: “you never heard me mention winning… My idea is that you can lose when you outscore somebody in a game, and you can win when you're outscored.”
He saw himself as a teacher first, emphasizing the importance of character and fundamentals to his players. He placed greater importance on practice than games, believing that if you were well prepared the results would take care of themselves. Despite working in a hyper competitive environment Coach Wooden preached patience and defined success as “...peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you're capable.”
If you shared these quotes with most business and sports executives, without attributing them to Coach Wooden, they would likely consider them to be soft, fluffy, unrealistic or quaint. Whether they were referring to championships or revenue goals, they’d tell you that in today’s fast-paced, hyper-competitive world teams need to be completely focused on growth/numbers/winning. Any employees or players who don’t get that will be left behind. Nothing personal, it’s “just business”.
If this “modern” approach to winning is so powerful, why do so many companies struggle to achieve sustained success? Why do so many leaders & coaches burn out in its pursuit? In studies where employees are given the choice between a significant raise and a new boss, why do the majority choose a new boss?
If the majority of coaches embrace this hardcore approach to winning, why have none of them come close to Coach Wooden’s record?
Is it luck or coincidence that the coach who never discussed winning is the winningest coach of all time?
Coach Wooden saw winning as an outcome, not a goal. He focused on attracting the right players, emphasizing their character and ability to contribute to the team culture above their individual talent. Coach Wooden didn't demand loyalty, dedication, respect, commitment, and passion from his players, he earned it by first demonstrating it to them. He held his players accountable for HOW they prepared and played, not how many points they scored.
John Wooden’s legacy extends beyond the basketball court. His players all describe the significant impact he made on their lives and their success outside of basketball. For Coach Wooden it was never “just business”, it was always personal.