John Wooden Portrait

Life-Changing Lessons from the Greatest Coach of All-Time

This is the first of a series of blogs about one of the all-time great figures in sports, the peerless Coach John Wooden:

It’s hard to find a more dominant role model in sports than John Wooden. Here is a guy who coached his basketball teams to national championships in ten out of his last twelve seasons at UCLA. During that stretch his teams won a record, seven national championships in a row, as well a staggering streak of 88 consecutive games. To put Wooden’s numbers in perspective, the coach with the second most championships had a total of four. Wooden has more than doubled the championship success of any other coach in the history of NCAA men’s basketball.

It is quite an impressive feat to more than double the total championships next greatest coach in history, isn’t it? I mean, think of it in terms of another long-held record, like Hank Aaron’s record of 755 career home runs. Could you imagine if another player beat that record by, say, 800 home runs? Statistically speaking, that’s exactly what John Wooden did in NCAA men’s basketball.

The most fascinating thing about all of this is that Wooden wasn’t focused on winning or on championships. In fact, he tried to avoid those words altogether when addressing his team. He purposefully avoided talking about “winning” because he believed that it would cause players to become tight as they worried about the outcome. Instead, Wooden defined success as “knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” I know that to many, this sounds like a cheesy adage propagated by kindergarten teachers to make kids feel better. But consider the source. I mean, who knows more about winning than John Wooden?

The secret to Wooden’s philosophy is that it enabled his team to let go of factors that they couldn’t control and improve what they could control. This type of focus leads to impervious mental toughness- the kind that can win 88 games and seven national championships in a row. Psychologists have a couple of terms that describe this kind of focus in athletes: “Mastery-Oriented,” and “Process-Focused.” A brief definition of each term is provided below:

Mastery-Oriented: (Synonyms: Task-Oriented Antonyms: Performance-Oriented, Ego-Oriented)

To be “mastery-oriented” means that your motivation for playing sports is to have fun and get better. Mastery-oriented athletes focus on personal progress above comparative progress. “Performance-oriented” athletes are just the opposite. They enjoy sports only when it allows them to feel superior compared to their opponents. They are focused on satisfying and protecting their ego. Mastery-oriented athletes, on the other hand, focus on constant improvement by continually pushing the boundaries of their abilities through deliberate practice.

Process-Focused: (Antonym: Outcome-Focused)

The process-focused athlete focuses their attention very narrowly during practice and competition. They focus only on the task at hand instead of the potential outcome and personal meaning of the competition. This enables them to free up psychological “bandwidth” to deal with what is actually happening and what they have a degree of control over. The process-focused athlete chooses to focus on a specific objective that is relevant within the confines of the competition itself (e.g. “staying between your man and the basket”). Outcome-focused athletes, on the other hand, feel more anxiety and distraction during play. Study after study has demonstrated that athletes that keep their attention channeled on the here and now experience greater levels of performance and fulfillment from their sport.

So, where do you think you fit on this continuum? Are you more “mastery” or “ego” oriented? Do you tend to focus more on the process of competition or on the outcome? The really cool thing about being “mastery-oriented,” and “process-focused” is that anyone can do it. The psychologists that developed these terms weren’t describing fixed traits. Rather, they were describing malleable habits of focus and personal meaning that athletes develop during their careers. If, after careful personal inventory of your own behaviors and attitudes, you find that you fit more into the “ego-oriented,” and “outcome-focused” camps, be encouraged that you can change. You can improve your habits and overcome the factors that lead to low confidence and poor performance. Start today by focusing on improving some small aspect of your game just for the sake of improvement. Then, when you have the opportunity to compete, focus on executing to the top of your ability rather than worrying the outcome. If you do your best, you should hold your head up high regardless of the outcome.

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