Coach John Wooden

Life-Changing Lessons from the Greatest Coach in Sports History: John Wooden, Part Two

Early on in my college career, all I cared about was being an elite quarterback. I wanted to have all the stats and the rewards that come along with being a successful QB. In a very real way, being a successful quarterback with an NFL future was at the heart of my identity. I can’t tell you how bad this hurt my performance on the field. For starters, I never stayed at a single school longer than a year and a half in college. I was always transferring to another program, looking for greener grass. I wanted to go to someplace where the coaches would take me under their wing and groom me to become a great college quarterback – one that would get drafted into the NFL. I felt like my success was determined by outside factors. I was constantly focusing on what coaches were thinking about me and what that meant for my career, instead of just getting better. The ironic thing is that the more I focused on trying to please my coaches, the more I underperformed and convinced them to lose faith in me.

After a lot of soul-searching, almost a decade of research on the topic of sport psychology, and consistent competitive application of the principles that I have learned along the way, I have become a totally different player than I was back then. It didn’t all happen at once, though. It was a process. And I’m sure that I still have more growth on the horizon. But I learned that we perform best when we simply focus on being the best we can be. I’ll never forget the day that this really hit home for me. I was on a bus on the way to a game with the San Jose Sabercats when my close friend, and the then starting quarterback for the Sabercats, Mark Grieb, asked me a question. “Dan, if you do everything that you can to prepare for a game and in that game you execute to the best of your ability, and you still come up short, should you feel bad?” I thought for a second, then responded, “No, I don’t think you should.” Mark, who is arguably the greatest AFL quarterback of all time, said to me, “you’re right. That’s why you just have to do the best you can and let everything else go. I learned that right after college when I read Wooden’s book.” Mark was referring to the book, Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations. He told me that that book changed who he was as a player. He said that Coach Wooden’s advice helped him to be at peace with simply doing his best and that that attitude translated into him becoming a much more clutch player. He told me that there were times in college when he had faced the pressure and not responded well. Then, he changed his outlook and became a three-time Arena Bowl champion and the most efficient quarterback in league history.

San Jose Sabre Cats' QB Mark Grieb

San Jose Sabre Cats’ QB Mark Grieb


To those who watched, it must have seemed as though Mark just had the “it” factor. He had that perfect combination of genes that helped him perform best when it mattered most. But that isn’t how Mark thought of it. He hadn’t always handled pressure situations well. There was something else behind his ascendance. His “clutchness” was brought about by an evolution in the way that he thought about things.

Mark is done with his playing career now and has moved into the coaching ranks. Currently, he is the Head Coach for Menlo College in Northern California. Last Sunday, I texted him during the Super Bowl. We were both feeling bad for Peyton Manning. Here was a guy who is one of the greatest of all-time who was just getting killed out there. Nothing went right for Peyton. And, as you watched it, you just knew how bad the media was going to go after him the following week. I texted Mark that it wasn’t right that Peyton should take all the blame for the loss and he texted me back with this:
“It’s the deal you sign up for when you decide you want to be a QB. You get too much praise and too much blame.”

What Mark was saying, basically, was that you just can’t worry about what anyone else says. It’s just part of the ‘deal.’ This is the type of thing you’d expect to hear from a Wooden disciple. Wooden talked often about ignoring the criticism and the praise that you get as an athlete. He felt that all it could do was distract you from your goal of being the best you could be. Wooden wanted the ‘peanut gallery’ comments, whether good or bad, to be treated as white noise – as nonsensical background chatter that you just learn to ignore. Like Mark, he wanted his athletes to treat these distractions unemotionally – like a “deal you sign up for,” but that you don’t take to heart.

As athletes, we will always hear voices from the outside that don’t contribute to our success. Sometimes those voices can come from our own teammates, coaches, and even family and friends. But we have the choice of whether or not we let those voices into our psyche. When you decide, once and for all, to focus only on being your best (nothing more or less), you can let go of all of the pressure and opinions of everyone else. That’s when competition is fun. That’s when you are successful.

I have mentored a lot of young quarterbacks since my time as a struggling college athlete. Many of them come to me with concerns about their athletic future and about fears over whether or not their coach will put them on the field. One thing that I can’t express strongly enough to these young players is that there are no guarantees in sports. There is no safe place where you won’t have to compete for everything you have. Steve Young had to do it in college and in the NFL. So did Tom Brady. There are many more names in every sport that I could list that have had to fight for everything they’ve gotten. The bottom line is that YOUR ONLY SECURITY IS YOUR OWN COMPETENCE. If you raise your level of play high enough, it will be difficult for your coach to keep you off the field. On the other hand, if you don’t perform well, there is nothing that the friendliest of coaches can do. They have to find someone good enough to replace you. It’s their job. That’s why your best bet is just to get really good. You can do that by constant effort and deliberate practice. Drill yourself relentlessly. Remember, repetition is the mother of skill.

Once you accept the idea that your own competence is your only security in sports, you’re on your way to being a mentally tough player. You will get off of the never-ending treadmill of trying to please coaches and spectators and embrace the struggle and journey of constant personal improvement. I can promise you that if you do this, you will find a joy and meaning in sports that you haven’t found before. Struggle and adversity can bring out your best if you’re not afraid to face them. I wish you the greatest of successes in your athletic pursuits. I want you to fulfill all your goals and dreams. I cheer for the dreamer. I am one myself. It is my pleasure to serve you in your journey to become the best you can be.

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