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.


The Most Important Book for Any Athlete, Parent, or Coach

One of the most inspiring books that every athlete should read is The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. In this book, Coyle investigates places around the world where impossible amounts of talent spring up, seemingly with no explanation. Statistically speaking, talent should be spread out across the population. That is how most genetic statistics work. Sure, some populations tend to be taller, or fatter, or any other specific variation; but within that population, there is usually randomness to the statistics. For example, it is highly unlikely for everyone in a single neighborhood to be over seven feet tall. We all know by experience that genetic variations, such as height, are more spread out.

Yet, when it comes to talent, isolated pockets of expertise are far more common. Coyle calls these places “talent hotbeds,” and he found many in his investigation. He looked at a slew of these “hotbeds” in fields ranging from academics to skate boarding. In each, the ratio of elite performers was drastically out of the range of statistical probability. For instance, one humble tennis club in Russia, called Spartak, produced more top-20 women players than the entire United States combined!

How does sort of thing happen? According to one common understanding of talent, some have it, and some don’t. Yet, the existence of “talent hotbeds” flies in the face of that type of assessment. If talent were simply a genetic variation, then places like Spartak would be as common as the previously mentioned 7’0 and taller neighborhood. It simply wouldn’t happen. In the case of talent however, hotbeds are the rule, not the exception. What is even more interesting, though, is that Coyle found that these hotbeds all tended to share the same characteristics. Whether it was the soccer-crazed ghettos of Brazil, or an expensive world-class music academy, the students and teachers all seemed to be operating by the same set of principles.

In The Talent Code, Coyle assimilates these principles into three central ideas. The first of these is what Coyle refers to as “deep practice.” Deep practice means practice that is focused on challenging individuals at the very limits of their ability. Scientific research has shown that this type of practice causes physiological changes in the nervous system of those who engage in it. When someone consistently engages in a challenging activity, specific neural adaptations occur that create more proficiency at that specific task. One of the ways this happens is through a process called “myelination.” When individuals push themselves to the edge of their ability, a neural insulator, called myelin, wraps itself around neural circuits causing those patterns to be more efficient. As these patterns become more efficient, the ability to perform challenging tasks (such as hitting a curveball, or executing a back-hand-spring) becomes easier.

This is why practice makes us better. It comes down to science; when someone practices, their body is developing neural adaptations. The more one challenges themselves, the better they will get, period. This process never really stops for the elite performer. Extensive research by authorities on human expertise have shown that it takes about three hours of deliberate practice per day, for roughly ten years, to become world-class in any field.

The second principle that Coyle discusses is “ignition.” In order for someone to be willing to put in the ridiculous amount of work that it takes to be an elite performer, they have to want it really, really badly. Many times, this deep desire or “ignition,” happens as a result of being close to something really exciting. For example, Larry Fitzgerald was a ball boy for the Minnesota Vikings as a youngster. Experiences like that helped Fitzgerald develop the love for the game that drove him to his current success. Ignition also comes from experiencing the thrill of competition. Michael Jordan grew to love basketball during his boyhood battles against his brothers. He later attributed the dedication he had as an adult to the “love of the game” that he developed in his early years. Another way that we become ignited is when we see people whom we consider to be “like us,” achieve great success. Baseball in the Dominican Republic has almost become a religion as a result of the string of successful Major Leaguers that have come from the island. There are many examples like this. Coyle argues that having role models that we can identify with helps us to see our own potential. It creates a fire within us as we ask to ourselves, “they did it, why can’t I?” Regardless of how one becomes ignited (there are countless ways beyond what we’ve mentioned), it is abundantly clear that those who enjoy the highest levels of success have a fire burning within that causes them to work much harder than the average player.

The final principle that Coyle points out as universal to all great successes is “master coaching.” In all of his research, he noticed that the great performers always had great coaches who taught them. No matter how much someone works at something, if they aren’t working on the right things, they won’t reach the highest levels of success. Whether by luck or design, elite performers have the opportunity to cultivate their skill under the watchful eye of a “master coach.” The qualities of “master coaching” are too numerous to be covered in this article (we will get more in depth in another entry). To summarize though, Coyle points out that these coaches are often those who have come very close to achieving great success themselves. For one reason or another though, these coaches didn’t reach their objectives. Their failures caused them to ask questions, and in that process these coaches acquired golden nuggets of information that they are able to pass on to future generations. That story is true of Bill Walsh. It is also true of Tom Brady’s private coach, the late Tom Martinez (whom Coyle writes about in his book). These coaches tend to be more observant than instructional. They know how to say the right thing at the right time. In pursuing your goals, try to find a master coach to help you along your way. Make sure that you are always placing yourself in an environment in which you can develop your potential.

We can’t be too complimentary of Coyle’s book. Every parent, athlete, and coach should become familiar with its concepts. It is one of the major inspirations behind our company. We incorporate these concepts by providing an atmosphere that allows players to practice the exact skills that they will need on game-day. Greatness is cultivated just as much in the off-season as in the regular season, and we have built our business trusting in your commitment to improve all year long. We believe in exposing athletes to the best coaching available. Our objective is to create our own “talent hotbed,” as we see a disproportionate number of you go on to have success in high school, college, and beyond. Winning Edge is determined to help its athletes reach their goals. Reading this book will help you along your path. It will take the “mystery” out of elite performance. Once you understand and incorporate the principles of The Talent Code into your life, you will begin to accomplish goals that may seem impossible today. You can do it! The decision is up to you.

Click here to purchase The Talent Code

Click here to read Daniel Coyle’s blog (it’s a must-read!)


The Real Reason for Steve Young’s Success

Steve Young once told a Salt Lake City newspaper that great quarterbacks are born, not made. This is a very perplexing comment coming from Mr. Young. You see, Steve was a great athlete coming out of high school, but he was not yet a great quarterback. In fact, he started out 8th on the quarterback depth chart at BYU. Fortunately, Steve didn’t practice like he believed that great quarterbacks were simply born. Instead, Steve worked as if his life depended on his ability to cultivate his skill. Coaches saw Steve honing his throwing ability hour after hour, on his own time at the practice facility. In addition to the time he spent on his own, Steve was fortunate enough to have the most sophisticated offensive coaching staff in the nation at his disposal. He was learning how to be a quarterback from legendary coaches like Mike Holmgren, Norm Chow, Ted Tollner, and LaVell Edwards. These coaches have left a trail of Super Bowls, National Championships, NFL MVPs, Heisman Trophy Winnners, and All-Americans along their path.

You see, it wasn’t that Steve was blessed with some type of superior genetic makeup. Rather, Steve worked extremely hard in an environment that was so successful in developing quarterbacks that it came to be known as “The Quarterback Factory.” LaVell Edwards didn’t have so much success with quarterbacks because he was a genetic expert, finding the most biologically “gifted” athletes and enticing them to come to BYU. Rather, Coach Edwards assimilated a coaching staff and developed a culture at BYU that was second to none in producing great throwers. Names like Robbie Bosco, Jim McMahon, Ty Detmer, and others can attest to this.

The rest of Steve Young’s career flies even more in the face of the idea that great quarterbacks are born and not made. After college, Steve Young had brief stints with both the USFL and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Neither of these places had much success in cultivating quarterbacks, and Steve Young was no exception. His early years as a professional were underwhelming, at best, for someone who showed so much promise in college. In fact, by 1987, Young was considered a “bust” and the Buccaneers opted to draft quarterback Vinny Testaverde to replace him.

Fortunately for Steve (and for 49er fans), Bill Walsh saw promise in the struggling quarterback, and he made a trade to bring him to the 49ers. For the next three years, Steve had the opportunity to develop under the tutelage of the greatest offensive mind in the history of football, while sitting behind and learning from arguably the greatest quarterback of all time in Joe Montana. By the time Steve Young became the full-time starter, he was prepared to be an elite NFL quarterback. More than a decade later, Mr. Young retired as a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. What is clearly apparent in Steve’s story though, is this- he worked extremely hard in environments that cultivated his ability. Steve Young was not always “Steve Young.” This is good news for all of us. Whatever your aspirations are, find a coach who can help you develop into the type of player you want to be, and then relentlessly work to be the best you can be.

You can do it! The choice is up to you.