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.


WinningEdge Challenge for 2014

winningedge-2013-challengeAs the year draws to a close, it is a good time for every athlete to reflect on 2013. Think for a moment on the following questions. “What did I accomplish this year?” “What did I learn?” “How much of myself did I give to my team?” “What could I have done better?” “Did I have fun?” In asking yourself these questions, it is important to remember the following about your results: YOU EARNED THEM. The sooner each of us realizes that we are the source of our own success and failure, the sooner we can make changes for the better.

Think back to the beginning of 2013. If you could go back in time and make decisions differently, what would you change? Would you work harder? Would you play less video games? Would you spend more time at the gym, or on the practice field? How do you think your results would have been different this year if you could have made some of these changes? Would you have been more productive? Would your team have been more successful? Only you can answer these questions.

The reality is that we can’t change anything about last year. It’s over. But, we CAN do something about 2014. Right now is your greatest opportunity to make 2014 your best year yet. Right now you can make a commitment to give your all each day. Each day is an opportunity that will never come again. Don’t kid yourself; there is no “cramming” when it comes to being great. Commit to giving your best self to your goals and dreams. That is how you can live with no regrets. WinningEdge challenges each athlete to make the most out of 2014. You won’t be perfect. No one is. But you can consistently commit yourself to giving all you have. We promise that as you do, your success, your confidence, and your enjoyment of your sport will be greater than ever. Good luck this year! We can’t wait to see how much you improve!


The Champion’s Focus

The past six months in sports have been some of the most inspiring and exciting in memory. We have seen meteoric rises in stature. Names like Victor Cruz and Jeremy Lin have exploded onto the national scene. Others, like Alex Smith and Tim Tebow, have proven their doubters wrong. What’s the common link between all of these stories? One word: BELIEF. All of these athletes believed that they could perform at an elite level.

victor-cruzHere’s what Super Bowl champion wide receiver, Victor Cruz, had to say about the mindset that made him go from not being drafted in 2010, to having the best year for a receiver in New York Giants history, “Never let anyone tell you no, never let anyone tell you that you can’t make it or that you can’t do something. Always strive for greatness and do your best. A lot of people told me I couldn’t make it [. . .] Just maintain focus and do everything you can to make it happen. If you really have the drive and determination, you’ll make it.” Notice that Cruz didn’t say, “If you really have the talent, you’ll make it.” Instead he talked about relentless determination backed by self-belief.

Here’s what Tim Tebow has to say about it, “As a competitor and an athlete, you have to believe in yourself. And you have to believe in the people who believe in you.” Tebow’s statement about believing those who believe in you is very important. There will always be plenty of people who say that you can’t make it. Top performers learn to ignore negative influences and focus the things that make them believe in themselves. They know that you can only do something if you have the faith that you can do it.

Michael JordanMichael Jordan said it this way, “you have to expect things of yourself before you can do them.” Everyone knew that when Michael Jordan touched the ball, he expected to put it in the hoop. Muhammed Ali had that same type of confidence. He went as far as predicting the round in which he would knock his opponents out, even when no one else in the world thought he had a chance. Muhammed Ali chose to believe in himself; that’s what drove his success. Ali had this to say about developing belief in yourself, “It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.” Expressing belief in yourself, even when you aren’t totally confident, will lead to confidence in the long run. Don’t take our word for it, take it from guys like Ali and Jordan.

The combination of choosing to focus on the things that cause you to believe, and disregarding doubts, wherever they may come from, are what fuels the great successes in the world. Like Victor Cruz said, “maintain [your] focus, and do everything you can to make it happen.” The combination of unshakeable confidence and relentless commitment to achieving your goals will help you accomplish what may now seem impossible. You can do it! The choice is up to you.


Are Elite Performers Born or Made?

iceberg-illusionMost of us have had the experience of seeing someone perform at an extremely high level and having the feeling that that person is fundamentally different from the rest of us. We may see this type of performance while watching the Olympics, or some other world-class event, and suppose that the participants are “gifted” or “special.” I imagine that that is how most people felt when they saw Mozart composing his own symphonies at age 5, or Tiger Woods sinking 30-foot putts as a toddler. Certainly, geniuses such as these must be born with the ability to perform such feats… or are they? You see, most of us fall victim to what Dr. K Anders Ericsson (the world’s leading authority on expert performance) calls the “iceberg illusion.” We can see the masterful performance before us, but, like an iceberg, we are unable to see the huge mass underneath the surface. In the case of Mozart and Tiger Woods, these young prodigies received thousands of hours of practice before they were even five years old. Both were trained by parents who were experts in training their specific skills. Most of us never think about what’s under the surface of an elite performance. However, when we do look under the surface, we find that the performers are not extraordinarily gifted. To the contrary, they are extraordinarily prepared.

Dr. Ericsson discovered the “iceberg illusion” by spending the greater part of his life analyzing what separates expert performers from the rest of us. In one co-authored paper he wrote, “consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born.” If that’s the case, then how are these superstars “made.” Many of you may have already heard of something called the “10,000-hour rule.” This rule says that elite performers do not reach the pinnacle of their field until they have practiced their craft for 10,000 hours. Ericsson is a proponent of this rule, but he believes it is more complicated than that. 10,000 hours of any old type of practice will not yield world-class results. The 10,000-hour rule only works if the individual engages in what Ericsson calls “deliberate practice.” Deliberate practice is practice that is focused on developing relevant skills at the edge of one’s ability. Its impact can only be seen as performers consistently focus on attaining higher levels of mastery in their training. In practically every case, a top performer has been guided through their years of “deliberate practice” by an expert coach.

The great news about Ericsson’s research is that it shows us that we can all achieve greatness. The bad news (or at least the news that brings us back to earth) is that in order to be the best, we have years of sacrifice guided by demanding coaches ahead of us. Our advice is to find something that you love to do, and don’t let anything stand in the way of developing yourself into the type of person that can achieve your dreams. You can do it! The choice is up to you.