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Determining Success. From "The Essential Wooden". Written by John Wooden and Steve Jamison.

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

John Wooden is an iconic figure in sports coaching. He was the Head Men's Basketball Coach of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) for forty years. Some of his team's accomplishments include seven consecutive national championships, winners of the March Madness national championships for 10 out of 12 years, a winning streak of 88 games, and four “perfect seasons”. As a coach, he holds records that may never be broken - not that he cares for records.

John Wooden tried to win every game he ever played or coached. However, the way he measured whether or not he succeeded was unique.

Winning is often used to determine whether success has been achieved. Often the first question many parents or coaches will ask their child, student, or team is: “Did you win?”. And if you ask an athlete after their match or game “How did you go?” their first response is often “I won” or “I lost”. For many the winning or the losing describes the most important aspect of the outcome, but Wooden takes a different approach.

Wooden would rarely, if at all, talk about winning. Winning or losing said very little about whether his team was actually fulfilling their potential. In Wooden's opinion, a team that plays the worst basketball of their life and still wins should not be satisfied. Wooden also experienced the conundrum of playing an entire season without losing a single game. “That’s one of the reasons my stated goals at UCLA were not attached to the percentages of winning and losing. At the conclusion of a 30-0 season - “perfect” - how do I ask the team to improve on it? The team couldn’t improve on the record.”

The winning equals success mindset relies on an extraneous variable that is out of our control. Of course, we can control how much training we do prior to game day, but we have a limited ability to influence our opponent. If our opponent performs well then we can come off second best no matter how well we perform. This can lead to unwarranted feelings of failure and even an inability to determine what goals to set next. To judge success effectively, using a variable that is within our control is the most effective because it allows us to analyse how we have performed without the noise of extraneous variables muddying our assessment.

Winning equaling success and losing equaling failure is not the only ineffective way to judge success, Wooden says. Another common way to measure success is by comparing yourself with others. Wooden writes, “Never try to be better than somebody else, but never cease trying to be the best you can be. You have control over that. Not the other.”

We can use praise and criticism to judge how successful we are too. Again, praise and criticism are not entirely in our control and therefore not very useful. No matter how well we perform we can still receive criticism for something, whether or not it is warranted. Or, conversely, we can receive praise for performances that are undeserved. When a watching spectator complimented famous golfer Ben Hogan on his shot, Ben replied, “How can you know it was a great shot when you don’t know what shot I was trying to hit?” “Well, most praise is like that”, says Wooden. Praise and criticism often miss the mark, and like winning/losing or by comparing ourselves to others, they are partly out of our control.

There is one other downside to using the winning equaling success mindset and that is that winning is the outcome of doing other things right. “For me, success comes before victory. It is the first priority, the great goal”, says Wooden. Wooden understood that winning would take care of itself if other factors were there. He understood that focusing on the winning actually prevented the attention and focus from being put on what really mattered, which was finishing the race. “Don’t worry about the competition, don’t worry about a gold medal, or winning the race. Just focus on running the race that’s right in front of you”, he says. So not only is the winning/losing mindset a limited, uncontrollable, and indirect measure of success, Wooden believes it is also a mindset that can misdirect our attention and reduce our performance.

This leads us to what really matters and what defines success to Wooden - effort. Wooden’s definition of success is “success, as measured by each one of us individually, is the peace of mind derived from making the absolute and complete effort to do the best of which you are capable.”

Measuring our success through our effort fulfills all the criteria that other measures of success cannot. There is no limitation to the measure of effort. It is a measure that captures the most minimal to the most maximal of our potential. It is something we have total control over. We do not need to rely on what others think of us, how successful others are in comparison to us, and how our opponents' performance will be on the day. All we need to do is focus on putting in good effort to satisfy our own peace of mind. Judging success by how much effort we put in orients our focus to the race, not the medal. Consistently putting in effort over time leads to better performance which leads to a greater prevalence of winning. Effort is at the core of great performance.

Wooden went to great lengths to emphasise that winning or losing was not something players had to think about. He did this by rarely mentioning winning, if at all. He also taught himself to maintain emotional equanimity whether the team won or lost. It was impossible to tell from Wooden’s body language whether the team had just been defeated or had just won the championship game. He encouraged his players to do the same when they walked out of the change rooms after each game. And he would be more disappointed if the team didn’t play to their full potential and won than if his team reached their full potential and lost.

The benefit of focusing on effort helped players mentally. “I removed stress - the kind that comes from a fear of losing or an overeager appetite to win - by focusing exclusively on improvement and teaching the team that ongoing and maximum progress was the standard, our daily goal.” Wooden adds: “A talented and well-trained team embracing my philosophy is fearless and goes into battle fiercely dedicated to giving its total effort. Its members will not break down, get rattled, or succumb because of nerves. These team members will deliver; they will get the job done.”

Wooden tells how as a boy his father had taught him that each person faces a struggle which is more important than anything else, and that is the battle inside of us: the great struggle to be the best we can be. While giving it your best effort might sound simple, it most definitely is not. Wooden adds: “It is elusive, complicated, and extremely difficult."

From "The Essential Wooden". Written by John Wooden and Steve Jamison. Summary by Dan Fraser.

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