Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Archive for February, 2014

Pyramid of Success

Wooden: A Coach’s Life

Today’s post is a reflection on John Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success” shown below.  Many versions of it are available on the web; the one below is my favorite.  It also includes 12 of the many sayings Wooden used to motivate his players and teach life lessons to essentially anyone who was interested.



The motivation for this reflection was reading “Wooden: A Coach’s Life” by the noted basketball writer Seth Davis.  This is a terrific and even scholarly biography with incredible footnotes and original interviews and insights about the great coach.  I rank this book as one of the top four sports biographies I have ever read, and I have read 100s over the last 45 years starting at about age 10.  It is just as good as “When Pride Still Mattered”  about Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss and also biographies about Casey Stengel and Babe Ruth by Robert Creamer.  All four books do a great job of telling the stories of these men. They all take a deeper dive into how their sporting achievements and personal narratives reflected the bigger picture of what was going on in America and even the world as lived out incredible lives.

Wooden lived to be almost 100 and his life spanned the end of traditional rural non-mechanized America beginning before World War 1 all the way to the present. He was the first man in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and coach.  His teams won 10 of 12 NCAA titles in the 1960 and early 1970s.  He won with small teams, medium sized teams, underdogs and with supremely talented players like Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Bill Walton.  But he did not really win big until he was in his early 50s and had been coaching for 30 years.  During his nearly 35 year retirement he then went on to be a sort of cultural Yoda (using the pyramid) to teach the world his ideas about achievement and success.

A “Coach’s Life” does a great job recounting the deeply religious and upright St. John version of John Wooden that is typically promulgated by Wooden’s many admirers.  It also shows that John Wooden was not perfect (he never claimed to be), had a number of faults and turned a blind eye to things players and boosters did over the years.  Which brings me to the Pyramid of Success.  Wooden developed the Pyramid as a high school teacher and coach during the 1930s in Indiana.  He claimed he used it to help students, parents and players understand the value of doing their best vs. becoming focused on some arbitrary definition of success like grades and “winning or losing”.

However, as I read the book I wondered if the Pyramid was more about Wooden reminding himself that he needed to constantly harness his tremendous competitive energy, drive and skill to become a better coach and “teacher”, his preferred description of what he did.   During the 1920s and 1930s Wooden was a fiercely competitive player and coach who sometimes let his emotions get the best of him.  He was a superb pool hustler and golfer. He was a noted bench jockey of opposing players and officials.  Bill Walton has called Wooden one of the two greatest trash-talkers he ever saw (the other was Larry Bird).  Wooden could also routinely beat his all-American players at free throw shooting contests in his late 50s and early 60s.  At some level Wooden was an ultimate alpha-male who did not become a great coach until he mastered his emotions and channeled his energy. For example, he shortened practice in the early 60s and became even more obsessed with simplifying what he taught is players vs. extending practice to “do more”.  If you look at the Pyramid of Success in the context of John Wooden talking to himself, it is a road map of how he mastered his emotions, focused his energy and got better over time.

One of Wooden’s favorite sayings goes something like “control yourself so others don’t have to”, and in the final analysis maybe that is what the Pyramid of Success is all about.



Beyond Balance: The Protopopovs

During the 2012 Summer Olympics I did a number of posts on all-time greats like the sprinter Bob Hayes and perhaps the most underrated distance runner in history Bob Schul.  Both won gold medals in the 1964 games at Tokyo.


One of the points I have made with both men is that when you make a few adjustments for equipment, their performances are probably as good as the best performances are today.  The same can be said of the miler Jim Ryun and of course Secretariat is perhaps the greatest and most dominant “athlete” ever.   One shining example from the Winter Olympics is the incomparable Russian figure skating pair, the Protopopovs who dominated pairs skating in the 1960s with golds in 1964 and 1968.


The video clip below shows their winning performance in 1968 at Grenoble, France.  It is a long clip but note their incredible balance, tempo, synchrony, and timing.  The lines of their skating are absolutely beautiful.   You will see more impressive throws and acrobatic maneuvers in the 2014 skating events, but you will not see a more beautiful performance.  Enjoy watching the Protopopovs!




Supplements: To Take or Not to Take?

There are a large number of vitamins and other supplements that are purported to improve metabolic health, cardiovascular risk and perhaps have anti-aging effects.  The idea is that is that these products do things like lower blood pressure, improve blood lipids, and reduce the risk of diabetes.   The consumer market for these products is huge with about 27 billion dollars spent in the U.S. during 2009.


Do They Work?

There are a couple of ways to answer the do they work question.  The first way is to survey the population and see what the health of users and non-users looks like.   When this was done in about 300 multiple supplement compared to about 600 non-users, the supplement users came out ahead for many variables associated with better long term health.


Dietary supplements consumed on a daily basis by more than 50% of Multiple Supplement  users included a multivitamin/mineral, B-complex, vitamin C, carotenoids, vitamin E, calcium with vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, flavonoids, lecithin, alfalfa, coenzyme Q10 with resveratrol, glucosamine, and a herbal immune supplement. The majority of women also consumed gamma linolenic acid and a probiotic supplement, whereas men also consumed zinc, garlic, saw palmetto, and a soy protein supplement……After adjustment for age, gender, income, education and body mass index, greater degree of supplement use was associated with more favorable concentrations of serum homocysteine, C-reactive protein, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and triglycerides, as well as lower risk of prevalent elevated blood pressure and diabetes.


Pretty convincing, except who knows what other health behaviors the supplement users were engaging in.  For example, they might have been exercising more or eating a generally healthier diet than non-users.


So, what happens to the blood pressure, lipids and glucose levels to matched groups of people given multiple supplements prospectively?  Do they make a difference?  When about 60 generally healthy middle aged men and women were randomized to receiving either a standard multivitamin or a multivitamin and supplement cocktail containing resveratrol, quercetin, carnitine, alpha-lipoic acid, curcumin, pomegranate extract, fish oil, cinnamon bark, green/white/black tea complex and sesamin:


“The main outcome measures were arterial stiffness, endothelial function, biomarkers of inflammation and oxidative stress, and cardiometabolic risk factors. Twenty-four weeks of daily supplementation with 10 dietary supplements did not affect arterial stiffness or endothelial function in nonobese individuals. These compounds also did not alter body fat measured by DEXA, blood pressure, plasma lipids, glucose, insulin, IGF-1, and markers of inflammation and oxidative stress. In summary, supplementation with a combination of popular dietary supplements has no cardiovascular or metabolic effects in non-obese relatively healthy individuals.”


What About Vitamins?

The data on vitamins is generally worse.  At least one analysis that has evaluated all of the studies on vitamin E supplementation suggests that relatively high doses might increase all-cause mortality.  Others have concluded that there is likely no effect.  There might also be issues with vitamin A.  When the effects of vitamin C and vitamin E on longevity and lifespan are evaluated in “model organisms” like fruit flies and rodents, the data is all over the place.  Here is a summary for the vitamin E studies:


Twenty-four studies were included in the final analysis. While some studies suggest an increase in lifespan due to vitamin E, other studies did not observe any vitamin E-mediated changes in lifespan in model organisms. Furthermore there are several studies reporting a decrease in lifespan in response to vitamin E supplementation. Different outcomes between studies may be partly related to species-specific differences, differences in vitamin E concentrations and the vitamin E congeners administered. The findings of our literature review suggest that there is no consistent beneficial effect of vitamin E on lifespan in model organisms which is consistent with reports in human intervention studies.


To Take or Not To Take?

Based on the summaries above, it is hard to make a convincing argument that anyone without evidences of a primary vitamin deficiency should be taking vitamins.  This is especially true if your diet is high in fruits, veggies, “good fat” and you are physically active.  Pretty much everything vitamins and supplements are supposed to fix can be optimized with a reasonable diet and plenty of exercise.



Guest Post: Psychology Today

Psych Today

click for article

Negative Splits

Like a lot of people, I get regular e-mail updates from my alma mater and last week I learned that Rick DeMont had been named head swimming coach at the University of Arizona.   In addition to being a great coach, DeMont was a superb swimmer and is an accomplished painter, but what struck me was the following statement in the press release:


“…..DeMont also pioneered negative split swimming, which utilizes the strategy of swimming a faster second half of a race than the first.”


I have also been reading a new comprehensive biography of the late UCLA coach John Wooden by Seth Davis.   The book describes in detail how Wooden adopted the full court press at the suggestion of his assistant coach Jerry Norman.   The goal was not so much to create steals and easy baskets; the goal was to control the tempo of the game, and frequently UCLA simply exhausted the other team and pulled ahead during the second half.   Sort of a negative split approach to basketball.

The concept of negative splits might also be applied to other things and developing a “negative split mindset” is maybe one way to think about managing your effort to optimize performance.  In endurance sports negative splitting can be learned by engaging in specific training sessions designed to develop a sense of pace, rhythm, effort and controlled fatigue.   The classic way to do this is via something called a descending set of intervals.   For example a runner might run a set of 4x1200m with a 400m jog between the 1200s.  In other words the three laps of a standard 400m track fast with 1 lap of jogging between.  The idea would be to run each of the 1200s a bit faster.  In addition to the time targets, the real goal is be in control throughout and sort of sneak up on a maximum but relaxed and purposeful effort during the final  fast 1200.   This general scheme can also be adapted to almost any kind of structured physical activity or exercise training.  Your imagination is the only limitation.

Can negative splitting also apply to your work day, your work week and perhaps other elements of your life?   Is it possible to learn to slowly improve over time by managing your effort?  Can consistency level out the inevitable valleys in life but at the same time serve as a platform for more frequent peaks?  The concepts of rhythm, balance and tempo are all essential elements of high level swimming and basketball.   They also apply to music and other performing arts, and I would argue that by learning how to negative split via exercise training you can develop a skill set that carries over to other things.  Learn to control your pace so it does not end up controlling you.