Human Limits

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

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Posts Tagged ‘Pyramid of Success’

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.