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The wisdom of Wooden – offering the right amount of coaxing and criticism

Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden dominated NCAA college basketball for 12 years. Here are a few leadership lessons on how he did it.

March Madness coverage is upon us and with it comes the numerous historical references to teams, coaches and players from previous eras. When it comes to coaches, John Wooden’s legacy is perhaps the best known, and for good reason – his UCLA teams won 10 titles in a 12-year span.

The Seth Davis biography, “Wooden: A Coach’s Life” highlights the many leadership and team-building skills that made Wooden so successful. Whether you’re leading a sports team, a company, or a family, Coach Wooden’s advice can be used in almost any setting:

Always be teaching, but keep it brief. In his last season, Wooden allowed two psychology professors, Roland Tharp and Ronald Gallimore, to observe his practices. They attended 30 hours of practices and recorded 2,326 discrete acts of teaching. Here’s Tharp’s summary:

His teaching utterances or comments were short, punctuated, and numerous. There were no lectures, no extended harangues… He rarely spoke longer than 20 seconds….The major findings of our coding scheme can be summarized as follows: 75 percent of all utterances carried information, much of which was repetitive. Minimal use of praises and criticisms.

You’ll win with star performers who’ve learned humility. A star from Wooden’s last championship team in 1975 – Marques Johnson – was a 6-foot-5 power forward who was simply overmatched in the title game against Kentucky, a team that had three 6-foot-10 men in its lineup. Johnson was benched for a while but instead of sulking, he cheered wildly. “It wasn’t about me and my minutes,” said Johnson. “It was like, we need to win this game by any means necessary.”

Don’t forget to have fun. Wooden had a reputation for excellence in every way which usually made him come off as stern and stoic. But his players said he did loosen up in his final season of 1975.

Freshman guard Raymond Townsend was playfully taking half-court shots one day after practice. In his younger days, Wooden would have probably scolded the young player for horsing around.

But not this time. Wooden, who was 64 at the time, asked Townsend for the ball. The coach took his own half-court shot – and made it. “Child’s play,” he said to Townsend, before walking away. The wisdom of Wooden.

Have a great week.

Kindest regards,

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