From the Socks Up

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The following article appeared in the November 2004 issue of Science of Mind magazine (www.scienceofmind.com).

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From the Socks Up:
The Extraordinary Coaching
Life of John Wooden

By Mitch Horowitz

For John Wooden, it all begins from the socks up.

On the eve of his ninety-fourth birthday, the man considered America’s “winningest coach” recalls a simple, but decisive routine that he used with each new season’s players during his twenty-seven years of coaching UCLA’s legendary basketball team to unprecedented victory.

On the first day of practice, the coach would tell his hotshot recruits, “Gentleman, today we’re going to figure out how to put our shoes and socks on.” Some players would blanch. Wooden would calmly explain that most players are benched for blisters, and the easiest way to avoid them is to pay attention to the basics. He would meticulously show them how to roll up their socks and tighten their laces. “I wanted it done consciously, not quickly or casually,” he said. “Otherwise we would not be doing everything possible to prepare in the best way.”

It is pure Wooden – simple yet ingenious, zeroing in on what really matters most. A coach of extraordinary achievement – he led UCLA to an unequalled ten national championships, eighty-eight consecutive victories, and a more than 80% win record – Wooden continues to inspire unusual loyalty nearly thirty years after his retirement. Since leaving the basketball court, Wooden has become a twenty-first century Will Rogers – a man whose straightforward words and unadorned style of living exercise enormous pull on those around him. His 1997 book of observations, Wooden, is one of the top-selling titles of its kind. In 2003, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Today, athletes, reporters, and everyday people alike dote on him for advice – though Wooden prefers to speak of “suggestions” or “opinions” rather than “advice.”

And his suggestions are often disarmingly simple – lessons culled from childhood years on an early 20th century farm in Centerton, Indiana. Indeed, Wooden is a living link to an era in which wisdom was hard-won and time-tested, in which it rarely came from the literature of self-improvement that is so prevalent today. “I tried to rely on the teachings of my father to begin with,” Wooden told Science of Mind, introducing one of his key precepts: “Don’t be too concerned with regard to things over which you have no control, because that will eventually have an adverse effect on things over which you have control.” In other words, put your shoes on properly before you start to worry about what the other team is up to.

Valuing the Basics

Wooden believes the things within a person’s control – such as attention to detail and dedication to hard work – are more important than the talents with which someone is born. “I’ve had some players that didn’t have great natural ability,” he says, “but they learned to do things properly – and maybe they couldn’t do them with the grace and quickness that the more natural athlete could, but they would still get the job done. You couldn’t have great teams if they were all like that, but I don’t think you can have a great team without some like that.”

While Wooden coached many superstars – including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton – he never wavered from a dedication to the basics – repeatedly drilling players in passing, shooting, and running. “If you get to the point where you think you know it all, you’re going to stop learning,” he says. “I would not permit fancy stuff in the teaching of my players at all.” It is another Wooden hallmark: he speaks rarely of coaching, and more frequently of teaching.

In an era in which sports is increasingly dominated by flash and cash over substance and values, Wooden’s folk wisdom may appear to mark him as a man from the past – until one realizes what is so universal in his enduring appeal: His credo is available to everyone, and it comes down simply to hard work and preparation, both mental and physical. “Failure is not making the effort to execute near your own particular level of competition,” he will say, prepping a listener for one of his most oft-used expressions: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Now, in some cases, the other fellow is just better than you are, and that’s no failure.”

A Gentle Strength

Wooden admires the everyman who achieves excellence through steadiness and continual effort. It is unsurprising that the figure he most reveres is perhaps history’s greatest underdog: Abraham Lincoln. “I think of Lincoln as the common man,” he said. “He came up under very difficult circumstances in many ways; educated himself in many ways; but Lincoln never put himself above others.”

Wooden quotes many expressions from memory, and a favorite of his fromLincoln is: “There’s nothing stronger than gentleness.” Wooden witnessed this principle in the life of his father, Joshua – and it became, in a sense, his north star as a coach. “I saw my father in rather simple ways that somehow had a deeper effect. You might see fractious horses that some people would be having trouble getting gentled down; maybe they were stuck in a gravel pit and were pulling against each other back and forth, and I saw dad walk over to them, and they were stomping and frothing at the mouth, and dad would talk to them, pat them, and before long they gentled down and then he’d take the reins and they’d pull right out. I never thought about it at the time, but as years went by and I looked back I saw there was a gentleness about him. Physically he was not a heavily muscled man, but he was a strong man because he knew how to use his strength in different ways to maneuver. But in these other things, in his speaking and in his corrections, there was a gentle way.”

Wooden would use this approach to control his temper during various storms – such as an episode years ago when a rival coach falsely accused him of using profanity on the court. Though he was tempted to angrily confront his accuser, he let the incident pass. “You never really forget, but I think you can forgive without forgetting.”

A Man of Faith

Another influence on Wooden was the religion of his youth – and the girl he shared it with, Nell Riley. “I was baptized with the young woman who was to be my wife later on, the only girl I ever dated, in 1927,” Wooden says. “We were juniors in high school and she was the only girl I ever went with and we had a relationship and she suggested that we join at the same time. I don’t want to say that I accepted Christ at that particular time because of the fact that I did this primarily because she wanted me to. But my acceptance came gradually as time went by.”

Wooden’s 53 years of marriage to his high school sweetheart was a partnership that would mark his life – and present him with his most anguishing challenge following his wife’s death in 1985. Although she had been ill for several years, Wooden professed to be totally unprepared for Nell’s passing. He was reported to be depressed, lingering around his house and rarely venturing outside, friends said. But eventually his famously indomitable spirit prevailed.

Wooden took great solace from the Bible, a copy of which sits in each room of his home today. His favorite passage, 1 Corinthians 13, reads in part: “Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” It is yet another theme that marks his life: “I do believe that adversity makes you stronger,” he says, “And I do believe in many ways, perhaps not in financial ways, that adversity from hard work does make you able to accept the more difficult things as they would come along later in your life.”

Today, religion continues to be major factor in Wooden’s life. He reads Scripture daily, attends the First Christian Church of his childhood, and professes deep admiration for evangelist Billy Graham, who is a personal friend.

In matters of faith and in other respects, Wooden is unmistakably traditional. Coaching during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, Wooden was sometimes considered conservative by the standards of the day. When a player once asked him to cancel practice to honor an anti-Vietnam protest, reports have it that the look on the coach’s face could have curdled milk. Practice continued as planned. And yet Wooden possessed an extraordinary touch for dealing with players from a wide range of backgrounds and outlooks, including the seven-foot-plus Lewis Alcindor, the future superstar who would change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. “A reporter in my presence asked one of my black players: ‘Tell me about your racial problems,’ and he said: ‘You don’t know my coach, do you? He doesn’t see race at all, he sees ball players’ – and he turned and walked away from him. I was very proud of that.”

Wooden would later tell the Los Angeles Times, “I learned more from Alcindor [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] about man’s inhumanity to man. I never realized how cruel people can be … Like how people would make remarks with his hearing – ‘Look at the big freak!’ and things of that sort.”

Belief In Self

For the all the fame and publicity that came with UCLA’s success, Wooden has always been motivated by an inner force. “I do believe that the only pressure that amounts to a hill of beans is the pressure you put on yourself,” he says. In fact, while coaching for UCLA, he reportedly never earned more than $32,500 a year for the job.

Today, Wooden occupies the same unassuming San Fernando condominium that he shared with his wife since the early 1970s. A man of uncomplicated tastes, he politely refuses most gifts and has resisted corporate entreaties for product endorsements. Visitors have noted the modesty of his home relative to his fame, a sign that his values matter more than wealth. “If I don’t feel comfortable doing it,” he has written, “then I’m not going to do it, regardless of how much money they want to pay me…I may not have their money, but I do have my peace of mind.”

In this sense, Wooden has found lasting comfort in the core attribute that he spent a lifetime cultivating in players: belief in self.  “In times of crisis, the best players won’t start forcing things and getting away from what got them there in the first place. I believe it’s the confidence they have in themselves, without being over-confident. The better ones believe in themselves, probably more than anything else.”

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Email Mitch at :mitch.horowitz@us.penguingroup.com.