Real Leaders

9 Leadership Techniques from ESPN’s Coach of the Century

ANAHEIM, CA - DECEMBER 13: Former coach John Wooden laughs with members of the UCLA Bruins, including his great grandson Tyler Trapani #4, after the John R. Wooden Classic game against the DePaul Blue Demons at Honda Center on December 13, 2008 in Anaheim, California. The Bruins defeated the Blue Demons 72-54. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Google “50 greatest coaches of all time,” and you’ll see a lot of debate on who is number two. Most lists have one name at the top: John Wooden. ESPN even named John Wooden the “Coach of the Century.”

So, what does a man who coached his last game in 1975 and passed away in 2010 have to say about how to be an excellent leader and coach, first of yourself, then of your team and business — coaching them all the way up?
The answer isn’t complicated. In fact, it’s quite simple: Be a teacher.
That is how the greatest coach of our time described himself: “I am just a teacher.” As a teacher, Coach understood human capacity, capability, and behavior. He brought out the best in individuals and teams, not by being an inspiring leader but by being an inspired teacher.
Coach taught character, teamwork, humility, and the process for the pursuit of excellence. Yes, he inspired, coached, and led others to go beyond what they thought they could accomplish. But, primarily, he taught them.
How? He followed these nine teaching techniques.

1. Be an expert.

No one studied the topics of basketball and life more than Coach, and he remained a student of each until the day he died. He demonstrated and modeled lifelong learning in the truest sense. He never let the pursuit of winning interfere with the pursuit of learning and teaching.
Every summer throughout his career, he’d conduct a research project on one aspect of the game he felt he and the team needed to improve. He looked at rebounding, free-throw shooting, and defensive strategy. He studied socks, shoes, and even shower solvent. Everything mattered. He never let his ego interfere: He constantly consulted with other coaches and performance experts who could provide the knowledge and understanding he lacked.

2. Be direct and precise in your explanations.

Coach was so exceptional at being direct he was the subject of an academic study. In a 2004 issue of The Sport Psychologist, Ronald Gallimore (UCLA) and Roland Tharp (University of California, Santa Cruz) published a revalidation of their 1976 case study: “What a Coach Can Teach a Teacher, 1975-2004: Reflections and Reanalysis of John Wooden’s Teaching Practices.”
They analyzed Coach’s afternoon practices for content, time, and direct communication with his team, and they recorded 2,326 teaching and instructional acts from Coach during 30 hours of practice. They found that more than 75 percent of his communication was instructional. Yet Coach never spoke for more than 20 seconds, and his demonstrations took no more than five seconds. Think about that when you’re preparing your next PowerPoint.

3. Be highly organized.

Gallimore and Tharp found that Coach’s practices were “exact and unvarying” in order to fit into his precise schedule. Individual work began at 3 p.m., and team practice ran from 3:29 to 5:29 p.m. No one dared to be late — ever.
Prior to that, Coach spent two hours every day with his assistants planning those practices. Each practice was recorded, tracked, and analyzed to see where improvements could be made, from the whole to the parts, right down to the minute. He had 27 years of well-organized notes and data he constantly referenced. No wonder he, his coaches, and his teams were always getting better.

4. Teach by example.

Coach was always on the floor with the team. Even in his final years as a coach, he could demonstrate proper footwork and balance. When Coach saw something not being done correctly, he would stop the action and follow a three-step process:

  • Demonstrate the right way to do it.
  • Demonstrate what the player or team was doing wrong.
  • Demonstrate the right way to do it again. 

To eliminate repetitive mistakes, he was patient and maintained self-control when his team didn’t correct mistakes quickly. He was never in too big a hurry or too caught up in achieving immediate results to jeopardize doing something the right way. He never varied from the plan. If something didn’t work quite right, he made a note to work on and fix it the next day.

5. Teach by repetition.

Coach followed four laws of learning: explanation, demonstration, imitation, and repetition. As you might have guessed, Coach placed extra weight on repetition to create a correct habit that could be produced under pressure.
To ensure goals were achieved, he took these laws and expanded them to eight: explanation, demonstration, imitation, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, and repetition. He believed you could never work on the fundamentals too much. He never had to get back to basics — because he never left the basics.

6. Plan for the individual and the team.

“You can’t improve the team if you don’t improve each player,” Coach told us. “You have to know them to be able to do that, not only their skills but also their temperaments, attitudes, and what’s going on in their lives. How they think and what gets the response you’re looking for.”
Coach always knew where and how his players needed to improve, and he and his assistants were always ready with a plan and capable of teaching what was required for that improvement. He tracked his players’ practice routines to see where ongoing development was needed. This allowed him to anticipate mistakes before they happened.

7. Create a positive and disciplined environment.

Coach understood the difference between discipline and punishment. Punishment creates antagonism, and it’s hard to get positive results when you antagonize. You discipline to help, to correct, to teach, and to improve. Effective discipline is about learning and gaining improvement through correction and repetition. Those corrections should never be personal or degrading in any way, and new information should be aimed at the act, never the actor.

8. Break complex issues into simpler details.

Coach explained his teaching process and approach this way: “The greatest holiday feast is eaten one bite at a time. Gulp it down all at once, and you get indigestion. I discovered the same is true in teaching. Teach what you want and need to do best one simple step at a time. Little things done well are probably the greatest secret to success. If you do enough small things right, big things can happen.”

9. Teach more than your game.

To Coach, character was the foundation of individual success, a successful team, and a successful life. Persons with good character were the kind of people Coach believed made better teammates and a stronger team. Coach believed it was his job to model good character every day, in every situation.  
As Coach said: “Everyone is a teacher to someone; maybe it’s your children, maybe it’s your neighbor, maybe it’s someone under your supervision. In one way or another, you are teaching them by your

LYNN GUERIN is CEO of The John R. Wooden Course and president and “Head Coach” of his family- owned coaching, training, and performance development firm, Guerin Marketing Services. For the past 20 years, he has had the unique privilege of partnering with legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden and the Wooden family.
JASON LAVIN is a coach, speaker, and CEO with more than 25 years of experience enhancing the performance of individuals, teams, and organizations. As president of The John R. Wooden Course and CEO of Golden Communications, Lavin helps organizations—from youth sports teams to Fortune 100 companies—refine their values, mission, and vision.

Their new book is Coach ‘Em Way Up: 5 Lessons for Leading the John Wooden Way.

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