Reflections Back to the Future: How going back helps you go forward

This was something I wrote 18 months ago as part of our in-house coach development looking at some of the moments along our coaching journey and how they have shaped and influenced the way we think and act today.  The person we are is constantly changing but having central beliefs and values that anchor you are essential to provide the order to adapt to the chaos that sport and life present us with.


Coach John Wooden was someone I first came across during my 1st year studies at University,  over the years I have revisited his writings and those of other coaches that he worked with and it is no coincidence that these coaches have been highly successful on the field and had strong relationships with those they worked with and been widely respected for how they act off the field.  Wooden and those who followed in his footsteps were highly driven and relentless in their pursuit of excellence, not perfection but progress towards betterment.  They were no doubt very challenging coaches who demanded high standards from those around them and I am sure at times it was uncomfortable and on occasion unrealistic but they were not perfect either.  What Wooden did do though is care for his people, this you see reflected in the modern day versions of Wooden such as Klopp and Guardiola who share this drive for progress but with a compassion that connects everyone to a bigger purpose.


You can’t fake caring – You can’t beat biology.


With the New Year rolling in we quite often make bold statements about the things we will do in order to drive productivity, and re-focus on the things that provide purpose in our lives.  Seeking the mythical constant happiness that we feel is alluding us. Happiness is though a temporary state, and in all likelihood living in a state of supposed “happiness” is not possible or permanent.  Without experiencing other emotions, highs, lows, frustrations and disappointments we are unable to perceive certain situations as ones that make us happy. Being happy, fearful, upset and many other emotions are largely our perception of events that we then turn into an emotional response, rather than seeking happiness we should probably be looking for contentment, knowing that we can’t control all events, only our reaction to them.


As Rudyard Kipling aptly penned;


“If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.

Or watch the things you gave your life to broken, and stoop and build up from worn out tools…

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you.

If all men count with you but none too much.

If you can fill the unforgiving minute, with sixty seconds worth of distance run.

Yours is the earth and everything in it.

And, which is more, you’ll be a man my son.”


One of the resolutions I made this New Year was to look back a little more to see where I have come from, what has shaped my beliefs, philosophy and behaviours, rather than fixating too much on what is ahead.  Taking time to remind myself of things that are important, staying true to these by not rushing to get to the next landmark or target, actually enjoying the journey whichever path it takes.


We are all learners seeking knowledge and improvement, no doubt a number of new books have found their way into your library over this month.  Building on the above statement I decided that before I read a new book, I would revisit one (or a person of influence) from my past that at the time significantly shaped my beliefs.  I was intrigued to see how much I still adhered to, and perhaps anything I have moved away from and should return to. 


One of the first coaches that I studied in any great depth was UCLA’s legendary basketball coach John Wooden. As I read it became clear how he influenced the philosophy’s of so many other great coaches whose works I have come across more recently, Bill Walsh, Marv Levy, Tom Coughlin, Bill Parcells, Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick. I have probably read more books by non-European coaches as they are writing about sport’s I have little interest in and am therefore able to take on board the underpinning philosophy and messages rather than questioning technical comments as I am not greatly steeped in their game. This list is heavily American in its influence, but his messages have undoubtedly been taken onboard by many of today’s great coaches across the continents.


Bill Walsh’s mantra; The Score Will Take Care of Itself, Pete Carrol’s Win Forever Pyramid, the strapline of Bellichik and the all-conquering New England Patriots, Do Your Job, Tom Coughlin and New York Giants all have a clear lineage back to Wooden. We are very fortunate that he wanted to share his approach to coaching and as one of the first in his field to do so we were handed a blueprint from which to chart our own coaching journey.


Much has been written about Wooden, his life, success and philosophy so will not delve too deep into what shaped his approach, the influence of his father and coach Piggy Lambert, but leave that to your inquisitive mind to discover. I will highlight some of the key things that I have taken from what I have read and researched about him and how it has very heavily influenced my approach.


Wooden’s father gave him a Seven Point Creed from which to live by, this is clearly reflected in the Pyramid of Success he would later provide for his players.

  1. Be true to yourself.
  2. Make each day your masterpiece.
  3. Help others.
  4. Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible. (think message not literal)
  5. Make friendship a fine art.
  6. Build a shelter against a rainy day.
  7. Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.


There are some things that should be part of a coaches (and persons) development, as someone much wiser than myself would term them, the “Fundamentals”, the things that need to be mastered to provide a firm foundation from which to progress, the work of John Wooden is one such thing.


“It is the realization that some lives are so extraordinary and touch so many people that their story must be told to generations to come so those values aren’t diminished or lost altogether.”


Kareem Abdul Jabbar


Wooden’s early years of coaching did not bring him any great success, not titles or trophy’s but he was honing his skills and developing his approach and philosophy.  

He decided on the cornerstones of his Pyramid, Industriousness and Enthusiasm, the two most important building blocks in his mind. Completing the foundation of the Pyramid with Friendship, Loyalty and Cooperation.

As the years went by, Coach Wooden assembled his Pyramid, 14 building blocks of human determination, leading to the summit, the 15th building block – Competitive Greatness. On both sides of the Pyramid, in essence, holding it together – the cement -, are 10 words, including Ambition, Honesty and Integrity, once again all leading to the top, where Faith and Patience watch over Competitive Greatness.



Take some time to look through this thoroughly


Wooden was a devout Christian and faith was an important aspect of his coaching, though he was not on a crusade, faith gave him strength and he believed it would for others. Believing in something that you can use for guidance is valuable in many ways.  Not being religious I adjusted this for myself to “faith in your principles” but collective faith and belief can be a very powerful cement to bind these blocks of the pyramid.


Imitation is said to be the greatest form of flattery and looking back I can certainly see a number of things I attempted to borrow, copy or blatantly steal.


Below are my reflections on some of the key messages that I took from his approach and how I have applied them through my career.



  • Write a Philosophy – How you want to live?


Master the Fundamentals of the Game & Life

Quite often people write down things and stick them on walls – this happens in most sporting environments, but it means nothing if these are not lived, especially by those tasked in positions of power (so goes the leader so goes the company) – as these should lead which too often does not occur as it is more about power.


Values Drive Behaviours – Behaviours Drive Performance – 

Performance Drive Results


This something I used to have written down as a nudge to keep me true to the philosophy that I believed in.  


Wooden believed in the basics, if you can perform these well then you will have a solid rock to fall back on when the waves get rough.  Repetition to gain competency is required before you can hope to successfully accomplish more complex aspects of sport or life. The lessons learnt in the toil of this process should not be underestimated.



  • Persistence & Consistency of Message


Better People

Only looking back do I see that this was something he said – I pretty much stole this without really knowing it till I look back now, subconscious plagiarism from me so apologies Mr Wooden.  This was used in a previous role I occupied as we attempted to reset the cultural values. It required a consistency of message and to be repeating the mantra on a daily basis to bring about behavioural change.  It was saying this is what we want to be and what matters most, being better people. In sport putting a more holistic and too many somewhat fluffy objective is too many confusing, the focus is on the short-term, things that can be easily measured.  This may bring short term “success”, but teams that build a dynasty of consistent performance and leave a legacy share a common theme of developing the person before the athlete.


Wooden saw himself as a teacher and mentor.  He wanted to develop young men who could add value to society, he was teaching them the game of life through the game of basketball.  The former was infinitely more important than the latter.


  • Defining Success

This is something that struck quite deeply when I revisited his work as it’s something that I know I certainly failed to keep to as closely as I would have liked as you get caught up in outcomes.  Success is too often viewed in terms of status that can be measured by wealth, goods, wins, power or position. Over the latter part of my career, I have been much more comfortable with what success actually is, because I have become more consistent with the values and behaviours that I operate by.


Wooden wrote his own definition of success as he was not satisfied that the one offered by the dictionary and society;


“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing that you did your best to become the best that you’re capable of becoming.”


Wooden would as with all of his messages consistently repeat this to his players. Only by being true to such values and living them do they hold any value, this was the key to his success.  Everyone knew he believed and lived what he spoke, and such integrity develops trust which inspires human beings to higher levels of connection, a biological bond worth more than money or things drives a group to perform beyond what is expected.


Wooden supposedly did not speak about winning which will no doubt get the bullshit detector twitching, but accounts from players he coached and staff support this.  Let’s say that over time this has been elaborated on, but it is consistent with his behaviours to believe that he probably did not have to refer to winning as he was so comfortable with his process – which would look after the result.  He says of himself that he was not a great game coach; but was a very good practice coach, he placed more importance on preparing and learning as this was what shaped the performance. 


He was revered as a fierce competitor, which might be why he did not need to talk about winning.  By placing the measure of success on effort, and not deviating from this by being emotionally swayed by a result he provided an environment where his players could operate without fearing the score.  The barometer of success was based on the ability to look at yourself in the mirror and be comfortable that the person looking back had done his best.



  • Love


This is the underpinning theme in Wooden’s life.  


“Love is the most important thing in the world.”


He was married to the first girl he dated and they were on the journey together.  His players and coaches he worked with felt loved – he might have worked them hard but his consistency of message and mood helped to foster this environment, promoting psychological safety, somewhere to fail without fear.


“Passion is temporary love is enduring”


Going back to some books I read over twenty years ago was incredibly enlightening, I was able to see the influence they had on my coaching journey. It is something that I was unsure would bring up much of any use, but it was a bit like catching up with an old friend you have not seen for years, reminiscing on past adventures and understanding how they shaped what you are today.  It is something I would highly recommend.


“Make every day your masterpiece”

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