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The Sport Digest - ISSN: 1558-6448

The Legend Basketball Coach John Wooden – A Case Study in Leadership


Coaches play a very important role in sport. In general, coaches teach and lead their players to complete tasks that govern their performance. There is plenty of research concerning coaches’ leadership strategies, traits and behaviors. The players or athletes that a coach teaches or leads have a wide variety of different personalities and characteristics. Each of these players’ needs are also different base on their varying levels of satisfaction for different aspects of their job, such as pay, working conditions, coaching supervision, or co-workers (Hughes, 2007). So the coach not must lead their players to conquer every different kind of situation they encounter, but also need to understand each of their players and communicate with them.

Hughes (2007) considered that case studies have the advantage of helping practitioners better understand the context in which a leader acts. I agree with this idea. I think the most affective way to learn leadership is to learn from people whose leadership strategies are successful in their field. Therefore, I chose Coach John Wooden as a case study and role model to study. Coach John Wooden is a very famous and successful leader in the basketball world, not just in the United States but also around the world. Everyone who loves the game of basketball knows he is a legend.


Coach Wooden is the first person to be inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and coach. His teams won 10 National Championships. Wooden concluded his 40 years as a head coach and his 885-203 overall career win-loss record (a percentage of .813) is unequaled (Wooden, 2003). Leadership practitioners should always study their own actions and consider why they are using a particular style of leadership before they actually use it (Hughes, 2007). Coach John Wooden did just that. He studied about himself a decided to spend some 14 years identifying 25 behaviors he believed were necessary to achieve his idea of success and write The Pyramid of Success in 1948.

Wooden never uses the word “winning”. He writes: “In all my years of coaching I rarely, if ever, even uttered the word win … or exhorted a team to be number one. Instead, my words and actions always reflected my father's advice to me and that is never cease trying to be the best you can become.” (Wooden, 2004).

Coach John Wooden’s achievements are well-documented. Nevertheless, it takes a keen sense of sports history to fully comprehend the magnitude of those achievements. Los Angeles Times sports editor, Bill Dwyre, believes several of the records set by John Wooden’s UCLA teams will stand forever. These unbreakable records include: (1) Ten NCAA Men’s Basketball Championships. (2) Seven NCAA championships in seven consecutive years: 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973. (3) Most appearances in the Final Four, 16; most consecutive appearances, 9; and most victories, 21. (4) Most consecutive victories: 88 during 1971, 1972, and 1973. (5) 38 straight victories in NCAA tournament play between 1964 and 1974. (6) Four perfect seasons: 1964, 1967, 1972, 1973. (7) Eight perfect PAC 8 Conference seasons (now PAC 10). (8) All-time 40 season winning percentage .813 (Wooden, 2003).

Coach John Wooden’s Mottos

"Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do." "Don't measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability"(Wooden, 2003). From his mottos, we can see that he is a very practical, active and confident man. Leaders who can better align their thoughts and feelings with their actions may be more effective than leaders who think and feel one way about something but then do something different about it (Hughes, 2007).

Coach John Wooden's Mission Statement

Coach John Wooden's father gave him a card when he graduated from elementary school (Wooden, 2005). On it, his father wrote "his own personal Seven Point Creed" -- practical advice that Wooden remembered all his life. It is: (1) Be true to yourself. (2) Make each day your masterpiece. (3) Help others. (4) Drink deeply from good books, including the Good Book. (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.

Coach John Wooden’s Leadership Philosophy Adjust to your players but don't expect them all to adjust to you. Great leaders give credit to others, but accept the blame themselves. Surround yourself with strong opinionated people. Concentrate on your team, not the opposition. Teamwork is not a preference, it's a necessity. A good leader is first, and foremost, a teacher. (Wooden, 2003)

Coach John Wooden’s Successful Factors of Leadership John Wooden’s (2005) definition of success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.

The Pyramid of Success showed the factors that Coach John Wooden felt were necessary for success (Wooden, 2005). (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: Coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success (2005)
Figure 1: Coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success (2005)

Coach John Wooden (2005) identified the successful factors as the following:

  1. Industriousness - you have to work and work hard.
  2. Friendship - for success, either individually or for your team, there must be a level of friendship. It is a powerful force that comes from mutual esteem, respect, and devotion.
  3. Loyalty - it is a cohesive force that forges individuals into a team. Loyalty is very important when things get a little tough, as they often do when the challenge is great.
  4. Cooperation - working together in all ways to accomplish the common goal. And to get cooperation, you must give cooperation.
  5. Enthusiasm - people in positions of leadership must be motivated & positive people.
  6. Self-Control – it is essential for have discipline and mastery of emotions, for discipline of self and discipline of those under your supervision.
  7. Alertness - as you strive to reach your personal best, alertness will make the task much easier. Be observing constantly and be ready and quick to spot a weakness and correct it or use it.
  8. Respect - respect your opponents, but never fears them. You have nothing to fear if you have prepared to the best of your ability. You have conquered fear when you have initiative.
  9. Intentness - be persistent. Be determined. Be tenacious. Be completely determined to reach your goal.
  10. Condition - It is impossible to attain and maintain desirable physical condition without first achieving mental and moral condition.
  11. Skill - you'd better be able to execute properly and quickly. I'd rather have a lot of skill and little experience than a lot of experience and little skill.
  12. Team Spirit - you are willing to sacrifice personal considerations for the welfare of all. That defines a team player.
  13. Poise - you give your total effort to becoming the best you are capable of being. It takes poise to accomplish this.
  14. Confidence - you must believe in yourself if you expect others to believe in you. However, you can't have poise and confidence unless you've prepared correctly.
  15. Competitive greatness - all fourteen factors are necessary for competitive greatness. It's being at your best when your best is needed. It's enjoying the challenge when things become difficult, even very difficult. Competitors love that challenge. It brings forth their competitive greatness.

Other Scholars’ Take on Leadership

Loyalty was enhanced by the reciprocal need of the coach and players for each other (Adler et al, 1988). Players recognized that the coach may hold the key to their future careers, since professional scouts and potential employers went to him for information about them.

In turn, their successes and failures reflected back onto him and affected his future recruiting and reputation. Leadership does not occur without followers (Hughes, 2007).

In cooperative sports, everyone can work to improve together! (Gaia, 2000). When you get together with fellow players and teammates, you have a real incentive to help them improve their game. Thus, we provide an environment of pure cooperation. Cooperative sports provide you with pure cooperation, fun, flexibility, variety and excellence. The development of an environment of pure cooperation depends on personal well-being and self-control of thinking and emotions (Hara and Orlick, 1976). Athletes who are in self-control feel more satisfied with their performance and express less competitive anxiety.

Coaching sport successfully requires expertise in a variety of areas (Beitzel, 2004). Certainly, you must have the knowledge of the associated motor skill development and playing strategy of your specific sport. However, the successful coach also understands the psychology of coaching such as the best methods of communicating and motivating athletes. A successful coach also is aware of the major issues facing sport and presents a cooperative environment for dealing with these issues. Education and experience can contribute to your development as a leader by enhancing your ability to reflect on and analyze leadership situations (Hughes, 2007).

Klausner (1997) provided support that both technical and emotional support specifically individualized drills can help every athlete achieve his or her performance goal. Equally important is the communication of encouragement and support. When conveying expectations and goals for your athletes, make sporadic eye contact, nod frequently, listen attentively, and give the athletes your undivided attention. While some of these non-verbal behaviors may emerge spontaneously, others may not. Y ou must remain conscious of them and make an effort to use them in conveying performance goals to the athletes.

Summary and conclusions

Hughes (2007) defined leadership as the process of understanding leadership situations and influencing others toward achieving group goals. It is everyone’s business and everyone’s responsibility. I consider that everyone should improve their leadership skills. Coach John Wooden was a very successful coach and leader. We can learn a lot utilizing him as a case study. All his strategies for success include the three main factors of leadership: (1) the leader, (2) the follower, and (3) the situation. The interactive nature of leader-followers-situation can help us better understand the changing nature of the leader-follower relationship and the increasingly greater complexity of situations leaders and followers face (Hughes, 2007).

I think a successful sport coaches must have a personal leadership ability based upon experience, along with professional knowledge brought about thru the studying of leadership. Both experience and education are important for effective leadership. In additional, performance and motivation is not the same thing. The coaches need to have patience and passion to teach and improve athletes’ skill. Athletes also must be motivated to want to trust the coach in order to complete the actions to have better performance and be more successful at attaining goals.

Currently, most coaches in Taiwan only emphasize training the players’ skill and endurance, they ignore the others important leadership strategies and factors. If the coaches can change their behavior of leadership and attitude, I believe Taiwan can have more motivated athletes and can have better success in sport performance


Beitzel, M. (2004). Men's Basketball Coach. http://www.hanover.edu/athletics/men/mbasketball/mbkrecords

Hara, T.J. & Orlick, T.D.(1976). Strategies for control of competitive anxiety. In Proceedings - International Congress on Physical Activity Sciences, Jul 1976, Volume 7, p. 305-314.

Hughes, R. L., Gunnett, R. C. & Curphy, G.J. (2007). Leadership: Enhancing the Lessons of Experience. (5rd ed.) New York: Tata McGraw-Hill.

Klausner, M. (1997). Expect the best to get the best. Coach & Athletic Director; Oct 97, Vol. 67 Issue 3, p52, 2p, 1c

Patricia, A. & Adler, P. (1988). Intense Loyalty in Organizations: A Case Study of College Athletics. Administrative Science Quarterly, Sep88, Vol. 33 Issue 3, p401, 17p

Wooden, J. Jack Tobin, J. (2003). They call me coach. (2rd ed.) New York: Tata McGraw-Hill.

Wooden, J., & Jamison, S. (2004). My Personal Best: Life Lessons from an All-American Journey. New York: Tata McGraw-Hill.

Wooden, J. & Jay Carty, J. (2005). Coach Wooden's Pyramid of Success : Building Blocks for a Better Life. California: Gospel Light Publications.