How to become legendary

College basketball’s best coach, John Wooden, on success, adversity and true leadership

Some advice stands the test of time. The interview you’re about to listen to is an example of that. In this special two-part episode, you will hear a very intimate conversation between Tony and the late John Wooden. Though this interview happened nearly 20 years ago, the insights and knowledge gained from it are more valuable than ever. During their time together, Tony and John discuss their insights on consistency, integrity, sincerity and class while revealing philosophies, beliefs, strategies and tools that will help you maximize success and happiness every single day.

John Wooden was one of the most successful basketball coaches in sports history. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame twice, once in 1960 as a player and once in 1973 as a coach. In 2006, he was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame. In the 12 years from 1963 to 1975, John led his UCLA Bruins to 10 national championships. In addition to their NCAA Division I championships, his team had additional appearances in the NCAA FInal Four and the PCC Tournament. He also led his players to 15 Pac-12 Championships. He won the AP College Coach of the Year award five times, the Henry Iba Award seven times and the NABC Coach of the Year award five times. This is no denying that John Wooden was one of the best basketball coaches to exist in college basketball history.

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But it was so much more than his win-loss record that set him apart: It was the way he lived his life. Widely acknowledged as one of the most important and thought-inspiring scholars of life, John Wooden’s teachings, words and vast wisdom continue to influence and inspire not only athletes, but people from all walks of life and from all over the world. His exceptionalism never went unnoticed and in 2003, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.

What makes a good coach?

“You can’t control what people think of you, but you can control who you are.”

That’s just one piece of wisdom from John Wooden on leadership. This far-ranging interview shows us the thought process of one of the greatest coaches – if not the greatest coach – of all time. Gracious and humble, John identifies a coach as a person who helps his players do their best on the court and off. Whether you are a sports coach or not, there is a lot to be learned from the way John Wooden lived his life. He truly embodied what it meant to be a great coach.

Coach Wooden’s mantra

“Don’t worry about things you can’t control.”

These days, we imagine a coach urging us to do everything we can to win a game, land a contract or otherwise achieve big goals. John took a different approach. In fact, his players likely never heard him speak about winning or losing. As John says in this interview, he wanted them to do the best they could to improve themselves. He reminded them of this idea often. For John, it wasn’t about winning basketball games. It was about constantly pushing yourself to be better than you were yesterday. It’s about staying present in the moment and focusing on sowing relationships with others, rather than competition, to succeed.

This advice stems from wisdom his own father passed down to him. John lived by this advice every day of his life: Never focus on being better than someone else. Instead, never cease to be the very best you can be. This was advice that served him well but also helped him become an incredible coach that was able to win championships – while helping mold his players into incredible people off of the court.

John wanted his players to acknowledge that there will always be someone bigger, faster or smarter than they were, both on the court and in life. Rather than focusing on how to compete with others, he challenged his players to compete with themselves. He wanted them to do what they could with the elements of their lives that they could control.

Adversity leads to success

To John Wooden’s way of thinking, all good things come through overcoming adversity. So often we fear adversity because if we don’t measure up to it, then we’ve failed – and our society has nurtured us to have an intense fear of failure. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Failure is a requirement for growth and success.

Part of Coach Wooden’s philosophy – and part of his coaching belief overall – is that he needs to challenge his players. If they don’t face someone better than them, then they have no impetus to improve. You may fail when you first go up against this particular adversary, but failure helps us do better next time, and a setback can show us the way forward. For more timeless life advice, catch part two of the podcast where Tony and John talk about the reality of giving 100%, finding peace of mind and always placing your focus on improvement.

John Wooden Interview

John Wooden Interview Show Notes


[2:50] The origins of John Wooden’s life philosophies
[3:20] Don’t compete with others, compete with yourself
[4:45] John’s  seven-point creed given from his father
[5:40] Be true to yourself, help others, make each day your masterpiece and drink deeply from good books, make friendship a fine art, give thanks for your blessings, pray for guidance every day
[6:20] Pivotal moments that shaped John’s life
[7:30] Control your temper, don’t use profanity
[7:55] Finding balance over emotional extremes
[8:15] Scores do not determine whether you won or lost
[8:35] A day gone by without improvement is a day lost
[9:00] Regardless of a game’s outcome, no excessive dejection or jubilation
[9:20] Only be ashamed if you did not prepare yourself properly
[10:00] Why he scouted opponents less and focused on his team’s preparation more
[11:15] How he prepared his team before games
[11:30] Play one game at a time, don’t look ahead or behind you
[12:00] The only real way to affect the future is by what you do in the present
[12:30] The power of repetition
[13:00] Habits are formed through consistent repetition
[13:30] During practice, your focus needs to be completely on the game
[14:00] When practice is over, you’re not a basketball player, you’re a student
[14:20] John’s career as a basketball player
[15:00] How his coach helped him find his priorities
[15:50] What John Wooden was like as a player
[16:10] Proud of his accomplishments, but the game has changed
[17:00] Coach says he was one of the most unselfish players he had ever had and one of the most conditioned players he had ever seen
[17:20] He honed what he could control
[18:00] Preparing his team mentally and physically
[18:20] You may be outmatched, but you do have control over your own conditioning
[18:50] Every person on a team has a profound responsibility during practice and outside of practice
[19:30] Practice moderation in all things
[20:00] You must keep pressure on your opponents at all times
[20:30] How he conditioned his players — through individual fundamental drills
[21:00] Structuring his practices with precision
[21:20] The importance of having a lesson plan when teaching — or else you will waste an enormous amount of time
[22:20] He kept track of every minute of every practice
[23:00] After practice, he would take notes and use that to apply to the next day’s practice
[23:30] Being able to review the notes helped him improve as a coach
[23:50] The road is better than the end
[24:10] What he misses most is the practices, not the games
[24:45] Finding trends and finding balance
[25:45] Never-ending improvement and measuring that
[26:20] You never stand still, you’re either moving upward or sliding down
[26:45] All good things come through adversity
[27:00] The strength that comes through any challenge
[27:30] Don’t fear adversity, learn from it
[28:30] The leader must be concerned with finding the best way, not his own way
[28:45] All those under his supervision must feel that they are working with the leader, not for the leader
[29:00] The leader’s true responsibility
[29:15] Giving the players the treatment they earn and deserve
[30:58] His biggest contribution to the players beyond the court
[31:15] Most proud that they got their degrees and have gone on to do their best in life
[32:15] The beliefs and values he sought to instill in his players
[32:25] Success is the peace of mind knowing that you did the best you could to fulfill your potential
[33:00] Lincoln: It’s better to trust and be disappointed now and then, than it is to distrust and be miserable all the time
[33:25] The worst thing you can do for those you love are the things they need to do themselves
[33:20] Hopes his players look at him as a friend and teacher
[34:20] How fate landed John at UCLA in 1948
[35:00] Why Minnesota fell through — the fateful storm
[36:30] John’s beliefs on fate and destiny
[37:25] We may not know where our paths lead, but we know they are being directed in some way
[37:35] The story of Eddie Powell
[41:20] Eddie’s triumph on the court
[41:55] Made John wonder how many others he had missed
[42:15] Eddie later became John’s assistant coach
[43:00] John’s first year at UCLA
[45:00] Turning a losing team into a championship team at UCLA
[45:10] Taking raw talent and starting a different style of game
[45:50] The final 5 minutes are what matter the most
[47:50] Why we need love and balance
[49:00] What John looks for in his players

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Team Tony cultivates, curates and shares Tony Robbins’ stories and core principles, to help others achieve an extraordinary life.

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