John Wooden’s formula for winning

The NCAA basketball championship is Monday night and, appropriately, TED.com recently posted a 2001 TED Talk by legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. It’s appropriate because Wooden was the most successful NCAA tournament coach ever, winning ten national titles in twelve years. I’ve been a fan of Coach Wooden for a long time, though I was too young to follow him while he was coaching. But his wisdom is profound even when presented in a bit of an old-fashioned (sometimes corny, even) style.

One of the most remarkable insights from a coach whose teams won the most championships is that he never talked to his players about winning. He simply expected his players to give the best effort they were capable of giving. If they did, he was satisfied regardless of the final score. He said there were times when his team ended up with more points on the scoreboard than the opponent in spite of what he felt was a less than satisfactory effort. Wooden considered that a “loss” in his eyes. Conversely, there were games where his team did play smart and play hard and still lost on the scoreboard. He considered that game a success in spite of what was on the scoreboard.

I love that mindset. Sadly, it’s almost a joke today to say “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game that matters.” But John Wooden centered his very successful coaching career around that very sentiment. There’s an eastern, philosophical flavor to his approach. Non-attachment. The game is not a means to an end, but an end in intself. How much happier would we be in our activities, work or play, if we simply focused on giving our best effort rather than striving to get more points or praise or awards or money than the other guy.

Competition is overrated. The competitior whose attention and anxiety are focused on outscoring the opponent is at a disadvantage. Fear of losing certainly is motivational, but it will dilute your focus on your own performance. The greatest athletes often speak of being in “the zone” or “in flow.” They’re at their peak when past and future disappear and they are fully conscious of only the moment at hand. I’ve heard Michael Jordan speak of the basket looking gigantic when he’s in that zone. I’m sure when Ted Williams or Hank Aaron were at their best at the plate in a crucial situation, their attention was on the feel of the bat in their hands and the rotation of the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand rather than on past failures or success or on the possible glory or humiliation at stake.

As a fan, I’ve often been distraught when my favorite team loses a crucial game. Why? Why can I not enjoy the effort put forth by both sides regardless of which color jersey comes out ahead in the end. Seinfeld had an old routine that pointed out that we’re just rooting for laundry. If the team wearing my preferred shirt wins, I’m happy. If not, I’m crushed.

“Winning” is not a worthy goal if you aim for true happiness and satisfaction. Its pleasure is fleeting and induces anxiety to keep that short-lived pleasure coming. Aim instead for excellence and for offering your complete attention and best effort to the task before you. “Just win, baby” is not a mantra for happiness. Paradoxically, by letting go of the need to win, you will free yourself to be the best you can be. And, as John Wooden put it, you can then strive to “Make every day your masterpiece.”


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