Coach Wooden used his definition of success not just as a mantra for life, but also as a means to improve performance: “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”
“A coach can only do his best, nothing more,” he explained. “But he does owe that not only to himself but to the people who employ him and to the youngsters under his supervision. If you truly do your best—and only you will really know—then you are successful and the actual score is immaterial whether it was favorable or unfavorable. However, when you fail to do your best, you have failed even though the score might’ve been to your liking.”
Doing the best that you’re capable of doing is victory in itself.
Simply feeling good about one’s effort, though, is not enough to be effective, Coach explained. “This does not mean that you should not coach to win. You must teach your players to play to win and do everything in your power that is ethical and honest to win. I do not want players who do not have a keen desire to win and do not play hard and aggressively to accomplish that objective. But I want to be able to feel and want my players to sincerely feel that doing the best that you’re capable of doing is victory in itself and less than that is defeat.”
He added, “It is altogether possible that whatever success I have had or may have could be in direct proportion to my ability not only to instill that idea in my players but also to live up to it myself.” This philosophy served Coach well not only in helping to pull together his teams, but also in inspiring the individuals who played for him to concentrate on real success within their own lives and pursuits.
For example, Rafer Johnson was a UCLA basketball player from 1958 to 1959, and the gold medal winner in the 1960 Olympics decathlon. An incredibly talented athlete in his own right, when Johnson first arrived at UCLA from the small town of Kingsburg, California, he was overwhelmed and intimidated by the big city campus and the level of competition he was facing.
Everything changed, however, as soon as Johnson took to the court for basketball practice. “Coach Wooden said all he wanted from us individually was that we try as athletes and students, to be as good as we could be,” Johnson recalls. Coach urged his players to focus on giving their all to the team and to their own development as players and as people.
“Don’t worry about the other guy; just concentrate on doing your best.”
From that day forward, Johnson changed his perspective and found it influenced everything else for the better. “My subsequent performance in the 1960 Olympics, held in Rome, had a lot to do with Coach’s philosophy of concentrating on being the best I could be,” he said. “Don’t worry about the score, the medal, the prize; don’t worry about the other guy; just concentrate on doing your best. It’s that simple.”
Rather than focusing on winning, Coach urged his players—and himself—to focus on growing in the sport and working with an “all-in” mindset that valued the experience more than the outcome. The result was an unparalleled career that included 10 NCAA Championships (seven of which were consecutive) and 38 consecutive sudden-death NCAA tournament victories.
When the external pressure was the greatest, neither Coach nor his players allowed that external pressure to impact their performance. They were only concerned with their best and that was something over which they had control. As Coach was fond of saying: “The more concerned we become over the things we can’t control, the less we will do with the things we can control.”