Years ago I read a magazine interview with Coach Wooden in which he was asked how he scouted the competition before a game. He said, in effect: We don’t worry about the competition; we worry about ourselves. We don’t go out to try to beat somebody; we go out to play the very best we can.
There it was in black and white, staring up at me from the pages of that magazine. It was John Wooden’s secret of the ages, the answer to the question: “How did he do it?” But I didn’t understand it. I wasn’t ready for it. I thought that the heart and soul of competitive athletics was to know your opponent. Wasn’t that why coaches and athletes spent hours watching films of their competition? I thought that Wooden must not have been telling the whole story. His “secret” didn’t make sense to me, so I ignored it.
A few years ago, I had the privilege to preview an intriguing new cassette album called The Pyramid of Success, featuring Jim Harrick and John Wooden, from Nightingale-Conant. The “Pyramid” was created by John Wooden in the 1930s. He has been teaching it to others ever since. It elegantly describes his philosophy about life, work, and success.
On the way home from the office that evening I popped Wooden’s portion of the program into my stereo before I even had the car in gear. What a treat it was to hear his familiar voice sharing stories about his youth, his teaching career, and his remarkable years as a basketball coach. I was in heaven listening to that tape, cruising through the star-draped countryside of the beautiful rural county where I used to live.
Then Coach Wooden began to talk about competition. He said that he told his basketball players not to worry about the other team, but to worry about themselves. He said that if they played their very best, they would be successful. If they didn’t play their best, then they would never be successful, no matter how many games they won. Let me say that again: John Wooden taught his players that if they didn’t play their very best, then they would never be successful, no matter how many games they won.
It was deja-vu all over again. I thought back to that article I had read so many years before, and I felt the same reaction I felt then. Wooden must be leaving something out. Surely he must have worried about his competition. Surely he must have scouted the teams he had to face. After all, that’s what everybody else did.
And then I finally struck brain. For twenty years I had been trying to figure out what made John Wooden different. And he had been telling me all along. What made him different was this: the winningest coach in the history of college basketball didn’t worry about winning. He worried about making the effort to do his best. He didn’t try to do what everybody else did, so he never limited himself to their results. He didn’t compete with everybody else, so everybody else couldn’t compete with him.
I was still in my car when this finally sunk in, but I started scribbling notes as fast as I could write. That’s not such a smart thing to do at 60 miles an hour, especially at night, but I couldn’t wait long enough to slow down. I had to get on paper the answer to the question I had been asking myself for thirty years. I had to find exactly the right way to phrase it. I had to reduce it to a simple thought, a simple rule for success. And then Coach Wooden did it for me. He said:
“Success is peace of mind that can be obtained only from the self-satisfaction of knowing that you have made the effort to do the very best of which you are capable.”
I rewound the tape and played that phrase again. And again. And again. I felt like I had just discovered the Hope diamond. John Wooden was teaching me something that I should have learned way back when I was a Boy Scout. But it never sank in—until that moment. Success is making the effort to do your best. Do that, and you can never fail. Don’t do that, and you can never succeed.