25 Principles for a Good Life from Coach Wooden

A book summary of his Pyramid of Success.

michael raspuzzi
9 min readJun 4, 2021

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Hailed as the top college basketball coach in the 20th century, Wooden led his teams with a 80% win to loss ratio across 40 seasons. He won 10 NCAA championships and had 4 undefeated seasons.

While winning championships is the public’s metric of success, Wooden understood the importance of having a different internal scoreboard. He defined his own principles for success as a coach and used them as a guide to all of his players.

As a religious man, his faith set the foundation for understanding, but ultimately, he distilled his lessons down to principles that were more universally recognizable as he was within a backdrop of public colleges. Even though he was professionally a coach, his chosen personal identity was a teacher. Developing good humans was more important to him than building athletic superstars. His real sport was realizing human potential.

Coach’s unique approach to success

“Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” — John Wooden

He removed goal setting and achievement from his personal definition of success. He knew it was one part of it, but if the results were the only deciding factor, there would be both personal torment for losing as well as myopic view of development.

As a college athlete, he was the only one not to break down in emotion after losing in the playoffs after an undefeated season. His peace of mind came from giving it all every single game, and he knew he left nothing on the table.

As a teacher, he always had parents asking about their child’s grade as a comparison metric for success. They always overlooked effort, capability, or personal improvement as their main focus was on the grade. He knew there were more important areas of growth to observe.

“It seemed unfair to consider a student with average ability who performed to the best of his or her ability as a failure.”

He even fell into a similar trap when directing his team’s attention to set their own standards early in his coaching career. The first few seasons he would benchmark his team’s performance to what showed up on the court from the other team.

After a while, he realized comparison to other teams were a poor benchmark for success. The only real bar to focus on setting was his team against themselves. As a coach he owned the responsibility of timing, formation, and shape of practices, and as players they owned what happened during game time.

“You are the only one who knows whether you have won.”

This article will cover the structure he used to be one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history. He called it the pyramid and there are three main parts:

  1. Building blocks for realizing potential
  2. Peak performance to stay on top
  3. Mortar to hold it all together

Building blocks for realizing potential

He understood that being the best was something to be worked up to and required different pieces that stacked on top of each other.

  • 1–5 establish a core foundation
  • 6–9 level up the individual
  • 10–12 cultivate skill + ability

Setting a strong foundation (1–5)

These five are the core base layer which are non negotiable. The two cornerstones are industriousness and enthusiasm, and the middle three are social. Without these, the rest do not have anything to rest on.

1. Industriousness = hard work + careful planning

There is no substitute for working hard. Worthwhile results come from investing the time and effort. Planning is the secret sauce to make sure it is in the right direction.

Coaching story: Wooden mentions taking hours to plan out each minute of the practice while being and staying on time to maximize effort players put in.

Guardrail: The upper limit for hard work is being overly aggressive. Too much force results in loss of control, ending in mistakes.

2. Enthusiasm

Infectious energy comes from true enjoyment. Without enjoying the process, there is neither fuel for hard work nor a reason to push harder. High fives are a hack for spreading enthusiasm in teams.

Coaching story: As a coach, he seeded the enthusiasm for his first UCLA championship, as the whole season was set to be a drag as his move from Indiana. He was disappointed with a lower quality gym and surprised by the lack of fervor in the fans. He chose to step up to the occasion as an opportunity. He chose a “get to” attitude rather than “have to” one, which kickstarted individual momentum rather than creates drag and helped te team get their first championship.

Guardrail: The upper limit of enthusiasm is extreme highs which lead to lower lows and have a swing in volatility. Too much emotion leads to instability.

3. Friendship

Mutual esteem + respect + devotion. A joint effort to maintain a two way investment in support. Good friends help each other. Bad friends use each other.

One of the best benefits of friends is the accountability. Having others who can ask the hard questions and hold up a mirror for the answers and behavior.

Guardrail: Too much concern in of what other’s think can lead to a good reputation but faulty character. Good reputation is not worth much without good character. Find peace within the self before sharing it outwardly.

4. Loyalty

Be dependable. Follow through. Resist temptation to sway.

Coaching story: When Coach first arrived to UCLA he was tempted to leave. It felt like a step down from Indiana. But as he signed a three year contract, he committed to stay.

Guardrail: The highest form of flattery is imitation, but that is a low form of loyalty. Emulating what someone looks like is an attachment to an identity without necessary follow through. Loyalty is in staying true to commitments in relationships and builds up self respect.

5. Cooperation

Two together can do more than one alone. Work towards the benefit of all not at the self sacrifice of some. Listen if you want to be heard. Be interested in finding the best way, not in having one’s own way. Stay curious.

Guardrail: Most teams are held together from harshness out of fear or severe consequences. That acts as a temporary glue and has no strength in holding. Nudging and support are better adhesives for cooperation.

Level up the individual (6–12)

The first three (6–9) are individual character traits and the second three (9–12) are for building ability.

6. Self control

Self control is the ability to have discipline to keep emotions under control. When emotions take over, mistakes are made. Judgement and common sense are impaired resulting in lower competency and consistency.

Discipline at its best is to help, prevent, correct, improve, and at it’s worst is punishment.

7. Alertness

Always be observing. Stay open minded. Be eager, not just willing, to learn and improve. Ask why.

8. Initiative

Cultivate the ability to make decisions and think alone. Have the courage to take action. Move forward and learn from failure.

“ The team that makes the most mistakes will probably outscore the other.”

From his college coach, mentioning the team that does the most will inevitably have the most failures.

Coaching story: He chose Richard Washington as player to get last shot under pressure because of his mindset. Washington knew he couldn’t make all the baskets so he was better under pressure than other players who had more skill.

Guardrail: Avoid careless mistakes.

9. Set intentions

Focus on goals. Resist distractions. Be determined and persistent. When reaching previous goals, raise the bar and expand what’s possible.

Guardrail: The death of persistence is instant gratification. People want too much too soon. Everything worthwhile takes time. Set realistic expectations.

10. Condition

Exercise and rest the mind, moral character, and physical body. Alongside training, sleep and nutrition are important. Seek moderation and avoid exertion.

11. Skill

Knowledge of and ability to execute the fundamentals. Be prepared and have an attention to detail.

As a Coach, he would make trade off of those with skill v. those with ability. Every time he chose skill and quickness. He even chose quickness over height.

Better to align a life with what have some inboard talent for or desire to practice.

12. Team spirit

An eagerness to work and play together. Move beyond willingness as that holds back personal investment. Eagerness builds spirit and commitment. No one role is more important than the other on a team.

2. Peak performance to stay on top

Each one of these requires the first twelve. Poise and confidence are the compound results of aggregating others, and competitive greatness means little without the base.

13. Poise

Celebrating the authentic self and never fighting it enables ease in any situation. Required: self control and confidence.

Guardrail: Caring too much about what others think forces one to change behavior to fit social constructs.

14. Confidence

Respect without fear. Built on being prepared and having proper perspective.

As a coach, he needs to build rapport with the team for the right plays to call. Players need to trust that his decisions have their best intentions at the center as well as gave them the best opportunity to succeed.

“ Failing to prepare is preparing for failure.”

15. Competitive greatness

Be at the best when the best is needed. Enjoy the challenge. Make others better. Along the way maintain peace of mind.

3. Mortar to hold it all together

Alongside principles to build up character and mindsets for success, Coach discusses the values that hold it all together.

The making of grit (16–19)

16. Ambition

Have the desire to achieve a goal. Do not set serious goals unless there is serious intention to do so. That serious intention is how coach defined ambition.

Guardrails: Selfish and ego based ambition lead to unsatisfying pursuits: status, fame, fortune, power or prestige. Noble pursuits are ones that elevate others and acknowledge the bigger picture.

17. Adaptability

The ability to adjust to any situation at any given time. Change is a part of life, and the ability to grow and learn from it is better way to play than be crushed by it.

18. Resourcefulness

Solving problems and overcoming challenges by dreaming up what is possible, taking initiative to make it happen, and analyzing to pivot or adjust.

Coaching story: His most resourceful times were in the off season learning a new part of the game in depth to prepare for the next season.

19. Fight

Determined effort to do the best possible, which can be measured by hustle. Digging into it, gritting teeth, and standing ground.

Never fight an opponent. The best fight is the one within to be the best at whatever one can do.

Building moral character (20–23)

20. Sincerity

Say what is meant and do what is said. The root of abundance in relationships is sincerity. The base of being a good coach is sincerity.

“ Sincerity may not make a friend, but it will keep one.”

21. Honesty

Doing the things we know are right and resisting the pull to do what is wrong. Being tempted is not a problem, acting on temptation is.

Coaching story: He broke a rule to bail out one of his players from jail, but he was honest about it the whole time.

22. Reliability

Be dependable. Separate from ability, consistency is a cornerstone in peak performance.

Guardrail: Fear traps and paralyzes. Lack of reliability comes from lack of trust for ability to show up.

23. Integrity

Purity of intention. Concern for the betterment of others as an end in itself rather than a means to win championships.

At the peak (24–25)

24. Patience

Wait and calmly persevere. Not all change is progress. Anticipation in moderation.

Guardrail: Easy come, easy go.

25. Faith

The belief that things will turn out as they should. He separated his religious faith from his coaching practice.

Two final thoughts from coach on success

“Make each day your masterpiece.”

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation.”

👋 Hey, I’m Michael, an Olympic level 🌎 innovation coach training future CEOs @ TKS, ie. human potential 🤓. Previously, startup founder, design engineering instructor @ Harvard, and program director @ Cornell. Always 👨‍🍳cooking up something new.

Connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter.

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michael raspuzzi

building something new @tks @harvard @culinaryai