John Wooden, the coach who won 10 NCAA basketball titles in 12 years at UCLA, did not like his nickname, “The Wizard of Westwood.” He maintained, “I’m no wizard. I’m a coach, a teacher.”
During the basketball season, Wooden conducted classes from 3:29 pm until 5:29 pm in a practice gym in Westwood, California. No wizardry took place, but the results of those sessions were magical.
In addition to the 10 titles (7 of them in a row), UCLA achieved an 88-game winning streak, a 38-game winning streak in the NCAA Tournament, 19 conference titles, 4 undefeated seasons, 3 seasons where the team lost 1 game, 12 Final Four appearances in 14 years –and other “minor” achievements like a 47-game winning streak.
How did Wooden, who died 10 years ago this month, manage such an unmatched level of success?
The late Curt Gowdy, voice of NBC Sports during the Wooden era, said, “I called 9 out of the 10 championship games UCLA won. I am convinced their success was due to meticulous preparation. Wooden ran smart and grinding practice sessions. No team at that time mastered the fundamentals better — UCLA practiced to win.”
In his book, They Call Me Coach, Wooden addressed this subject: “Essentially, I was always more of a practice coach than a game coach. This is because of my conviction that a player who practices well, plays well.”
How Wooden conducted practices has been a source of great interest, not only to athletic coaches, but also educators and psychologists. Studies in professional journals have examined the coach’s teaching methods, even codifying his interactions with individual players.
Wooden based his practices on the four laws of learning: explanation, demonstration, imitation (with correction), and repetition. His goal was to create a correct habit that would be produced instinctively under great pressure. To make sure the goal was accomplished, he added four more laws: “repetition, repetition, repetition and repetition.”
For Wooden and his assistant coaches, practices began in his office, early in the morning. A lesson plan was developed with each minute of the practice laid out in detail.
In Coach, Wooden shared his practice plan for the NCAA Championship game against Kentucky. Here is a sample: “5 minutes — change of direction and pace, defensive sliding, defensive sliding and catch-up, 1 on 1, with and without ball; 10 minutes– shooting, baseline…perimeter, after pass and dribble, 6 players at each end with two balls with each group.”
Once a practice was organized, each coach received typed 3×5 notecards with the schedule on them. These cards were then taken to practice and followed without exception.
When the session began, always on time, the drills were fast-paced and involved the entire team. No one stood around, it was a whirl of sustained motion. Wooden, on the floor with the team, was constantly teaching as the workout proceeded vigorously.
There were no chalk talks, no scouting reports reviewed. 70 -75 percent of the two-hour block was devoted to repetition of fundamentals. Bill Walton, who had an All American career at UCLA, described it this way: “our practices were the most demanding endeavors I’ve ever been part of…non-stop action and absolutely electric, super-charged, on edge, crisp…always positive, always constructive, John Wooden drove us in ways and directions that we were not aware of.”
Specific plays were practiced until executed perfectly. Wooden would have the play practiced again several more times — each time at a faster pace.
Every practice ended on some up-beat note or message. When players went to the locker room after the sessions, they were frequently so physically spent that they had to rest to summon the energy to shower.
The net impact of these power practices is that actual game play seemed to be less challenging. Walton observed, “I’d often think during UCLA games, ‘Why is this taking so long?’ Because we had done everything that happened during a game thousands of times at a faster pace.”
Psychologists Ronald Gallimore and Roland Tharp were given permission by Wooden to attend UCLA’s practices for one season — they were allowed to study his teaching methods. The two wrote: “his teaching …comments were short, punctuated and numerous. There were no lectures, no extended harangues. Although frequent and often in rapid-fire order…he rarely spoke longer than 20 seconds.”
Dividing his teaching into categories, Gallimore and Tharp discovered most of Wooden’s comments were either direct instruction or commands to intensify previously instructed behavior. Praise and expressions of disapproval happened infrequently — the focus was not personal, it was informative.
Most interesting was his “sandwich” technique — show the correct behavior, show the incorrect way the player was executing, and then show the correct way again. Wooden could do this so quickly, the practice never stopped while the instruction took place.
The psychologists concluded he was a master teacher “at the peak of his craft”– they believed that Wooden’s approach changed their views about all teaching.
One of UCLA’s greatest stars, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, offered this perspective: “he didn’t just tell us how something should be done. He showed us. Coach Wooden was right out there on the court with us demonstrating even though he must have been 40 years older than us. This means something — to see him out there doing it himself.”
In his retirement years, the coach was often asked what he missed most in his career — the championship trophies, the national spotlight and what goes with all that. Wooden, without hesitation, would reply, “I miss the practices.”