Lessons from Watching Coach John Wooden in Action

Hello FLMS staff and families!

Below is an abbreviated article on coaching and teaching.  I hope you enjoy it.

Dave Patota


Freetown-Lakeville Middle School


Lessons from Watching Coach John Wooden in Action

In this 2004 article in The Sports Psychologist, Ronald Gallimore (University of California/Los Angeles) and Roland Tharp (University of California/Santa Cruz) revisit a study they did 25 years earlier of one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time, John Wooden. Gallimore and Tharp got permission to observe Wooden’s afternoon practice sessions with his team during the 1974-75 season – which turned out to be his last. They sat at mid-court in Pauley Pavilion and took notes, quietly discussed their observations, created categories, and gathered data. They later followed up with interviews with the coach and some of his players.

“Wooden’s teaching fell naturally into a frequency-count system,” say Gallimore and Tharp. “His teaching utterances or comments were short, punctuated, and numerous. There were no lectures, no extended harangues. Although frequent and often in rapid-fire order, his utterances were so distinct we could code each one as a separate event.” Here are the main categories and each one’s percent of the total:

Instructions: What to do and how to do it (“Do some dribbling between shots.” “Hard driving, quick steps.”) – 50.3%

Hustles: Activating or intensifying previous instructions, while maintaining accuracy (When a rookie 7’ 2” player snagged a rebound and, not for the first time, hesitated and dribbled when he was supposed to pass to a guard and start a controlled downcourt rush, Wooden shouted, “Pass to someone short!”) – 12.7%

Modeling-positive: Demonstration of how to perform, sometimes by stopping the action with a short whistle blast and giving a mini-lecture to all the players (“You’re reaching in! You’re still reaching in! Gracious, I’d hate to see us play a good guard. You can’t take the ball away from a good guard! You can get position. Cut him off! Some of you think you’re better on defense than you are and you aren’t. Now, no more reaching! Cut ’em off! Now go!”) – 2.8%

Modeling-negative: Demonstration of how not to perform – 1.6%

Praises: Spoken compliments to players – 6.9%

Reproofs: Expressions of displeasure (“Goodness gracious me!” was the closest Wooden came to cursing) – 6.6%

Nonverbal reward: Smiles, pats, etc. – 1.2%

Nonverbal punishment: Scowls, despairing gestures, temporary removal of a player from the scrimmage – Trace

A “Wooden”: The distinctive combination of a scold, modeling-positive, followed by modeling-negative (“How many times do I have to tell you to get your hands up for a

rebound?”), ending with a second modeling-positive (“Pass from the chest!”) – 8.0%

Other: Anything not in the list above2.4%

Couldn’tbe coded: Not seen or heard – 6.6%


What struck Gallimore and Tharp was that 75 percent of Wooden’s coaching was information, much of it repetitive – instructions, hustles, modeling, “Woodens” – and very little of it was praise and criticism.

Yet Wooden saw his teaching as positive, and players perceived it that way, even when they were being corrected. One player said, years later, “[C]orrections in the form of information did not address or attack me as a person. New information was aimed at the act, rather than the actor… Had the majority of Coach Wooden’s corrective strategies been positive (‘Good job’) or negative (‘No, that’s not the way’), I would have been left with an evaluation, not a solution.”

In the practices, everything was short. Wooden quoted another coach, John Bunn, saying, “Give a coach the opportunity to take fifteen minutes to say what he should in fifteen seconds – he will!” Wooden said, “I learned to be concise and quick and didn’t string things out… I never had a lot of meetings and things of that sort. I wanted short things during the practice sessions.”

The researchers noticed several other features of Wooden’s sessions: Practices began and ended precisely on time (3:29 – 5:29 p.m.); everything was tightly organized; there was constant, intense activity; and Wooden (who had been an English teacher in Indiana) came prepared with meticulous 3x5 note cards scripting what would happen. “He made decisions ‘on the fly’ at a pace equal to his players, in response to the details of his players’ actions,” say Gallimore and Tharp. “Yet his teaching was in no sense ad hoc. Down to the specific words he used, his planning included specific goals both for the team and individuals. Thus, he could pack into a practice a rich basketball curriculum and deliver information at precisely the moments it would help his students learn the most. It was, he always said, the teaching in practices that he valued, more than the games and the winning, and it was practice that he was so reluctant to leave behind when he retired.”

Years later, one of Wooden’s most illustrious players, Bill Walton, said: “Practices at UCLA were nonstop, electric, supercharged, intense, demanding… with Coach pacing the sidelines like a caged tiger, barking instructions, positive reinforcement, and maxims: ‘Be quick, but don’t hurry.’ He constantly changed drills and scrimmages, exhorting us to ‘move quickly, hurry up.’ Games seemed like they happened in a slower gear. I’d think in games, ‘why is this taking so long because everything we did in games happened faster in practice.’”

Behind it all was a strategic purpose – building automaticity and mastery of fundamentals that would serve his players in competitive situations and open up opportunities for creativity and initiative. Wooden espoused the “whole-part” method – giving players the big picture and then spending a lot of time on the details. “The four laws are explanation, demonstration, imitation, and repetition,” said Wooden. “The goal is to create a correct habit that can be produced instinctively under great pressure. To make sure this goal was achieved, I created eight laws of learning, namely, explanation, demonstration, imitation, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, and repetition.”

All this was coupled with patience. “When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur,” said Wooden. “Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts.”

“What a Coach Can Teach a Teacher, 1975-2004: Reflections and Reanalysis of John Wooden’s Teaching Practices” by Ronald Gallimore and Roland Tharp in The Sports Psychologist, 2004 (Vol. 18, p. 119-137),

Marshall Memo 544 July 7, 2014