john wooden great basketball coach

How to Coach Lacrosse like John Wooden

We found some really interesting information about John Wooden, "the greatest coach of all time in any sport," (ESPN) that we are definitely taking with us to lacrosse practice this week. We hope you can too.


We are currently reading The Talent Code: Unlocking the Secret of Skill in Sports, Art, Music, and Math by Daniel Coyle (2010). In it we learned some very useful, specific, actionable steps about John Wooden's coaching genius that any of us can use or learn from. It's not about his leadership style or coaching philosophy. We are talking about action items, concrete steps we can take, the machinery of effective coaching. Which is what we really love.

It might seem simple by the end of reading this article, but how many of us are really following this advice from a master coach?

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John Wooden has been regarded as, “the greatest coach of all time in any sport.” (ESPN) “The Wizard of Westwood,” Wooden led UCLA Basketball to 10 National Championships in 12 years, more than any other coach in the NCAA, and an 88-game undefeated stretch, that lasted for nearly three years. So how did he do it? What's his secret?

Wooden is widely quoted and widely read because of his humble leadership style, focus on the team over the individual, attention to detail, and his temperament as a coach and a role model for his players. He is famous for his Pyramid of Success, and many quotable maxims. Learn all you can about Coach Wooden at his website.

john wooden pyramid thinking success






Coach Wooden is also famous for formulating his "Four Laws of Learning." Many NCAA coaches use a multi-step/format approach to each of these Four Laws to teach their players in practice. For example, Bill Tierney and Matt Brown at Denver will use Whiteboard, Video, and Skeleton Offense or Defense JUST in the Explanation step of Wooden's Four Laws, before any of their players pick up a ball for themselves.

As we will find out shortly, there are actually Five Laws of Learning. In The Talent Code, Coach Wooden makes special mention of "Correction" after "Imitation". To Wooden, criticism is, "not meant to punish, but rather correct something that is preventing better results. The only goal of criticism or discipline is improvement."


The Talent Code does a whole chapter about two teachers, Gallimore and Tharp, who asked if they could observe Wooden's practice methods during the 1975 season. They published their findings in an article, "What a coach can teach a teacher." (Tharp, R.G. & Gallimore, Ronald. (1976). Psychology Today. 9. 75-78.) We have transcribed and paraphrased the most important parts of the chapter here:

"Gallimore and Tharp settled eagerly into courtside seats at Pauley Pavilion. As fans of the team, as well as former athletes themselves, they knew what to expect- chalk talks, inspiring speeches, punishment laps for slackers, praise for hard workers. Then practice began.

Wooden didn’t give speeches. He didn’t do chalk talks. He didn’t dole out punishment laps, or praise. In all, he didn’t sound or act like any coach they’d ever encountered.

“We thought we knew what coaching was.” Gallimore said. “Our expectations were completely wrong. Completely! All the stuff I had associated with coaching, there was none of it.”

Wooden ran an intense whirligig of 5- to 15-minute drills, issuing a rapid-fire stream of words all the while. The interesting part was the content of those words.

As their subsequent article, Basketball’s John Wooden: What a coach can teach a teacher put it, “Wooden’s teaching utterances or comments were short, punctuated, and numerous. There were no lectures, no extended harangues. He rarely spoke longer than 20 seconds.

Here are some of Wooden’s more long-winded “speeches”:

“Take the ball softly. You’re receiving a pass, not intercepting it.”

“Do some dribbling between shots.”

“Crisp passes. Really snap them!”

“Good, Richard. That’s just what I want.”

“Hard, driving, quick steps!”

They were confused. They had expected to find a basketball Moses, intoning sermons from the Mount, yet this man resembled a busy telegraph operator. They felt slightly deflated. This was great coaching?

Gallimore and Tharp kept attending practices. As weeks and months went by, an ember of insight began to glow. It came partly from watching the team improve, rising from 3rd in the conference at mid-season, to winning its 10th National Championship. But it came mostly from the data Gallimore and Tharp recorded in their notebooks.

Gallimore and Tharp recorded and coded 2,326 discreet acts of teaching. Of them, a mere 6.9% were compliments. Only 6.6% were expressions of displeasure. But 75% were pure information. What to do, how to do it, when to intensify an activity.

One of Wooden’s most frequent forms of teaching was a three-part instruction where he modeled the right way to do something, showed the incorrect way, then remodeled the right way, a sequence that appeared in Gallimore and Tharp’s notes as M+, M-, M+. It happened so often, they named it, “A Wooden”.

As Gallimore and Tharp wrote, “Wooden’s demonstrations rarely take longer than 3 seconds, but are of such clarity, that they leave an image in memory much like a textbook sketch.”

The information didn’t slow down the practice. To the contrary, Wooden combined it with something he called, “Mental and emotional conditioning,” which basically amounted to everyone running harder than they did in games, all the time.

As former player Bill Walton said, “Practices at UCLA were non-stop, electric, super-charged, intense, demanding.”

While Wooden’s practices looked natural and unplanned, in fact, they were anything but. The Coach would spend two hours each morning with his assistants planning that day’s practice, then write out the minute-by-minute schedule on 3x5 cards. He kept cards from year to year so he could compare and adjust. No detail was too small to be considered.

What looked like a flowing, improvised series of drills was, in fact, as well structured as a libretto. What looked like Wooden shooting from the hip was, in fact, closer to planned talking points.

As Gallimore and Tharp wrote, “Wooden made decisions on the fly, at a pace equal to his players, in response to the details of his players’ actions. Yet his teaching was in no sense ad hoc. Down to the specific words he used, his planning included specific goals both for team and for 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.”

Gradually a picture came into focus. What made Wooden a great coach wasn’t praise, wasn’t denunciation, and certainly wasn’t pep talks. His skill resided in the Gatling Gun rattle of targeted information he fired at his players. This, not that. Here, not there. His words and gestures served as short, sharp impulses that showed his players the correct way to do something. He was seeing and fixing errors. He was honing circuits. He was a virtuoso of Deep Practice.

He taught in chunks, using what he called, “the Whole/Part Method”. He would teach players an entire move, then break it down to work on its elemental actions. He formulated laws of learning: Explanation, Demonstration, Imitation, Correction, and Repetition.

“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,” he wrote in, “The Wisdom of Wooden”.

“Repetition is the key to learning," he said.

Most people regard Wooden’s success as a product of his humble, thoughtful, inspiring character. But Gallimore and Tharp showed that his success was a result less of his character, than of his error-centered, well-planned, information-rich practices. In fact it was Wooden’s commitment to this method of learning that led him to agree to participate in Gallimore and Tharp’s experiment in the first place. As Wooden later explained, he had hoped to use the experience to improve shortcomings in his coaching.

Some of the best coaches we know are former Professional Field and Box players. Their success as coaches, if you're following everything from above, comes mostly from their ability to impart information to their players based on their own experience: "Try this, not that. Do that here, not there." This is, of course, in addition to their reputation, character, leadership style, and ability to connect with and motivate their players. But it is mostly about their ability to provide accurate and useful instruction and information.


lacrosse coach with team

If you're like us, you want to take something new that you learned to practice every day for your players. You don't have to spend two hours planning practice every day. You don't have to have the same level of attention to every detail that Coach Wooden and his coaching staff had. Most of us just don't have that kind of time. Instead, just take this statistic from Gallimore and Tharp's publication abstract in Psychology magazine almost 50 years ago:

Coach Wooden made little use of praises and reproofs. 80% of his utterances carried information about proper offensive and defensive options and actions. Exquisite and diligent planning lay behind this heavy information load, economy of talk, and practice organization. Coach never mentioned values encoded into his Pyramid of Success. Instead, he taught them by the example of his own actions on and off the court.

We are firm believers in Positive Coaching and US Lacrosse principles of "the Emotional Gas Tank" and rewarding the effort and attitude of our young athletes. We believe in the value of Team Culture, Effort over Outcome, Progress over Performance, and in all the important life lessons that youth sports can teach young people.

All of that being said, you can accomplish all of these goals by following Coach Wooden's example, firing off pure information to your players 75-80% of everything you say. Corrections, not criticism. Try this, try that, do this when this happens, do that when that happens.

Your players will get the recognition, reward and positive feedback that they want and need from their coaches, their teammates, and themselves when they put the information into action on the field, and get the better results that we are all working towards. Success becomes its own reward. This is what starts the "Intrinsic Motivation Cycle" that drives players to accomplish activities for their own inherent satisfaction, rather than for external rewards. Turn your players into self-starters, self-motivators, just by feeding them tons of information. The kids will do the rest!

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