UCLA basketball has seen its share of exceptional talent pass through its doors, from the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to modern All-Stars like Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, and Zach LaVine.
However, no one is as widely regarded in UCLA glory as the legendary basketball coach, John Wooden. His accomplishments on the court speak for themselves: 10 NCAA championships in a 12-year span, including 7 titles in a row. His true legacy, however, lies in his coaching philosophy, centered around his Pyramid of Success: a representation of the foundational principles guiding his coaching and life. Before Wooden became head coach at UCLA, he held several coaching positions at Dayton High School, South Bend Central HS, and Indiana State. During this time, Wooden pondered the true definition of “success”; was it solely measured by the outcome at the end of the game, or was it something more than that?
Coach believed that success “wasn't about the final score, about winning or losing. It was about the hard work and effort to reach the final score. If you did your best in preparation and during the contest, in whatever it was you were doing, both on and off the basketball court, then it was a successful journey, regardless of the outcome.” (citation). The idea of effort being more important than the outcome was a value instilled in Wooden from his father, Joshua Hugh Wooden, who told him, “Don't worry about being better than somebody else, but never cease trying to be the best you can be."
Completing the Pyramid took several years but was perfected by the time Wooden became a coach at UCLA.
Let’s look at a graphic of the pyramid below and then break down its structure.
"The best way to improve the team is to improve yourself."
First layer: Industriousness, Friendship, Loyalty, Cooperation, and Enthusiasm.
Industriousness and Enthusiasm are the cornerstones of the pyramid, demonstrating the idea that working hard and enjoying the process go hand in hand. There is no substitute for hard work. It may be possible to get by, at least temporarily, through shortcuts and taking the easy way, but it’ll not allow the potential within all of us to develop. The work will be challenging, but it must be done, whether training for a sport or personal development off the court. Although, if one is going to work hard at anything in life, there must be some enjoyment in the process, which is why the value of Enthusiasm completes the other cornerstone of the pyramid. Having a sense of joy in the work benefits yourself and the people around you. Enthusiasm radiates outwardly and is infectious. It can inspire those around you to enjoy the work and/or spark a newfound interest.
Between the two cornerstones of Industriousness and Enthusiasm, there is a focus on the importance of others: Friendship, Loyalty, and Cooperation. Friendships can be easy to take for granted: they might not hold the same significance or commitment to people as a relationship or marriage. However, the best friendships are just as valuable and require an effort from both people to sustain. Next, loyalty is an excellent indicator of our respect for ourselves and others. Can we be loyal to the people around us who depend on us, our families, friends, coaches? Most importantly, can we be loyal to ourselves and commit to the process through any ups and downs that will occur? Lastly, cooperation entails being a good listener and putting your ego to the side if the situation calls for it, personally or professionally.
Second layer: Self-Control, Alertness, Initiative, Intentness
The qualities and behaviors listed become critical for achieving greatness as the pyramid builds. Self-control in all areas of life is crucial, both physically and mentally. Emotions must be looked at with the appropriate perspective and not let them override reason. Emotional decisions can have potentially harmful impacts on yourself and those around you. Pause and then respond accordingly rather than react with impulse. Next, being alert and observant of your surroundings helps you continue learning and growing. As Wooden has said, there is always something going on around you from which you can learn, good or bad. With this, taking the initiative to go after what you want without fearing failure is necessary. It is okay to fail and, in some cases, required to evolve as a person. Wooden stated, “The worst failure of all is failure to act when action is needed, but act with reason.” When taking the initiative, use your best judgment and accept the outcome, knowing that you took the course of action you felt was necessary. Lastly, having intent is equivalent to having a sense of determination in the goals you are striving to achieve. Also, being persistent in these goals, knowing that the journey to reach them won’t always be easy, but it will be worth it. Adversity in its many forms will inevitably become a part of the journey, but dealing with and overcoming it will build character and strengthen your resolve to keep striving for more.
Third layer: Condition, Skill, Team Spirit
Conditioning isn’t just limited to athletes, nor is it just a physical process. One must be conditioned for the tasks required, whether at a job or as a parent or sibling. However, “to have physical conditioning, Wooden says, it must be preceded by mental and moral conditioning, or you can never achieve it to the degree that’s possible.” In a sense, we must train our minds properly, train our bodies, and give them the right amounts of exercise and nutrition needed to be at our best. Once conditioned, having the proper skills and knowledge to execute the task is vital. It is mastering the fundamentals to achieve at the highest level for sports. This knowledge will allow the situation to perform quickly and swiftly when the situation calls for it. Lastly, having team spirit and knowing the role required of yourself while respecting the positions of others. On a team, some players take on the roles of starters, while others are reserves. Knowing and respecting this role is essential so the team can function as a cohesive unit. What a team accomplishes is more important than what a singular player can achieve on the court.
Fourth layer: Poise, Confidence
As the pyramid's apex gets closer, the values crucial for success become more individualized. Specifically, having poise or maintaining composure in challenging situations, staying true to yourself, and moving forward with calm and composure. Also, being confident in your abilities and all the prep work done to get to the current moment. Wooden believed that true confidence comes from a balance of preparation and hard work.
Apex: Competitive Greatness
At the pinnacle of the Pyramid is Competitive Greatness. This means that when the time comes to perform, you can give your best. In critical moments or under pressure, you give maximum effort and nothing short of that. Regardless of the outcome, you succeed if you are at your best when needed. Because as Wooden famously says, “Success is a 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’s Pyramid has stood the test of time in its invaluable guidance and wisdom that it continues to provide. For athletes, professionals, and families, these values provide a roadmap for individuals to make ethical choices, foster positive relationships, and contribute to the greater good. Each block offers invaluable lessons for individuals striving to lead purposeful and successful lives on and off the basketball court.