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  • Writer's pictureMartin Davis

Readings for Coaches


Before I was a coach. Before I was a journalist. I was (and remain) an intellectual.

The term today has fallen on hard times. It’s often equated with people who have “book sense” but not “common sense.” Or people who live a life of privilege, out of touch with the needs of ordinary people. Worse, it’s often equated with arrogance.

Yes, I was a intellectual in the traditional sense. University educated, well-read, and a teacher at the university level. The people I most admired and modeled, however, were not other Ivory-Tower intellectuals. They were “public intellectuals.” People whose learning came from both inside and outside America’s great libraries, and who counted as their students and colleagues people both inside and outside the university's walls.

Public intellectuals play a critical role in any modern society. They make the mysterious – ancient texts and wisdom, mind-numbingly complex sciences, and the hidden gems of history – knowable to anyone who wants to learn. At the same time, they are grounded and experienced in the realm of everyday people. They can relate because they do not wall themselves off from everyday life. You are as likely to see them in the hardware store or local market as you are the local library or classroom.

Coaches as Public Intellectuals

Why talk about this?

Because I believe that coaches have the power to be great public intellectuals.

Consider: The title “Coach” confers a level of respect on anyone who is honored to have it. Parents entrust their most valuable asset, their children, to them. Thousands of people gather to watch their work unfold before their eyes on game days. And coaches are often sought after speakers at civic events, churches, camps, and leadership conferences. They are, in short, very public figures.

On the other hand, some of our best-known coaches were also intellectuals. Dean Smith, longtime basketball coach at the University of North Carolina was renowned for his learning and his role in the Civil Rights movement. Vince Lombardi, for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named, was as knowledgeable of chemistry and physics as he was the Green Bay Sweep.

Coaches, of course, are under tremendous pressures – pressures that make it difficult to find time to reflect, think about the deeper challenges we face, and drink deeply from great books. In short, finding time to nurture their intellectual side is challenging.

To help in this area, I am launching a series of blog posts that allow you to read along with me and learn from some of the greatest books ever written. Books directly about coaching, and books that have much to offer coaches.

Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success

The first book I’ve selected was an easy choice. Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success. If you have a Kindle Reader, you can download the book for free. If you prefer to have a hard copy, you can get one for about $13 here.

Wooden is the legendary coach of the UCLA Bruins basketball team. Beginning in 1964, he won ten national championships over a 12 year period, failing to lift the trophy only in 1966 and 1974. And from 1967 to 1973 he won seven straight titles. It’s a run of success that no coach in the college men's game has come close to replicating. (Gene Auriemma has been as successful as Wooden coaching the University of Connecticut Women's Basketball Team. Between 1995 and today, the team has won 11 national titles. From 2013 to 2016 it won four in a row.)

UCLA's history-making run was the end result of nearly 30 years of coaching. When Wooden took the helm at Westwood in 1948, UCLA played in a gym that held fewer people than many of gyms he had played in in Indiana as a high-school athlete.

In short, before earning his first championship ring, Wooden spent 15 years toiling away to build a program. And the cornerstone of that program was the Pyramid of Success.

Wooden first faced the challenge of defining success in high school. It wasn’t until he graduated from Purdue University in 1932 and began teaching high school, however, that he really began to wrestle with what success meant.

He struggled because he could not in good conscious call people failures who made the most of their ability. Wooden explains:

“It seemed unfair to consider a student with average ability who performed to the best of his or her ability as a failure simply because he or she was not at the top of the class. Moreover, it was not right for me, as a teacher, to give a grade that was undeserved. Faced with this dilemma, I continued in my quest to define success.” (p. 11, Kindle Edition)

The key to success, Wooden came to see, was striving to be the very best person you could be, and finding in that effort, peace.

"Success,” Wooden came to decide, “is peace of mind that is the direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” (p. 12, Kindle Edition)

The value in this approach, Wooden came to understand, is that the only person who can decide if you have been successful, is you.

As I develop as a coach and a leader, there is something deeply freeing in this approach.

As a coach, it frees me from the pressure that everyone around me is determined to place on me. Win or lose, if I have done the work and given my very best, I can lie down at night confident that I have been successful.

This definition of success also alters the way I approach the people I am coaching. My goal is not to make every player an all-conference athlete, or improve them to the point they earn an athletic scholarship.

My job is to help each player in my charge get the very best out of the talents that they have. And teaching them that when they give their best on the field, in the classroom, at home, and on the job, they are successful.

How does one come to draw the best from themselves and to be successful? That is at the heart of The Pyramid of Success.

Watch for the Next Post on The Pyramid of Success

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