Marching to Success

“Success is the peace of mind that can be obtained only from the self-satisfaction of knowing that you have made the effort to do the very best of which you are capable.”

— John Wooden

March Madness is here again, a time when it seems as if everyone from kids in elementary school to CEOs of billion-dollar companies can’t wait to complete their NCAA tournament bracket. With all those teams in all those rounds, it’s almost impossible to make the right picks, given that even a single loss will eliminate a team, and possibly eliminate your bracket. An injury to a key player, an illness, a long delay on a plane flight, a bad decision by an official or a coach, a missed free throw, or just a team having a bad day, any one of those things can change the entire tournament. The real madness of March is trying to figure out who’s going to win the tournament when you consider everything that can go wrong.

But if you think it’s hard to pick a winner, imagine how hard it is to actually win the tournament. And winning it twice in a row? Forget about it. That’s been done only twice in the past 40 years.

That raises an interesting question. Has the men’s tournament ever been won three times in a row by the same school? Yes, but only once, and therein lies a story.

For starters, it wasn’t just three times in a row, it was seven times in a row. In fact, from 1964 to 1975 a single school—UCLA—won the tournament 10 out of 12 years, including that unbelievable seven years in a row. Even more remarkable, during that string of seven championships UCLA won 47 tournament games in a row.

Think about that. Over eight seasons, with eight different teams, in a tournament in which a single loss meant it was all over, at a time of year when they were facing the best of the best, all of whom were determined to beat them, UCLA won 47 single-elimination games in a row. When they did finally lose a tournament game, it was in the Final Four, after three overtimes, against the eventual champion, and then they came back and won it all again the next year.

How did they accomplish so much when no other men’s team has ever come even remotely close to what they did, in the entire history of college basketball? What was their secret?

The short answer is this: John Wooden. Ever hear of him? He hasn’t coached since the 1970s, and championships are only part of his story. If you think that winning an NCAA Division I tournament is hard, what’s even harder is to go undefeated for the entire year. In the 42 years since Coach Wooden retired that has been done by a men’s team only once. But his teams did it four times, including one stretch in which they went undefeated for an incredible 88 games in a row.

So how did he do it? What was his secret? People have been asking that ever since he started winning championships. What’s fascinating is that there was no secret. If you’d asked Coach Wooden he would always have given you the same answer, which was the quotation at the beginning of this piece:

“Success is the peace of mind that can be obtained only from the self-satisfaction of knowing that you have made the effort to do the very best of which you are capable.”

Believe it or not, that’s all there is to it. But as with most important truths in life, there is far more there than meets the eye.

Whether you care about sports or not, if you care about success in your life, or more importantly happiness, then Coach Wooden is worth paying attention to. Statistically speaking, his record made him what today we would call an outlier, a statistical anomaly. His achievements were so far beyond what his peers were able to accomplish under similar circumstances, facing similar obstacles, that it’s hard for us even to make sense of them. Either he was a freak of nature or he was on to something. I prefer to believe the latter. But what he was on to was so deceptively simple that it’s tempting to dismiss it as a cliché. Yet it has the power to change your life.

I didn’t understand any of that until a few year ago when I read an interview with Mr. Wooden, long after he had given up coaching. When he was asked how he scouted the competition his answer shocked me. We didn’t worry much about the competition, he explained, we worried about ourselves. We didn’t go out to try to beat somebody, we went out to try to play the very best we could.

That contradicted everything I thought I knew about winning. To win in today’s world you have to know your opponent. You have to be prepared for whatever your opponent is going to throw at you. You have to be able to exploit his weaknesses. Isn’t that why coaches and athletes spend countless hours watching film of their competition? Isn’t that why business people, and politicians, and others who compete for a living spend so much time on opposition research?

Anyway, that’s what I thought, at least until Coach Wooden rocked my world with a deeper truth.

When we focus too much of our attention on our competition we’re missing the point. We’re the point. The winningest men’s basketball coach in NCAA history won because he didn’t care as much about winning as he cared about something far more important. Coach Wooden’s philosophy, and what he taught his players, was that the only real success in life is the peace of mind that comes from the self-satisfaction of knowing deep down inside that you have made the effort to do the very best of which you are capable.

Winning is merely a byproduct of making that effort, and not even the most important byproduct. What is really important is the peace of mind that can come only from knowing that you have made the effort to do the very best of which you are capable. That’s the real payoff. That peace of mind is success.

Coach Wooden’s “secret” was that he relentlessly coached his players to take that philosophy to heart. He taught them to focus on making the effort to do the very best of which they were capable. He explained that they would be the only ones who would ever know if they had made that effort. He helped them understand that their resulting self-knowledge would either give them the peace of mind that was the ultimate success, or inspire them to dig deeper the next time.

Wooden expected those young men to live that way, and he expected them to play that way. In any game, if his team made that effort, then they were successful, even if they lost. But if they didn’t make that effort, then they would never be successful, no matter how many games they won.

For Wooden, it wasn’t enough for his players to compete with their opponents, each player had to compete with himself. Each had to live with the self-knowledge of his own efforts. Wooden knew that a player might be able to fool others, might even be able to defeat others, but couldn’t fool himself. No player could truly be a winner until he knew in his heart of hearts that he had made the effort to do his very best. When Wooden’s players took that message to heart, the byproduct was that their opponents simply could not keep up with them.

Coach Wooden was the winningest men’s basketball coach in history because he refused to settle for winning. Winning wasn’t enough. Even winning national championships wasn’t enough. He wanted more from his players. He challenged them every day to make the effort to do their very best, every game, every play, every player, from superstars to walk-ons. Against weak teams and strong teams. Even in practice. What Wooden really wanted was for a player to win his battles against himself—against fear, injuries, complacency, personal problems, inexperience, overconfidence, illness, immaturity, lack of focus, bad luck, fatigue—and he wanted each player to win those battles every time he went out on the court, regardless of the final score. That was Wooden’s idea of winning. Win that inner game and you will achieve the peace of mind that is the only real success. The score will take care of itself.

Coach Wooden didn’t care much for winning games in which his players gave less than their best. Those wins were never really victories for him because his goal wasn’t just winning, it was for his players to know that they had made the effort to do the very best of which they were capable. His mission in life was to teach them how to experience the peace of mind that could come only from knowing that they had made that effort. That was the one thing he could give them that would make them better and happier human beings. He knew that winning, in itself, could never do that.

Think how much higher that standard is than what most of us live by. In Wooden’s world, it was never enough to come out on top. You had to know that you were making the effort to do your very best. Winning wasn’t an end in itself, it was merely the result of a certain point of view, a certain approach to life. Winning wasn’t the cake, it wasn’t even the icing. The icing, the cake, the whole reason for competing in the first place was to experience that remarkable peace of mind that could come only from the self-satisfaction of knowing that you had made the effort to do the very best of which you were capable. There were no shortcuts and there were no substitutes. Not even winning.

Imagine how that outlook might play in your life. Have you ever gotten an “A” on a test that you didn’t study for? Have you ever been given a compliment that you knew you hadn’t earned? Have you ever won a competition that you knew you didn’t deserve to win?

From now on, instead of winning, what if your goal is to achieve the peace of mind that comes only from knowing that you are making the effort to do your very best? How much better might you perform? How much better might you feel? What would your life be like if you refused to settle just for winning, but insisted instead on achieving that far more challenging goal of knowing deep down inside that you are making the effort to do your very best? Do that and whatever you “win” along the way will pale in comparison.

The irony of Coach Wooden’s career is that the world measured his success in wins, but he won by refusing to be measured that way. He insisted on a higher standard, a standard that produced results so far beyond his peers that what he accomplished is almost beyond comprehension.

But not quite. This March Madness, while you’re keeping track of your bracket, keep in mind how difficult it is to pick the winner, and how much more difficult it is to be the winner. And then remember the guy who did it 10 times.

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Keith Ellis is a bestselling author, and elearning evangelist for Lynda.com. He is the author of the heart-pounding thriller NO SECRETS, as well as THE MAGIC LAMP, the classic book about goal setting for people who hate setting goals.

(Copyright 2017, by Keith Ellis)

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