John Wooden and Mental Toughness
Henry Bibby gets the outlet pass. It’s another UCLA fast break. Bibby passes to Rowe on the left side. Here comes Wicks on the right side. Steve Patterson is trailing and coming straight down the middle. Rowe back to Bibby, Bibby to Wicks, Wicks to Patterson for the uncontested layup. Score!
That would be a signature play for John Wooden’s UCLA teams. We were famous for being unselfish, in great condition, and extremely skilled especially with the pass. But few talk about how mentally-tough the Bruins were.
Mentally-tough athletes are conditioned to maintain poise, effort, and concentration during times of resistance and nonresistance, and are able to give their best when their best is needed.
When we were up by twenty points, we kept pouring it on. When we were down by ten points, we raised our game and made the comeback to win. Nothing could rattle us, no fan, score, or official. Nothing could cause us to think it was hopeless or in the bag. We were tough, as tough as nails.
How did Coach Wooden develop such resilient individuals and teams? Here are three steps:
Step 1: Teach the Pyramid
Although Coach Wooden never directly taught us the Pyramid of Success, it was there. It was there when he said before games, “If you’ve done all you can to prepare, I want your heads up at the end.” It was there when he never mentioned the word, “win,” one time. It was there when he taught the fundamentals (skill), subjected us to immense physical challenges (condition), and incessantly emphasized working together (team spirit). Those three blocks of the pyramid will begin to make you tough. Mentally tough players are always skilled, conditioned and unselfish.
Step 2: Apply the Pressure
Coach Wooden trained the mind to be the boss over the body. That’s mental toughness. The body wants to do this but you say, “No. You’re doing that.” All practice long, we were begging to take a break. When he saw my tongue dragging on the hardwood floor he yelled, “Get going! What are you waiting for?” That’s when my mind told my body to move. His method for getting yourself in shape was, “Go until you can’t go anymore and then go a little more.”
We scrimmaged a lot, half court and full. We screwed up a lot. He would say, “Don’t sulk. Try it again. Figure it out.” That’s when my mind told my body to get going once again. He applied pressure every day, all season.
Step 3: Model the Pattern
No written word, no oral plea,
Can teach our youth what they should be,
Nor all the books on all the shelves;
It’s what the teachers are themselves.
Teach the Pyramid and apply the pressure but the best way to teach mental toughness is to demonstrate it. UCLA players were mentally-tough because our coach was. Nothing rattled John Wooden. Nothing affected his concentration. He was a tough son of a gun.
When we got behind in a game because the other team was hot and we had not yet figured out how to beat them, Coach grinned. To us it was a big thing; to him it was a small thing. He knew we would come back. When we saw that, we believed and went to work.
So that’s how John Wooden created mentally-tough teams. Get us down by twenty, and we’re coming back, together. Let us up by twenty, and we’ll bury you. And if the score was close with a minute to go, you had better be careful. UCLA was raising its game to a level you have never seen.