Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Coach Wooden and the Perfect Lesson Plan

Coach John Wooden and the Perfect Lesson Plan

Swen Nater

From 1964 to 1975 Coach John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins men’s basketball team accomplished the following:
10 national championships, 7 in a row
88 consecutive wins
38 consecutive playoff wins
4 perfect seasons

That is “sustained success.” Many coaches have won championships but few have won two in a row. Still fewer won three in a row. And no coach in men’s basketball has ever won ten consecutive titles. How did this happen? How was one man, who had various assistant coaches and players, accomplish that? Did he have the best talent in the country every year? No. I suggest, the secret may lie in his teaching, particularly the daily lesson plan.

Those who know Coach Wooden know he was obsessed with reaching perfection in every part of his life. Two of his most-known quotes are,

Make each day your masterpiece.


You haven’t lived a perfect day until you have done something for someone without the slightest thought of receiving anything in return.

As a coach, he was internally-driven to produce the “perfect lesson plan,” obsessed with the illusive objective of making the plan for the day’s practice session a masterpiece to equal Rembrandt’s Night Watch. But he knew it could never be done. Yet, when he sat down every morning to create that minute-by-minute plan, he jettisoned the demons telling him of his certain failure and commenced to draw on the plans and notes of the past. As he continued, his heart leapt with excitement and anticipation. Was this the day he would finally do it? Was this the day he would come home to Nelly after practice and tell her he had reached perfection? That plan looked like it was the one he had been waiting for.

Every day he would try and every day he would fail. How could his mind take it? How could he remain sane, knowing at the end of practice he would drop his head once more, knowing the next day he must start from scratch? As Harriet Braiker wrote,

Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.

In his heart he knew it, yet he could not imagine a day without the drive to reach the top. He could not possibly conjure up the vision of making a practice plan that was a copy of another or something he casually put together. John Wooden was not capable of saying, “That’s good enough.”

Was Coach Wooden insane? Was the effort to get something he would never be able to get mentally destructive? There are some who would think, never being satisfied is not good, William Shakespeare, in King Lear, being one.

Striving to be better, oft we mar what’s well.

What if The Bard told Wooden this very thing to his face? What would Coach do? I think he would say, “Yes, it’s OK to, in my quest for perfection, stop and see how far I’ve come, but I’m afraid to because I may become satisfied and the smallest degree of complacency can retard my momentum toward the goal.”
Many joke about perfection. Wilt Chamberlain, NBA great, wrote,

They say that nobody is perfect. Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they’d made up their minds.

An unknown author wrote,

 The most difficult part of attaining perfection is finding something to do for an encore.
Coach Wooden didn’t think the quest for perfection was a joke at all; he was extremely serious about it. And somehow, in his soberness and his daily failure, he remained a person of great balance, character, and sanity. Perhaps what Vince Lombardi wrote helped him.
 Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.

The result for Wooden was, sustained success at the highest level. He once said,

It takes talent to get to the top. It takes character to stay there.

 Coach Wooden’s character was demonstrated in his drive to make the perfect lesson plan. All the successes I wrote about at the beginning, are a byproduct of just that.


The closest to perfection a person ever comes is when he fills out a job application form. Stanly J. Randall