The Coaching Process – Lessons Learned from Legendary Basketball Coach John Wooden

By Ian McClurg (

Former Manchester United and Everton player Phil Neville spoke last week about his current experience as Assistant Manager of La Liga side Valencia. He compared his coaching experiences in a new country as equivalent to a final year in University as he continues his pathway towards a Manager‘s role at a top club someday.

His comment made me think of my own coaching journey. Two weeks ago I began an Online Master’s program at the University of Stirling (Scotland) in Performance Coaching.  My main motivation for enrolling in the program was to have an opportunity to learn best practices from leading coaches in other sports and improve my own skill-set at improving the performance levels of the players I coach.

One of the first articles we were assigned was a study on the teaching practices of legendary college basketball coach John Wooden. It made for some interesting reading. The study was completed by Ronald Gallimore and Roland Tharp at the University of California who observed Wooden’s coaching sessions. 

 They concluded that Wooden built his success on several key coaching practices:

  • Meticulous planning of his training sessions. He spent over 2 hours planning with his staff to deliver a 2 hour practice
  • Focus on improving the individual player. Included in his training session plan was individual player objectives
  • His comments to players were short (no longer than 20 seconds) and numerous. He avoided long lectures
  • Practices were nonstop, electric, demanding and intense. Players moved during and between activities rapidly. A former player remarked that “games seemed like they  happened in a slower gear”  
  • In teaching moments Wooden would follow a three step process. He would demonstrate how something should be done, then imitate how a player or players were doing something incorrectly, then remodel again how he wanted it done so that was the image that the players carried forward
  • He knew his players. He studied each player very carefully so he could anticipate what they would do, or fail to do, so he was primed for what information to relay to them 
  • He coached the players not the session.  He made decisions “on the fly” at a pace equal to his players although his planning enabled him to give thought to what  specific words and phrases to use during key coaching moments.
  • Strong focus on repetition. He expanded the four laws f learning from  explanation, demonstration, imitation and repetition to eight laws of learning -  explanation, demonstration, imitation, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition  

A really interesting aspect of Wooden’s coaching philosophy was his views on praise. Most of the praise and compliments would go to the players not playing that much. His rationale was that the starting players would receive the most praise from outsiders so his criticism of them was a little stronger in order that they had balance between praise and criticism. In contrast the bench players received less praise outside the team environment and so they required more from him.   

What can we learn from Wooden’s philosophy towards praise? Other studies support the view that the winningest and most successful coaches in sports have a lower praise/criticism ration than less successful coaches. In fact, Carol Dweck in her book Mindset – The New Psychology of Success outlined studies confirming that performance was negatively impacted when praise was given for being talented, rather than for hard work.   

In fact, Dweck argued that it can be dangerous to praise children for their ability. She points to a study where students were given an IQ test. Some students were praised for their ability while other students were raised for their efforts. Both groups scored equal to begin with but once praise was given the students that were praised for their talent started rejecting challenging themselves further and their learning slowed. In contrast the students who were praised for hard work started to seek out new challenges and their pace of learning increased.   
In today’s world it appears as though everyone seeks out praise and demands more recognition than in the generation of players Wooden coached. We are in a world now where top athletes like Yaya Toure at Manchester City get upset at his club for not celebrating his birthday properly and Saido Berahino from West Brom  threatens to go on strike when the club did not agree to a transfer to Tottenham Hotspur.  

My own coaching philosophy and attitude towards praise has been influenced by my upbringing.  I’m from a culture where you put your head down and get your job done to the best of your abilities. When you grow up in Northern Ireland there is no time for “big time Charlies” (being big-headed) and if you do go down that path, there are enough people around to snap you back into place very quickly.

I would not have swapped my upbringing for anything. I’ve seen enough arrogant people in professional and youth soccer to know that you never stop learning. If you ever think you’ve
“cracked it” the game itself has a habit of reminding you how much more you have to learn. 

In an interview last year I was asked a couple of very good questions. The first question was: what are the biggest challenges that young Canadian players face when competing with players from other countries for professional playing opportunities? The second question was: what do we have to do (in North America) to produce young players at the highest levels of the game? 

My answer to the first question was that the biggest challenge that faces young Canadian players when competing against the world’s best is mental strength. The young Canadian players who have had the most success have left Canada at an early age. For example, Owen Hargreaves of Calgary left home at a very young age. He moved to a foreign country without his family and was plunged into a different culture without understanding the language. Yet, he found the strength to perform at a higher level than the young “home-grown” players around them. In Owen’s case, he was certainly talented technically, physically and tactically but that was not enough in the competitive world he had moved to in Germany. He had to have the strength of character to battle through the challenges he faced at Bayern Munich, one of the world’s greatest clubs. He put his head down, worked hard and refused to give up.

Hargreaves was open to learning, and did not start believing he had “made it” already at 13 when Bayern came knocking on his door. I’m sure he was very proud that a top European club had identified and selected him but he did not see his selection as a final destination — rather, he took it as a great opportunity to work harder and achieve even more. He took full advantage of that opportunity to eventually win a Champions League Medal and play for England. (His father
was English and therefore Owen chose to play for that country rather than Canada.)

Contrast that with what I’ve seen at the Toronto FC academy when I worked there as a coach or at many youth academies: young players with the latest multi-coloured Nike boots with their initials sewed into them. That may seem like a minor thing, but it sends a clear signal about what the players, their families, and even the team consider to be truly important. At many academies in England, the academy boys are required to wear black boots. It is a little reminder that they have yet to achieve anything and to literally! — keep their feet on the ground and keep learning.

The answer to the second question was quite simple. What we in North America need to do to produce more top players who can compete on a world level is to keep our young players humble. They should be open to listening, prepared to work hard and if professional football (soccer) is their end goal they must understand the hard-work, mental strength and resilience required in order to earn the right to play and remain at that level.

I think it is important as coaches that we, like John Wooden, provide our young players with a balance between praise and criticism. Praise should be as Carol Dweck offers evidence for, be confined to praise for hard work and effort and for having a healthy appetite for learning – all traits of a growth mindset!  

I think the final word on this should go to the Australian writer Robert Hughes who summed it up best when he said:

“The greater the artist, the greater the doubt; perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize”

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