In 1948, the UCLA men’s basketball team finished with a 12-13 record.
Hoping to turn things around, they hired a young coach named John Wooden, who had spent the last two years coaching at Indiana State University.
He made an immediate impact at UCLA, coaching the team to a division title and a 22-7 record – more wins than they had ever had in a season. He did even better the next year, helping his team secure another division title and a 24-7 record.
He went on to become the greatest coach in college basketball history (if not basketball, period), leading his UCLA teams to 10 national championships in 12 years, including seven in a row and a record 88-game winning streak.
And it’s not because he always had the most talented players. Some of his teams were only modestly talented or had notable weaknesses. Yet year after year, he managed to raise the level of their play, and get them to perform at a championship level when it mattered most.
So what was it about his coaching or teaching style that led to such unprecedented success? Was it his masterful use of praise? Strategic use of criticism? Or maybe both?
How does a master coach teach?
Psychologists Roland Tharp and Ronald Gallimore were interested in education and learning, and thought that observing and analyzing John Wooden’s teaching methods might deepen their understanding of learning. Or more specifically, help them understand how more teachers can get the very best out of their students.
So, over the course of 15 practices during the 1974-1975 season (Wooden’s last at UCLA), they sat, observed, and systematically tracked Wooden’s specific coaching behaviors – which added up to 2326 “acts of teaching” in total.
So how much of this was praise? And how much was criticism?
Very little, actually.
Top teaching behaviors
Just over half (50.3%) of Wooden’s behaviors were pure instruction – specific statements about what to do or how to do it. No judgment. No approval or disapproval. Just information.
The next most frequently occurring coaching behavior (12.7%) was called a “hustle.” This was basically a cue or reminder to act on some previous instruction. For instance “Drive!” or “Harder!” or, of course, “Hustle!”
Next most frequent was what the researchers affectionately named a “Wooden,” a unique feedback technique that was a combination of scolding and re-instruction (8%). This was designed to make it clear he was not satisfied, but followed by an immediate reminder of the correct way to do something. For example, “How many times do I have to tell you to follow through with your head when shooting?” or “I have been telling some of you for three years not to wind up when you throw the ball! Pass from the chest!“
Next up were praise (6.9%), scolds (6.6%), positive modeling – or how to do something (2.8%), and negative modeling – or how not to do something (1.6%).
Information, information, information
So, altogether, ~75% of Wooden’s teaching acts contained specific information geared at providing the athlete with a clearer picture of what to do or what not to do. The researchers felt that this was a major contributor to his coaching success, and it also makes perfect sense given that Wooden, at his core, always saw himself as an educator.
After all, simply knowing that something is good or bad is not especially helpful if you don’t know what exactly should be repeated or changed the next time. Otherwise, it’s just more shots in the dark.
Wooden’s modeling formula
Another of the researchers’ interesting findings was their observation of how Wooden modeled behavior.
When Wooden saw something he didn’t like, and stopped practice to correct the incorrectly executed technique, he would immediately demonstrate the correct way to do the technique, then show everyone the incorrect way the athlete just did it, then model the correct way again.
This correct-incorrect-correct demonstration was usually very brief and succinct, rarely lasting longer than 5 seconds, but making it very clear what his expectations were, and how to meet these expectations.
There is much we can apply from John Wooden’s coaching methods to how we teach others – but isn’t much of this equally relevant in how we teach ourselves as well?
At the end of the day, we don’t really need tons of mental self-fives for hitting the difficult notes, nor self-imposed verbal punishments and expletives for missing notes.
Because in the practice room, as on the practice court, it’s less about whether we are perfect or imperfect. It’s more about making sure we’re growing and learning from day to day.
So what we need is more self-instruction. And to stay relentlessly focused on maintaining a problem-solving, solution-focused mindset.
For more, download the original 1976 Tharp & Gallimore study here: What a coach can teach a teacher
The one-sentence summary
You can’t let praise or criticism get to you. It’s a weakness to get caught up in either one. ~John Wooden