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 (1976) were interested in education and learning, and thought that observing and analyzing John Wooden’s teaching methods might deepen their understanding of both. 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, “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 or “reproofs” (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.
Instruction vs. evaluation
Plus, taking evaluation out of the equation helped to make his teaching less “personal” and therefore easier for players to accept without becoming defensive (much like the TAGteach approach we learned about in this interview with director/choreographer Ann Bergeron).
As one of his players1 later explained:
“As a former student who committed many errors during practice and therefore having been the recipient of plenty of corrections, it was the “information” I received, during the correction, that I needed most. Having received it, I could then make the adjustments and changes needed. It was the information that promoted change. Had the majority of Coach Wooden’s corrective strategies been positive (“Good job”) or negative (“No, that’s not the way”), I would have been left with an evaluation, not a solution. Also, corrections in the form of information did not address, or attack me as a person. New information was aimed at the act, rather than the actor.”
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 this modeling technique made 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?
Because at the end of the day, we probably don’t need tons of mental self-fives for hitting the difficult notes. And it’s not like beating ourselves up and calling ourselves names for missing notes helps much either.
After all, in the practice room as on the practice court, it’s less about whether we are perfect or imperfect. Or winning or losing. It’s more about making sure we’re growing and learning from day to day.
As the authors note about Wooden in their 2004 reanalysis of the original data, “It was…the teaching in practices that he valued, more than the games and the winning, and it was practice that he was so reluctant to leave behind when he retired.”
The 2004 reanalysis also includes some additional nuances and insights beyond the 1976 paper. They report, for example, that Wooden made sure to keep his players constantly active and moving quickly from one drill to the next during practice. His goal being to simulate the intensity of games and ensure players were accustomed to the demands of competition.
It seems that he achieved his goal, as former player and NBA great Bill Walton has said that “Practices at UCLA were nonstop, electric, supercharged, intense, demanding…” and that “Games seemed like they happened in a slower gear.”
Bringing the stage to the practice room
This doesn’t mean that we have to treat every single minute of practice like a performance, of course! But if the goal is to be more comfortable in performance and play our best, I do think there’s something to be said for trying to bring more of the stage to the practice room, instead of hoping we’ll be able to bring the practice room to the stage.
And what might that look like?
It can take many forms – from recording a 30-second snippet of your concerto for your turtle every morning to playing a full mock audition round after a dark roast robusta triple ristretto for a colleague who makes you slightly nervous. But the idea is less about manufacturing nerves and more about giving yourself plenty of opportunities to practice the skills you’ll rely on in performance, whether you’re nervous or excited.
Skills like the ability to hit a tricky note on the first try, rather than on the second. Or the ability to get into and stay in the right headspace. And be able to focus on the music instead of how to move your fingers correctly. Or defuse the “end of the world” pressure you might feel. Or shut off the unhelpful mental chatter. Or avoid the downward spiral of doom after missing a note.
Performance practice doesn’t have to be painful
Fortunately, performance practice doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. And it doesn’t have to take up very much time either. But it does help to integrate micro-doses of this into your daily practice well in advance of an audition or performance.
It can often be difficult to get ourselves to do this on our own, so if you have auditions or performances coming up in the next 3-6 months (or would simply like to be able to play more like yourself in any setting, whether it’s lessons, master classes, choir practice, or for informal gatherings of family and friends), you may be interested in the live online 4-week performance practice course that begins in two weeks (Saturday, Oct. 8th).
You’ll learn how to use several research-based strategies that will make your daily practice more effective and efficient, and we’ll explore strategies for beating nerves, getting into “the zone,” and building more trust and confidence in yourself and your abilities on stage.
We’ll also work on practicing performing in teeny tiny doses. And we’ll be your accountability buddy, to ensure that your inner “procrastination monkey” doesn’t win quite so easily.
Registration is now open (through Sunday, Oct. 2nd), and you can get all the dates and details right here:
A version of this article was originally published on 10.4.2014; revised and updated on 9.25.22
Gallimore, R., & Tharp, R. (2004, June). What a Coach Can Teach a Teacher, 1975-2004: Reflections and Reanalysis of John Wooden’s Teaching Practices. The Sport Psychologist, 18(2), 119–137. https://doi.org/10.1123/tsp.18.2.119
Tharp, R.G., & Gallimore, R. (1976). Basketball’s John Wooden: What a coach can teach a teacher. Psychology Today, 9(8), 74-78.