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CHAPTER 3

SECRET #3…"Focus on effort, not winning."


I know it is hard to believe, but Coach never emphasized winning. What he talked about was the commitment to playing your hardest. Don’t permit fear of failure to prevent effort. We are all imperfect and will fail on occasion, but fear of failure is the greatest failure of all. If you gave it your best and lost, that was fine. In fact, that was better than winning with a mediocre effort.

It’s not that Coach didn’t care about winning. I don’t think I’ve ever met a more competitive man in my life. But he was smart enough to know that people focus too much on the score and tighten up. Of course, when you are the top rated team in the country and Coach gives you the locker room speech about all he cares about is a good effort, it’s hard not to chuckle just a little. After all, the only time the Bruins ever seemed to lose (which was rare) was when the effort just wasn’t quite there. On the other hand, Coach gets genuinely annoyed when people talk about giving 110 percent effort, because the goal is ridiculous. Even giving a full 100 percent effort is only approachable, and probably never attainable. But any individual or team that gets close to a full effort will win far more than they lose. Some cynics might point out that it is easy for Coach to focus on effort when he already had all the best players, but Coach was not always blessed with the most talented ballplayers. His focus on effort was the same when his big man was a great player like Bill Walton or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a good player like Steve Patterson, or an average player like Doug McIntosh…and he won with all of them too!

John Wooden’s father was a driving force in shaping his views. From an early age, young John was taught, “don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses…just do the best you can.” In Indiana, high school basketball is beyond huge, and the state tournament is the biggest event of the year. In John Wooden’s senior year of high school his team lost the state championship game by a single point. Young John was the only team member who didn’t cry after the loss. He was disappointed, but following his father’s yardstick of success, he knew he had competed as hard as he could. There is no doubt that valuing effort over winning was something that Coach had integrated into his highly competitive nature at a very early age. His father told him, “Johnny, don’t you try to be better than your brothers. But try to be the best you can be. You’re gonna be better than some and there are gonna be some better than you. You’ve got to accept that. But you should never accept the fact that you didn’t make the effort to do the best that you can do.” Young Johnny Wooden listened closely to his dad, and passed that lesson on to a lot of other young men.

Coach would even go so far as to say that the general view of winning is not something he necessarily shares. He wanted the victories that most people considered success to simply be the byproduct of the effort made to get there. Now you are probably asking, is this guy serious? Absolutely. Coach likes to cite Cervantes who said, “The journey is better than the inn.” He is also fond of quoting Robert Louis Stevenson, who said; “It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.” Many of Coach Wooden’s philosophies are supported by quotes from famous authors and philosophers, which he can rattle off at the drop of a hat. The next quote is one he first came across when he was teaching high school in South Bend, Indiana, but it rolls off his tongue like he just memorized it yesterday, “At God’s footstool to confess, a poor soul knelt and bowed his head. I failed, he cried. The master said, thou didst thy best…that IS success.” He really does judge success by effort and by how close a group comes to realizing their own potential. By this standard, any team has the opportunity to achieve great success.

His most satisfying seasons did not all end with a national title, but many times were the teams that had come closest to achieving their potential whether winning the title or not. More than fifty years after his first season at UCLA in 1948-9, Coach still considers his first squad one of his most satisfying, despite the fact that they did not go on to post season success. But that team, picked to finish last in the conference, ended up winning 22 games and the conference title, still one of Coach’s proudest accomplishments. Winning was a byproduct of effort, not an end product.

Coach’s genius was in understanding that those who spend all their time talking about winning aren’t helping their chances. Every player I’ve spoken to mentions that removing winning as the focal point reduced the pressure and fear they felt entering a game. Coach also minimized the pressure in the final minutes of the game by insisting that a free throw missed in the first minute was just as important as a free throw missed in the final minute. Once again, this spread responsibility onto every player throughout the entire game, not one individual at the end.

When a leader can consistently and positively reinforce the value of maximum effort, the results are often surprising. One of the truly radical things about the UCLA basketball program was that punishment in the form of wind sprints or stadium stairs just never happened. Instead of making conditioning a chore, it was totally integrated into all of our drills; staying in shape was not somehow approached as a necessary evil, but was naturally achieved as a byproduct of effort within the normal drills. Anyone can be in fantastic physical shape; it is just a matter of effort and dedication. And year after year, without punishment or negativity, John Wooden’s Bruins were the best-conditioned team in the country.

The key point here is that effort is internal, and is completely within your control. Winning is a byproduct of effort, but it is subject to external factors and is almost never completely within your control. The referees might make bad calls, the shots may not be falling, your star player may be hurt. In large organizations, it usually takes a concentrated effort from many people to achieve success, but often people get so distracted and sidetracked by what others are doing that they are not able to concentrate on their own tasks and do their best work. But you can always strive to focus on doing your very best making THAT the goal you are shooting for, whether you are playing basketball or competing in the business world, or simply trying to have a good marriage and a close family. As Coach says, “You can fool your boss about your effort, you may be able to fool your wife about your effort, but you can never fool yourself.”

Might an organization actually meet more of its objectives by focusing on effort rather than outcomes? Absolutely! Focusing on effort is the way to get the very best out of employees in an organization. Many things happen that are out of any individual’s control; employees who are asked to be accountable for the group outcome invariably succumb to the anxiety and pressure that this lack of control creates. But if everyone’s effort is continuous and sustained, and not concentrated in short bursts, then your employees will become confident in their own ability to work efficiently and consistently. Concentrate on your job, give it maximum effort, and if the rest of the organization is doing the same thing, success is virtually unavoidable.

When I worked on TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL at CBS, we had to completely rework our first episode and had very little time in which to create a new prototype episode. Everyone had ideas about how to improve on the original pilot, and many of those ideas were right on target. We were well aware that critics and advertisers were convinced that the program would not last long, and our slim chance for future success seemed to rest entirely on the quality of this one episode. Succeeding might change the future of the network and be worth hundreds of millions of dollars; failure would result in substantial financial and emotional losses. Talk about pressure; this was as tough as it gets.

As I’ve mentioned, we brought in Martha Williamson to write the script. Her first task was to listen to the notes and suggestions of countless executives. They were all smart, and all well meaning, but she was going crazy trying to please all of these people and make sure to address all the notes. Countless people reminded her that without some brilliant revisions we were facing oblivion. But it was also obvious to me that audience reaction is always hard to gauge, and to use Nielsen ratings to measure the success of a writer’s revisions was neither fair or productive. I told Martha that she had to stop trying to please everyone else, and togo off to write a script that would please HER. Most competitive people are their own toughest critics, and if she could produce a script that SHE judged as her best effort, then the process would be successful regardless of audience reaction. As Coach would say, winning is the BYPRODUCT of effort. Years later, Martha told me that was a real breakthrough point for her in the evolution of this wonderful show. She wrote for the only audience she could control…herself.