Insights from the great John Wooden, named “Coach of the 20th Century” by ESPN and one of the most successful basketball coaches of all-time.

SUMMARY: “A champion team will always beat a team of champions.” You may have heard the analogy, but how do you put it into action as a coach? Beyond cheap one-line pep talks, we were lucky enough to come across some extraordinary insights from legendary American basketball coach John Wooden, recently named “Coach of the 20th Century” by ESPN. Wooden’s philosophy of “It takes 10 hands to score a basket” was ahead of its time and this, along with many of his other philosophies, have since transcended the sport of basketball and been universally applied at the highest levels of many other sports, including AFL. Here are some of his amazing lessons of “teamwork”, guaranteed to inspire even the most selfish of players.


John Wooden - "Coach of the 20th Century"

The Great John Wooden – Voted “Coach of the 20th Century” by ESPN and one of the most inspirational and studied coaches in the world.

In AFL season 2010, one team stood out above the rest – Collingwood. Love them or hate them, Collingwood were clearly the best team in the competition and proved it by winning the Premiership at season’s end.

So what made Collingwood so great? Was it their list of stars? Maybe, but Geelong actually had more All-Australians and hardened Premiership players than they did. And one could almost argue that other Premiership fancies such as St Kilda, Hawthorn and Western Bulldogs were also as good, if not better, than Collingwood on paper. As good as Swan and Thomas were, they were no Ablett or Judd. And as good as their forwards and backmen were, there were no standout stars like a Reiwoldt, Scarlett or Franklin.

The fact is, while there were other AFL teams just as talented in 2010, Collingwood weren’t just a team of champions, they were a champion team – a fact Robert Walls repeated ad nauseam during his game-day commentaries. The star of the team was the team. Each Collingwood player learnt how to put team success ahead of their own personal glory. The whole became greater than the sum of its parts – and the result speaks for itself.

While there are literally hundreds of different team sports on this amazing planet of ours, the link between great teamwork and success is universal to all of them. And it’s in this spirit I wish to introduce you to the great John Wooden.

About John Wooden

As a coaching tragic, I often look to coaching greats in other sports – not just AFL – to discover their secrets of success and how I may apply them to improve the fortunes of my team. (It’s a trait I’ve noticed in all successful coaches, including in the AFL.)

And like many other coaching tragics, this has led me to studying the coaching philosophies and principals of John Wooden. (In fact, I was first introduced to John Wooden at my Level 3 AFL Coaching course where many of his coaching philosophies were introduced and discussed.)

In coaching ranks, John Wooden is regarded as one of the all-time greats – amongst the best of the best.

His legendary University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) basketball teams won 10 National Basketball Championships in 12 years during the 1960s and 70s, including 88 straight games and four undefeated seasons – a record that no-one has come close to achieving since. He was also recently named “Coach of the 20th Century” by ESPN, elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach, and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Coach Wooden was ahead of his time and is famous for a number of coaching philosophies; none more so than his “10 Hands” concept of building champion teams.

Considering Collingwood’s success in 2010 (and the fact that I recently finished reading his coaching book, “Wooden on Leadership”), I thought it would be a make the perfect article for our Coach AFL subscribers. So here it is – Coach Wooden’s secrets to building his champion teams and creating a “team first” culture.

Strategy 1 – Teaching Players To Understand The Big Picture

Before we begin about how Coach Wooden taught his players team work, it is important you understand what Wooden believed team work to be.

Coach Wooden used the term “Team Spirit” to described his concept of teamwork and put it at the heart of his “success pyramid” (a written definition of success comprising of 15 different success elements including “Team Spirit”).

He initially defined this term to his players as “a willingness to sacrifice personal interest or glory for the welfare of all”. He later changed the word “willingness” however to “eagerness” because he felt “willingness” was not enough. He wanted his players to be eager to sacrifice for the team. To Wooden, the word “eagerness” created a tangible driving force that transformed his individual players who performed their roles correctly, into an organisation whose members were absolutely committed to performing their roles to their highest level for the good of the group.

To break this down in simpler terms, Wooden’s definition of teamwork was:

  • An eagerness for players
  • To sacrifice personal interest or glory,
  • Perform their individual role to the possible highest level,
  • For the benefit of the team.

Of course, Coach Wooden understood that before you can teach a player a new concept or strategy, you must first educate them about the reasons “why” those concepts and strategies are important.

This is why Wooden was consistent and persistent in delivering his “Team First” message throughout the course of a season. He did this in a number of different ways.

1) Simple Messages

Coach Wooden started by simplifying his “team first” message into a simple philosophical slogan: “It takes 10 hands to score a basket” and continually used this slogan throughout the course of the season to remind players of his “Team First” concept.

As Wooden later explained:

“”Ten Hands” was one of the most important concepts – principles – that a player can be taught. It was also one that frequently required some diligent teaching on my part. It began with my own firm belief that a player who made the team great is better than a great player.”

2) Team Play Books

Coach Wooden also dedicated a section about the importance of team work in his team play books. This is what he wrote in one such play book: TEAM SPIRIT.

We want no “one man” players, no “stars”. We want a team made up of five boys at a time, each of whom is a forward, guard and centre combined; in other words, each boy should be able to score, out-jump or out-smart one opponent, or prevent the opposing team from scoring, as the occasion demands.

No chain is stronger than its weakest link, no team is stronger than its weakest boy. One boy attempting to “grandstand” can wreck the best team ever organised. We must be “one for all” and “all for one” with every boy giving his very best every second of the game. The team is first, individual credit is second. There is no place for selfishness, egotism, or envy on our squad.

We want a squad of fighters afraid of no club, not cocky, not conceited, a team that plays hard, plays fair, but plays to win – always remembering that “a team that won’t be beaten, can’t be beaten”. We want our boys to believe that “a winner never quits and a quitter never wins.” Make up your mind before the game that you won’t lose, that you can out-smart and out-fight the opposing team; in other words, if you have confidence in your team’s ability to win, you will be plenty tough enough to whip.

Others may be faster than you are, larger than you are, and have far more ability than you have – but no one should ever be your superior in team spirit, fight, determination, ambition, and character.”

3) Logical Reasoning

Coach Wooden also used the power of “reasoning” to convince players of his “10 hands” philosophy. For example, Wooden often used this line of reasoning in his player addresses:

“No superstar or top performer, regardless of his or her level of God-given talent and productivity does it alone. Every basket Bill Walton ever made utilized “10 hands.” In truth, it involved many more than 10 – the hands, heads, and hearts of non-starters, the assistant coaches, the trainer, the managers, and of course, the coach.”

As another example, Wooden often used this line of reasoning when he spoke to individual players who struggled to understand the concept of teamwork. “The game is 40 minutes long. The opponent has the ball approximately half the time. That leaves us 20 minutes with the basketball. We have five players. In my system, balance is important, so each player should handle the ball about the same amount of time. That means you have the basketball for approximately four minutes per game. What are you going to do for the team during those other 35 minutes when you do not have the ball?”

As one player later explained after such a talk that, “It took him only 15 seconds, but he dramatically broadened my understanding of the role I needed to play on the team.” Interestingly, I’ve heard St Kilda’s Ross Lyons use a similar line of reasoning with his players. Coincidence?

4) Analogies and Examples

As a master educator, Coach Wooden also understood the power of analogies and examples in learning. So he often used these tools to drive home his lessons and philosophies, including those on teamwork. One analogy involved a race car team. According to Coach Wooden:

“I often used the analogy of a race car team at the Indianapolis 500. The driver gets all the attention and credit as if he alone wins the race… However, the driver going around the track at 200 miles per hour is helpless without the rest of the team filling their “lesser” roles. One man is solely responsible for putting fuel in the car during the pit stop; another is responsible for removing and replacing the lug nuts; another takes off the worn tire; another puts on a new tire. The man responsible for putting fuel into the race car must do it without making a mistake or another team member – the one doing “nothing” but holding the fire extinguisher – will be called on to prevent total disaster. The team’s success – even the driver’s life – depends on each member of the group performing his or her job correctly and expeditiously, regardless of how big or small the task may seem in relation to the man or woman behind the wheel… I used the racing car comparison to teach our players that all roles were vital to our success, that everyone is connected to the mission in some important way. The man sitting at the far end of the bench and the person who tightens the lug nut can make great contributions to their team’s success. If the lug nuts come off, the race car crashes. I did not want UCLA to crash because people weren’t doing their jobs because they felt their contributions didn’t count much…”

Coach Wooden also often referred to Rudyard Kipling’s concept of the “wolf pack” and how it applied to a basketball team. As he later wrote, “All for one and one for all” is not an empty slogan to me… I don’t need scientific proof for me to know Rudyard Kipling was correct: “For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” That describes the relationship between the individual and the organisation – the player and the team.”

Strategy # 2 – Explain To Each Team member Their Role and How It Contributes To The Success of The Team

So how do you get players to play as a team, after they understand the value of teamwork to their team’s success? According to Coach Wooden, you start by sitting down with every player on your list and educating them about what their role is and how it contributes to the overall success of the organisation. As Wooden later wrote:

“Getting your people to think “Team First” is vital. It starts when you teach each member of the group how she or he contributes to the organization, when you make each one feel connected to the team’s efforts, productivity, and ultimate success… Some individuals are more difficult to replace than others, but every person contributes – or should – to overall organizational success. Each individual must feel valued, from the secretary to the superstar salespersons and the senior manager. And above all, each person must comprehend precisely how his or her own job performance is linked to the team’s welfare and survival. When this is accomplished, you have made each one feel a part of something much bigger than her or his individual job. You have expanded that person’s perception of the connection between his or her tole in the organization and the organization itself.”

Wooden would of course often use his “race car team” analogy to demonstrate the importance of everyone playing their role. Other times, he would also turn to the strategy of switching players positions at training. For example, he sometimes had guards switch positions with the forwards so the guards could understand the challenges faced by a forward, and the forwards could understand what a guard had to deal with. This way, everyone learnt the importance of the other players and the roles they played.

Strategy # 3 – Redefine Greatness

One of the obstacles Wooden saw in creating a “team first” culture was that of his players’ perceived as “greatness”. For this reason, Wooden helped players redefine what “greatness” really meant to them and made it achievable by all. Greatness according to Wooden wasn’t about scoring the most points, pulling in the most rebounds or polling the most MVP votes. It was about performing your role to the highest of your ability.

“Personal greatness is not determined by the size of the job, but the size of the effort one puts in that job. This applies to everyone on the team… I wanted the individuals under my leadership – players, assistant coaches, student managers, the trainer – to know that the kind of greatness I sought was available to each of them. How? By performing his specific job to the highest level of his ability. I wanted every individual connected with the team to fully comprehend that when this was being accomplished, he had achieved the greatness I valued most… When a leader instils the genuine belief that the opportunity for making great things happen is possible in every job, they have achieved something extraordinary. They have created an organisation that fosters and breeds achievers, a superior team filled with people striving to reach 100 percent of their potential in ways that serve the team.”

As a master of learning analogies, Wooden often used the story of Swen Nater to reinforce this philosophy. Nater was a reserve centre at UCLA who, in Wooden’s opinion, achieved the same level of greatness as the team’s starting All-American centre Bill Walton (a player who later went on to become one of the greatest centres of his era at the Boston Celtics in the NBA).

According to Wooden, “Swen Nater understood that his greatness came in practice rather than in games. He served his team as a backup centre behind the significant skills of Bill Walton. This positioning allowed Bill to sharpen his abilities in practice against a centre, Swen, who was also tall and talented. (Swen could have been a starter on almost any other team in the country). Before Swen joined us, I clearly explained to him what specific role he would play on the team and how valuable it would be to the team. He took on the task, eagerly accepted his role, and helped UCLA win two national championships. Was Bill Walton greater than Swen Nater? It’s a question that has little relevance to me in the context of leadership and team productivity. Both young men attained greatness in performing their specific and important roles as it best served their team. That is what mattered most to me.”

Strategy # 4 – Recognize Those Who Adopt the “Team First” Philosophy

As you know, a coach who leads their team well, tightly aligns good performance with rewards. Teamwork should be no different and Coach Wooden developed some unique ways of recognizing players who adopted his “10 hands” philosophy best and sacrificed for the good of the team. Here are just a few examples:

1) Publicly Acknowledge Those With Lesser Roles

Firstly, Coach Wooden made a concerted effort to publicly recognise and praise the efforts of those players on his team with lesser roles. As Wooden later wrote:

“I was conscientious about making those with less significant roles feel valued and appreciated. I singled out individuals who seldom saw the limelight – the player who made an assist on an important basket, a pivotal defensive play, or a free throw at a crucial moment in the game. I also was careful to give recognition to those who did not get much playing time – the players who worked hard in practice to improve not only themselves but also their team mates who were receiving more game time. Their contributions were important and sparked the play of the stars, All-Americans such as Bill Walton and Lewis Alcindor Jr (Kareem Abdul Jabbar), and others.”

This concept manifested itself in the way Wooden spoke with reporters who naturally asked him questions about his star players. When this happened, Wooden would deflect the question and call attention to the valuable contributions made by other players on the team.

2) Praise Stars In Private

The unique part of Wooden’s strategy in this regard was that he made an effort to recognise the efforts of those with lesser roles in public, while holding back praise for his top producers in private.

According to Wooden, acknowledging top producers does not always have to be done publicly. It is often more effective for a leader to praise their outstanding performance when others are not around. It gives the “superstar” deserved recognition without creating envy or resentment. Conversely, praise for those in lesser roles is often maximized by doing it in a more public manner.

Wooden later wrote about an independent study conducted on his coaching methods:

“My policy of making sure that players who didn’t receive much attention were consistently recognized – made to feel valued – was actually tabulated during an independent study done many years ago that measured the amount of praise I gave out during practice. It showed that individuals in lesser roles received compliments, support, and acknowledgment – praise – at a much higher rate than so-called superstars. That was exactly my intention. The results raised some eyebrows, however, because they suggested I was ignoring the contributions and impact of the top performers, almost overlooking their efforts. This was not true. What the study failed to record, because it wasn’t evident on the court during practice, was the ample praise I gave out to our top performers privately, away from the other players.

There was no way I was going to let a Lewis Alcindor Jr (Kareem Abdul Jabbar) feel unappreciated or neglected. I simply felt it counter-productive to add to the praise heaped on him by others. Consequently, my compliments and supporting comments were offered most often in private.

3) Align “Team Awards” With Team Values

Coach Wooden also aligned team awards with the traits he valued most in a team, not just for best player. This raised eyebrows at the time, but drove home his philosophy of everyone playing their roles and sacrificing for the team.

“Recognition for individual performance certainly has its place. But it must be valued equally with awards for “improvement”, “attitude” “contribution to the team” and other acts that strengthen team performance… Singling out an individual as the “greatest” – which in sports “top scorer” perhaps suggests – devalues the roles and jobs of all others on the team, makes them second-class citizens. It takes 10 hands to make a basket; I believe this principle deeply. Anything that gets in the way of this cooperative attitude is counter-productive and can lead to a caste system within your organization.”

For this same reason, Wooden also strongly objected to having the numbers retired of Bill Walton and Lewis Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabaar).
“Both Lewis and Bill always put the team ahead of personal glory. Certainly there is no question about the contributions each one of them made to his respective team. But others wore those same numbers and contributed to their own teams, working hard to give everything they had to the welfare of UCLA basketball. Others achieved personal greatness wearing numbers 32 and 33. All those other players, in contributing to their fullest capacity, achieved personal and competitive greatness just as Bill and Lewis did. For example, Steve Patterson played at centre on two UCLA national championship teams in 1970 and 1971. He wore number 32, just before Bill Walton was assigned that number as a varsity player in 1972. How could number 32 eventually become Bill’s exclusive property?… The number on a uniform always belongs to the team, never to an individual, just as all glory belongs to the team, not the coach or an individual.”

4) Share Credit With Those Who Contributed

In line with his “10 hands” philosophy, Wooden also banned individual showboating and enforced a team rule of scorers having to acknowledge everyone who contributed to their score with a “thumbs up”.

“In basketball, a field goal is usually scored only after several hands have touched the ball. No shot is blocked, no play is run, no game is won, unless everyone is doing his job – serving the team to the best of his ability. No one player should take credit for the effort of all the others. That’s the primary reason I strongly discouraged individuality – showboating or flamboyance – in the context of team play. Showing off or doing something contrived to gain attention for oneself not only demeans that individual, it is dismissive of the efforts made by all the other team members.

A player thumping his chest after he makes a basket is acknowledging the wrong person. Thus, I insisted the player who scores give a nod or “thumbs up” to the team mate(s) who helped – the one who provided the assist. That way, it was more likely to happen again.”

5) Harness Player Ambition

In any team, there are always talented players looking for ways to expand their role within their group. Wooden knew that ambition, properly controlled and directed, was a powerful motivating force and vital in successful teams. So he let the ambitious players on his team know that before they could advance, they must first perform their assigned roles with great skill.

“Before calculus comes geometry; before geometry comes addition and subtraction. Each must be mastered in its turn before the individual advances to the next level. Before a player on our team could move to an expanded role, he must have demonstrated complete mastery of the role he had been given.”

He also cautioned his ambitious players to “Be ready when your opportunity arrives or it may not arrive again.” His players knew their time would eventually come, but only if they exercised patience, kept their eye on the ball in their current roles and demonstrated continuous improvement.

Strategy # 4 – Coax those Who Need It

Of course, there will always be individuals who resist a “team first” philosophy and need further coaxing. When this happened to Wooden, he would simply give the player constructive feedback and limit their game-time until they learned – regardless of how talented they were.

Wooden later wrote about the example of Sidney Wicks to demonstrate his point:

“A future All-American such as Sidney Wicks initially kept too close an eye on his personal statistics. The statistics I was noting, however, showed that regardless of the various combinations of players with whom Sidney scrimmaged, his personal numbers stayed high while those of others tended to drop off. He was focussed on his own welfare – statistics – above that of the team. Despite the fact that he was more talented than those who players ahead of him, I kept him out of the starting rotations as an incentive to become a complete team player. When he came to accept my philosophy, that the best players don’t necessarily make for the best teams and that personal statistics matter only to the degree to which they enhance overall team performance, Sidney changed dramatically for the better. During his second season on the UCLA varsity, he emerged as the best college forward in America – a wonderful team player who embraced the philosophy that it takes 10 hands to make a basket.

One last word for the record: As much as Sidney wanted to be a starter his first year, he did not become embittered when I ruled otherwise. In part, this was because I enforced my decision without personal attacks, ridicule or animosity. My directives and discipline were delivered in a businesslike and professional manner. I am pleased that in the course of a difficult transition for him from “me first” to “Team First”, I was able to keep the process on track and productive. It would have been a shame to lose Sidney because I lacked the skills necessary to teach my philosophy and methodology to a very talented young man.”

Strategy # 6 – Have Leaders Live The Values

Finally, Wooden knew the impact team leaders had on team culture and made sure his leaders always “lived” the team values, including his “ten hands” philosophy. As Wooden later explained:

“Managing egos – the over and under inflated, the forceful and the fragile – is one of the great challenges facing any leader. It is a crucial task, however, if a group is going to have a fighting chance to succeed, to become a true team rather than a collection of individuals – lone wolves – each looking out for him or herself rather than the “pack”. Leadership must get those individuals thinking in terms of the we rather than the me. This is possible only if the leader himself thinks this way… I was fortunate enough to have individuals who believed in a team first philosophy. For example, [Lou] Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar) could have been the greatest scorer in college basketball history, but he was willing to forgo that personal glory to do what best served our team… when your top producers behave in this manner, it makes a leaders job much easier and your organization much stronger. Of course, the opposite is true.”


I remember watching Matthew Pavlich kick an amazing goal against Carlton once. Pavlich crumbed a Sandilands ruck tap at the centre bounce, bounced the ball several times as he ran towards goal, and then kicked truly from 60 meters out.

It was a sensational individual effort! However Pavlich will be the first to admit he couldn’t have done it without Sandilands winning the ruck, the other midfielders blocking opponents and creating space for him, the centre half forwards leading their defenders away from the ball and the full forward shepparding their opponents from the goal line.

Even with a fantastic individual goal like Pavlich’s, it took 17 other men to score that goal – just list like it took 10 hands to score a basket on John Wooden’s basketball teams.

The team who understands and lives this philosophy is often the one that enjoys the highest levels of success. Teamwork is not the only factor behind all great teams, but it must rank amongst the most important. John Wooden understood this fact when he coached the UCLA Bruins to a record 10 National College Basketball Championships in the US. So did Mick Malthouse when he steered Collingwood to the 2010 AFL Premiership.

Our job as coaches of young men and women is to create an environment that fosters this “team first” philosophy and teach players how to execute it. These are lessons that create success beyond just football – once learned, they often manifest success in other aspects of a player’s life such as their careers and relationships. And isn’t that what coaching footy is really about?

Of course it is only fitting we end this article with another of John Wooden’s other great coaching quotes: “Your success comes not from championships, but the knowledge that you did everything possible to be the best teacher, coach and leader you were capable of being.” Spot on we say. Now may the best team win!!! – Johnno
Title photo by RC via:

Posted by David Johnson

David “Johnno” Johnson is our chief football researcher and writer. With over 20 years of coaching experience in all grades of football David was also a prominent footballer himself, having played at Teal Cup level and was even recruited by the Essendon Football Club. The pinnacle of David's coaching experience saw him as the assistant coach of the East Fremantle Shark Football Club in the WAFL for a number of years.

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