Skip to main content

The Philosophy Behind Coach John Wooden's Pyramid of Success


Former UCLA men's basketball coach John Wooden believes we all teach by our example; what Mr. Wooden taught was the Pyramid of Success.

Former UCLA men's basketball coach John Wooden's Pyramid of Success is his careful selection and arrangement of the habits that are the fundamentals of his definition of success, which is "peace of mind that is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best that you are capable of becoming."

"No written word, no spoken plea

Can teach our youth what they should be,

Nor all the books on all the shelves.

It's what the teachers are themselves."

A favorite poem of John Wooden (Author unknown)

The Pyramid of Success contains fifteen habits that Mr. Wooden's players developed through daily basketball practice. The foundation is "industriousness," then "friendship, loyalty, cooperation, and enthusiasm;" in short, the foundation of the Pyramid is the knowledge that life, like basketball, is a team game. "The main ingredient in stardom," Mr. Wooden told his players, "is the rest of the team."

The qualities of each level are complementary, but the cornerstones, industriousness and enthusiasm, are especially synergistic together, forming the starting point to the whole philosophy. The Pyramid allowed Mr. Wooden's players to summon their best anytime, and they began the summoning by being enthusiastic about their work. Mr. Wooden subtly showed his players his own enthusiasm during games by holding in front of him a game program that he was constantly rolling tighter and tighter.

"Enthusiasm, the coach reminded his pupils, comes from the Greek word entheos, which means 'the god within.' One's enthusiasm, according to Wooden, had 'an almost divine quality on its impact on others.'"

--The Sons of Westwood by John Matthew Smith, University of Illinois Press, 2013 (p. 18)

The first layer atop the foundation is Mr. Wooden's mental row of "self-control, alertness, initiative, and intentness." Mr. Wooden valued mental and physical quickness more than any other skill, but he would often shout to his players during practice, "The worst thing you can do is hurry!" As a 5-ft 10-in guard at Purdue University, Mr. Wooden played at breakneck speed and was sent to the court floor so often, which he would bounce up off, that he was nicknamed "The India Rubber Man." The teams he played on won a state championship in high school, and what was then the equivalent of the national championship in college.

Mr. Wooden turns to the basketball court, inspired by his college coach Piggy Lambert, with the physical row of "condition, skill, and team spirit." [Note: Condition meant moral, mental, and physical conditioning.] For fourteen years, Mr. Wooden worked on the Pyramid; industriousness and enthusiasm were always the cornerstones, but skill was ultimately placed at the very heart. Coach Wooden did not give pregame motivational speeches: emotional peaks are followed by valleys. "Intensity makes you stronger. Emotionalism makes you weaker." He taught his players to "think small" - to concentrate on quick but proper execution that would become automatic during games. A writer for Time magazine commented that Mr. Wooden's ideal player would be "part robot and part racehorse." Mr. Wooden did not mention the opposing team or its star player, and former Wooden center Bill Walton has joked that he had to buy a game program to find out whom UCLA was playing.

After the mental and physical comes the spiritual row of "poise and confidence." This row can be thought of as Mr. Wooden's definition of success: peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable. Mr. Wooden's demeanor during games has been compared to someone waiting to have their muffler changed, but he was showing steely confidence in his players. "Don't look over at me," he would tell them during games. Mr. Wooden's college coach and mentor, Mr. Lambert, believed, paradoxically, that the team that made the most mistakes would probably win, because it is to be expected that players will make mistakes in games, and failure to take initiative is often the biggest mistake of all.

Asked about his UCLA teams' ten national championships and the apex of his Pyramid, which is "Competitive Greatness," Mr. Wooden quotes Cervantes: "To travel is better than to arrive." "Competitive Greatness" turns out to be a by-product of this journey, and the so-called corny phrases that built the Pyramid turn out not to be words at all but the example set by Mr. Wooden and his players.

"Every October on the first day of practice, the cycle started anew, a day when Wooden outlined his expectations for the upcoming season. He reminded his team that this was a new year; what happened the previous season no longer mattered."

Ibid., p. 178

John Wooden Interview - Academy of Achievement

John Wooden Interview - UCLA

A 2007 e-mail to Mr. Wooden with his reply:

Scroll to Continue

Dear Mr. Wooden:

Do you have any thoughts about the University of Chicago's decision (granted, it was in 1939) to end participation in Division 1 athletics on the basis that major college football diverts universities from their educational mission?

President Robert Maynard Hutchins abolished football at the University of Chicago. He told the students:

"An educational institution can do one thing uniquely: it can educate. It is by its success in performing this one function that it must be judged. The object of the University of Chicago, therefore, is to help you get the finest education that its resources and intelligence can supply. It is your responsibility to make the most of your opportunities, to cooperate with the University in the achievement of its aims - and to go forth and preach the gospel."

There is a very funny Second City sketch called "Football Comes to the University of Chicago." A typical coach teaches "Football 202" and struggles with the intellectual students. One student states his field is the "History of Arithmetic." When the coach mentions the football positions called "ends," the student interrupts and asks where the beginnings for those ends are, because all ends must have beginnings, according to Aristotle.

To me, you are a living extension of the Greco-Roman moralists such as Cicero, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Dio Chrysostom, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Philo and Plutarch, who were slaves, politicians, and emperors, and who gave solid advice on envy, anger, and talking too much, and on how to be a good parent and friend, grow old gracefully, and know what true happiness is. Together they form "The Missing Page" in philosophy. To me, you are the missing coach at the University of Chicago.

Division 1 athletics can be a distraction for universities from their educational mission, but even science can be a distraction from the essential question of how to live well.

Mr. Wooden's (prompt) reply:

"Coach Wooden sends his greetings and thanks you for your question. While he chooses not to judge the decision you mention, Coach Wooden wants you to know that he believes education - classroom schooling - is the fundamental purpose of a college or university. Athletes or athletic programs that stray off that path are doing themselves a disservice.

Nevertheless, good 'schooling' can be extended to the field or court by good coaching, and he is an admirer of Chicago's Amos Alonzo Stagg."

Recommended Course on the Greco-Roman Moralists

My Pick for the Best Book on John Wooden

The Beginning

University of Southern California basketball coach Forrest Twogood's crosstown rival was John Wooden. Asked what it was like to cope with UCLA's full-court press in 1963-64, the season Wooden coached his first national champions, Twogood said a coffin--"Have you ever been locked up in a casket for six days?"

There was a second legendary coach in the area at the time, the University of California's Pete Newell, who is considered by Bob Knight and others to be the superior coach to Wooden. Newell said, "We all live in our certain kind of hell as coaches." The stress got to Newell, who retired in 1960 at age forty-four. His teams won the last eight games they played against Wooden, after Wooden's Bruins had won the first seven.

That pressure is forgotten in the Hollywood ending to John Wooden's career, his remarkable 1975 team, his final team and perhaps his finest according to his definition.

Other coaching colossi fell to the pressure, Phil Woolpert of San Francisco and Ed Jucker of Cincinnati. Bob Knight was a reserve on Ohio State's 1960 squad that defeated Newell's Golden Bears for the championship, and Newell retired from coaching after one last assignment, coaching what is considered the finest amateur basketball team, the United States team of Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson, West Virginia's Jerry West, and Ohio State's Jerry Lucas, whom Newell said was the finest player he ever coached, to the gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics.

What for Twogood had been a coffin, what for Newell had been a private inferno, for Wooden was the peace of mind that an angel could do no more. Ego and aggression under Wooden became consideration for one's teammates and preparation. His first UCLA teams in their tailored white cotton practice uniforms ascended the stairways of the "B.O. Barn," UCLA's gymnasium, to find their coach "feeding the chickens," sprinkling water from a bucket ahead of assistant coaches pushing brooms to remove a layer of chalk left by the gymnastic team's earlier practice. Female gymnasts were bounding on trampolines, to the distraction of the players, who drilled at increasing speed in the B.O. Barn without swearing or criticizing a teammate. Use of profanity would end your practice for the day.

There they learned how to put opponents in a coffin for six days, but they could not say hell.

The End

Coach Wooden's last game was UCLA versus Kentucky for the 1975 NCAA championship. UCLA's 1975 semifinal against the Louisville Cardinals is considered a masterpiece. Leading UCLA was David Meyers, whose playing style mirrored Wooden's own more than any player he ever coached.

"David's work ethic had one gear: high speed. He reminded me of my own style when I was at Purdue; he dove after loose balls, fought for everything, and played with a zeal that affected the whole team. David Meyers led by example more than by words. A fierce competitor whose teammates were kind people helped by his aggressive example."

John Wooden

Louisville was coached by Denny Crum, Wooden's former assistant coach. UCLA seemed to contest UCLA.

After the game Wooden told his team he was retiring.


Lombardi and Wooden

I hesitate to include this, but Lombardi quarterback Bart Starr has written that the philosophies of these coaches of different sports were "very much the same." (A Perspective on Victory, Follett Publishing Co., 1972). Wooden did not give pre-game motivational speeches; professional football coaches may need to; reportedly, at the close of the following speech, inebriated middle-aged businessmen in the 1960s were ready to take the field or run through a brick wall.

From When Pride Still Mattered by David Maraniss (Simon & Schuster, 1999) (pp. 397-406)

February 8, 1967

New York

Speech to American Management Association

Vince Lombardi

Block One

The Meaning of Football

Football is a game very much like life, a game which gives 100 per cent elation, 100 per cent fun, when you win, yet demands and extracts a 100 per cent resolution, 100 per cent determination when you lose, a violent game and to play it any other way but violently would be imbecilic, a game played by millions of Americans, yet completely uninhibited by racial or social barriers, a game that demands the Spartan qualities of sacrifice, self-denial, dedication and fearlessness.

I have been in football all my life, and although I sometimes wonder why I stay in an occupation as precarious as football coaching, I do not feel particularly qualified to be part of anything else.

Block Two

The American Zeal

Over the years I have grown increasingly worried about the lack of interest in competition, particularly athletic competition among our young people. Men need the test of competition to find their better selves, whether it is in sports, politics or business.

I need no greater authority than the great General MacArthur, and I would like to quote some of the things he said to me. Namely: "Competitive sports keeps alive in all of us a spirit of vitality and enterprise. It teaches the strong to know when they are weak and the brave to face themselves when they are afraid. To be proud and unbending in defeat, yet humble and gentle in victory. To master ourselves before we attempt to master others. To learn to laugh, yet never forget how to weep, and it gives a predominance of courage over timidity."

Block Three

A Man's Personal Commitment to Excellence and Victory

While complete victory can never be won, it must be pursued, it must be wooed with all of one's might. Each week there is a new encounter, each year there is a new challenge. But all of the display, all of the noise, all of the glamour, and all of the color and excitement, they exist only in the memory. But the spirit, the will to excel, the will to win, they endure, they last forever. These are the qualities, I think, that are larger and more important than any of the events that occasion them.

Block Four

Abuse of Liberty

For most of the twentieth century, we as individuals have struggled to liberate ourselves from ancient traditions, congealed creeds and despotic states. Therefore, freedom was necessarily idealized against order, the new against the old, and genius against discipline. Everything was done to strengthen the rights of the individual and weaken the state, and weaken the church, and weaken all authority. I think we all shared in this rebellion, but maybe the battle was too completely won, maybe we have too much freedom. Maybe we have so long ridiculed authority in the family, discipline in education, and decency in conduct and law that our freedom has brought us close to chaos.

I am sure you are disturbed like I am by what seems to be a complete breakdown of law and order and the moral code which is almost beyond belief. Unhappily, our youth, the most gifted segment of our population, the heirs to scientific advances and freedom's breath, the beneficiaries of their elders' sacrifices and achievements, seem, in too large numbers, to have disregard for the law's authority, for its meaning, for its indispensability to their enjoyment of the fullness of life, and have conjoined with certain of their elders, who should know better, to seek a development of a new right, the right to violate the law with impunity. The prevailing sentiment seems to be if you don't like the rule, break it.

Block Five


It could be that our leaders no longer understand the relationship between themselves and the people they lead.

That is, while most shout to be independent, they at the same time wish to be dependent, and while most shout to assert themselves, they at the same time wish to be told what to do.

Block Six

What Makes a Great Leader?

Leaders are made, not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.

A leader must identify himself with the group, must back up the group, even at the risk of displeasing his superiors. He must believe that the group wants from him a sense of approval. If this feeling prevails, production, discipline and morale will be high, and in return he can demand the cooperation to promote the goals of the company. He must believe in teamwork through participation. As a result, the contact must be close and informal. He must be sensitive to the emotional needs and expectations of others. In return, the attitude toward him should be one of confidence and, possibly, affection. The leader, in spite of what was said above, can never close the gap between himself and the group. If he does, he is no longer what he must be. He must walk, as it were, a tightrope between the consent he must win and the control that he must exert.

Block Seven

Character and Will

The character, rather than education, is man's greatest need and man's greatest safeguard, because character is higher than intellect. While it is true the difference between men is in energy, in the strong will, in the settled purpose and in the invincible determination, the new leadership is in sacrifice, it is in self-denial, it is in love and loyalty, it is in fearlessness, it is in humility, and it is in the perfectly disciplined will. This, gentlemen, is the distinction between great and little men.

The love I'm speaking of is loyalty, which is the greatest of loves. Teamwork, the love that one man has for another and that he respects the dignity of another. The love that I am speaking of is charity. I am not speaking of detraction. You show me a man who belittles another and I will show you a man who is not a leader; or one who is not charitable, who has no respect for the dignity of another, is not loyal, and I will show you a man who is not a leader. I am not advocating that love is the answer to everything. I am not speaking of a love which forces everyone to love everybody else, that you must love the white man because he is white or the black man because he is your enemy, but rather of a love that one man has for another human being. Heart power is the strength of your company. Heart power is the strength of the Green Bay Packers. Heart power is the strength of America and hate power is the weakness of the world.

A Precursor

Thirteen Virtues of Benjamin Franklin

Legendary coach Pete Newell quoted Ben Franklin to explain his own philosophy, “Want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge. For want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost, and for want of a horse the rider was lost, being overtaken and slain by the enemy, all for want of care about a horseshoe nail.” It sums up John Wooden’s philosophy as well.

From The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin:

1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

9. MODERATION. Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.

11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.

13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Reader Feedback

anonymous on November 29, 2012:

I loved Coach Wooden. Attending UCLA during both Alcindor's years and Walton's (grad school), Coach led the rebellious and the scholarly to championship after championship. He was a true gentleman. You honor him!

andrphilip on September 03, 2008:

Thank you for making this lens. I am a fan of anyone who is a fan of John Wooden. I have the book shown above in the middle: Wooden. I grew up listening to and watching late night reruns of UCLA Basketball. I think the Wicks-Rowe era is the best of Wooden coaching. The book Wooden proves that Coach Wooden was more than a jock; he was a philosopher. The tips he gives in the book Wooden are priceless. The pyramid is genius.

LuisValdes on April 20, 2008:

Your lens is great, as is the man, Wooden. The Wizard of Westwood, record speaks for itself. The fundamentals that he taught go well beyond basketball. Congratulations on your lens!

Luis Valdes

Wooden Fan (author) on April 02, 2008:

Comments or questions about John Wooden are welcome.

Related Articles