Doing your absolute best + loving what you do = success

As I moved from coaching collegiate basketball into administration, I’ve often thought about what I might do differently if I went back into coaching. Among other ideas, I would alter my basic approach and thought process.

While coaching, I used a couple different quotes that appear to be at odds with each other:

“Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

— Vince Lombardi

“Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing that you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”

— John Wooden

I’ve thought about these often. Both are from extremely popular coaches who have won a tremendous number of games.

But which is it? Where’s the focus: Is winning the only thing? Should the focus be on being your best? This has really caused me to think a great deal. Now, after stepping away from it for a while, and having read a great deal, surrounded myself with some really good people (and coaches), I now know that the answer lies in Coach Wooden’s definition of success.

Let me explain in more detail: You see, Coach rarely, if ever, spoke about winning. Think about that: His teams won seven straight NCAA Division I national championships and 10 in 12 years. They won 88 straight games. They won an incredible 38 straight NCAA tournament games. And yet Coach very rarely, if ever, talked about winning. Incredible, until you really think about his mind-set. Winning is a byproduct of the focus on success, by his definition.

Coach understood the bigger picture, even at the highest level of collegiate basketball. He was a teacher, and still is a teacher. Through his world-famous Pyramid of Success, he taught his players — and now people in all walks of life — about success. What he taught his players are transferable skills. He understood that he was teaching about more than basketball. He taught an incredible focus on the controllable aspects that would lead to success, regardless of what the scoreboard said.

Legendary coach John Wooden says he would
add love to his famous Pyramid of Success.

Coach understood that you could control your effort. You could control your attentiveness and listening. At the top of the pyramid is competitive greatness. He understood that, if you take care of all of the important building blocks, with great effort and passion, the competitive greatness would take care of itself. In other words, when you truly (and I mean really, fully) put in your absolute best effort in all aspects, the wins will take care of themselves. Even if the scoreboard doesn’t show a victory, Wooden knows that you have really won if you’ve put in that genuine effort to be your best. Competitive greatness.

This is one of the main areas where I’ve grown as I’ve stepped back from coaching and really tried to gain a greater understanding of the bigger picture.

I also understand that there are some detractors. Some believe that, especially at the college level, the focus should be on winning. They believe that we need to teach our young people to be competitive and teach the value of winning. After all, it’s often argued, whether it’s the football field, lacrosse field, soccer field, etc., or in the “real life” of the business world, we are judged by the wins, the sales, the revenue, etc. The scoreboard, the revenue, the bottom line doesn’t lie. You win or you lose. You get the sale or you don’t. Your company is in the red or the black. The ol’ results are in the pudding.

To these thoughts and comments, I would remind you that the top of Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success is competitive greatness. There was a reason that the building blocks all led to competitive greatness. I would also remind you that we cannot ask of ourselves any more than our very best in any aspect of life. Think about that: We cannot ask any more of ourselves — or others — than our absolute best. If more people would genuinely focus on all aspects of their absolute best effort in all that they do, the results would become a byproduct of these efforts.

Coach is 99 now. He’ll be 100 on Oct. 14. He recently mentioned that he thinks he made a mistake in the Pyramid of Success. What? A mistake? The pyramid has been used in athletics and in business around the world as a teaching tool, and yet Coach has said that he thinks that he may have made a mistake?

His mistake, he explains, is that he didn’t mention love. Love, after all, is the greatest gift of all, and the ultimate motivator. Coach considers “love” the greatest word in the English language.

Think about this in more detail. When we combine our absolute best efforts to a focused cause, and truly love what we are doing, we genuinely have achieved success. Love is the passion and driving force behind our great efforts. Coach loved to teach. He loved his players. The results took care of themselves.

When we translate Coach’s focused efforts into today’s sports business world, the concept is highly transferable. Whether you’re involved in high school, college or professional athletics, no matter what the specific role, you can always do your absolute best with great passion. When this is genuinely done — great, focused efforts to the best of your ability with tremendous passion and love — your results will also take care of themselves. You WILL be a success.

As I mentioned, it is this new thought process where I would change in coaching. This is where you, as a coach, player or parent can change for the better. Remember that it’s not just what you teach, but what you emphasize. Emphasize John Wooden’s definition of success and you will find that you, your program and those that you affect will lead a happy, more productive and more successful life.

John McCarthy ( is the director of the NAIA’s Division I men’s basketball national championship. He previously was the athletic director at Lynn University in Florida and coached eight years of collegiate basketball at Wilmington College in Delaware and at Lynn.

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