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Team Chemistry – How Do I Maintain It?

What makes John Wooden such a unique coach? Why did he abruptly retire at the height of his success, and what happened to UCLA afterward?

We would not know John Wooden if he had not only achieved team success, but also maintained it at an unparalleled level in the history of Division I sports. Seven championships in row and ten championships in twelve years. Eighty eight games won in row. Yet in his book, Wooden[1], published twenty two years after he retired, he will tell you that his first fourteen  years at UCLA, prior to winning the first national championship, were just as successful in building and maintaining team chemistry.

John Wooden understood team chemistry better than anyone that I am aware. He cites his first national championship team, 1964, as a testament to team chemistry. Having first bought into his Pyramid of Success, they won in spite of the conditions. They practiced in a second story gym nicknamed B.O. for the smell. They played their home games at other schools because UCLA seated fewer spectators than many high school gyms. And their winning as a team attracted the attention of some East Coast talent like Lew Alcindor.

John Wooden maintained team chemistry by consistently following a few simple principles. He treated each player as an individual by challenging each one to be the best he could be, every day, not just at tournament time. He understood his role was that of a teacher. As he said, “When you are through learning, you’re through.”

He focused on personal and team productivity on a daily basis rather than his competition. He understood that making practices more challenging or demanding than the games, resulted in the games taking care of themselves. Bill Walton described games as seeming “slow” compared to UCLA practices. No loosening the tie, pacing for side lines and yelling at players. He did that daily; the games were a reward for his teams’ work away from the limelight.

While Wooden respected the individual, he kept the team above the individual. He wished Bill Walton, his All American center, well as ex-team member when Bill informed him he was going to grow a beard. Walton stayed clean shaven.

John Wooden adapted to change and helped his team do the same. When dunking was outlawed in response to Lew Alcindor’s dominance, he taught Lew the sky hook and the team kept on winning. The sky hook, not the dunk, led Kareem Abdul Jabbar to become the leading all time scorer in the NBA.

Most importantly, John Wooden also walked the walk. He out prepared, out worked, and out cared his team and always kept the team above anyone’s notoriety. And when he felt he lost his personal joy, he walked away. And believe it not, he didn’t UN-retire. He continued to teach and influence for 30 more years and his walk was same with or without the spotlights. Ask John Maxwell.

Contrast John Wooden’s approach to most teams and companies How many coaches shed the spotlight? How many leaders challenge everyone to constantly to improve and grow? Can you imagine your coach/CEO never talking about “beating the competition” but only on executing the team gameplan? If you asked your coach who was his MVP, would he mention a non titled employee or player who got the most out of his/her ability? John Wooden mentions Conrad Burke in Wooden[2], not Walt Hazzard.

Whether it’s UCLA, Alabama, Notre Dame, IBM, GM, or Lehman Bros., team chemistry requires daily maintenance. When teams dwell on the past, put stars or leaders on pedestals, place winning above self improvement, and allow recruits/employees to develop a sense of entitlements, team chemistry is usually lost. And like a pool, the usual reaction is to “shock” the pool. For teams, shock usually means a new coach/CEO, followed closely by the resulting transfers and quits.

If John Wooden were in the pool business, I suspect his daily attention to the job would have resulted in at least 88 days without having to shock it. No matter how big the pool or how famous the owner!


[1] Wooden, A reflection of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court; McGraw Hill; 1997.

[2] Wooden, A reflection of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court; McGraw Hill; 1997.

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