30 August 2017

What the Greatest Sports Coach of All Time taught us about high performance

ESPN had him ranked at number 2 in The Greatest Sports Coaches of the Twentieth Century behind NFL legend Vince Lombardi. Sporting News ranked him at number 1, ahead of Lombardi at number 2.

Who is this man so revered by his peers?

He is a man, I suspect, 99 per cent of readers would not have heard of: John Wooden.

Wooden earned this incredible level of recognition by winning 10 US national college basketball championships, including seven in a row (1966-67 – 1972/73), at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). When Wooden retired after the 1974/75 season (having won the NCAA Championship for a tenth and final time) he had a winning rate of more than 80 percent over 27 seasons.

What made Wooden so incredibly effective as a coach?

Fortunately we know the answer to this question. In 1974, two educational psychologists, Ron Gallimore and Roland Tharp, spent months attending every practise session of Wooden’s team enabling them to observe, record and codify Wooden’s coaching methodology.

The outcome of this research is detailed in The Talent Code: by Daniel Coyle (Bantam Books, 2009). Here’s what Coyle wrote about Galimore and Tharp’s research on Wooden’s coaching methodology:

Gallimore and Tharp recorded and coded 2,326 discrete acts of teaching. Of them, a mere 6.9 per cent were compliments, only 6.6 per cent were expressions of displeasure. But 75 per cent were pure information: what to do, how to do it, when to intensify an activity. One of Wooden’s most frequent forms of teaching was a three-part instruction where he modeled the right way to do something, showed the incorrect way, and then remodelled the right way. (page 168 & 169)

Gradually a picture came into focus: what made Wooden a great coach wasn’t praise, wasn’t denunciation, and certainly wasn’t pep talks. His skill resided in the Gatling-gun rattle of targeted information he fired at his players. This, not that. Here, not there. His words and gestures served as short, sharp impulses that showed his players the correct way to do something. He was seeing and fixing errors. He was a virtuoso of deep practise. (page 170)

He taught in chunks, using what he called the “whole-part method” – he would teach players an entire move, then break it down to work on its elemental actions. He formulated laws of learning: explanation, demonstration, imitation, correction and repetition. “Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens it lasts”, he wrote in The Wisdom of Wooden. “The importance of repetition until automaticity cannot be overstated. Repetition is the key to learning” (page 170)

Wooden was purposefully and relentlessly building ‘muscle memory’ in his players during practise so they could rely on this muscle memory at crunch moments during big games.

Repetition is the key to learning.

Two week ago I facilitated a program of company-wide training for a client in New Zealand. For many of the participants this was the third or fourth time I had covered this material, yet each time, new learnings emerged and the importance of mastering core material became even more apparent to the participants.

Repetition is the key to learning.

The recruiters who perform at the highest level for the longest time never say (or think) “I know this” or “I’ve heard this before” when they hear something they have heard before.

These elite recruiters always listen so that (a) they can carefully validate that everything they know works effectively, is actually reflected in what they do each day or each week, and (b) they listen for some small nuance or tweak that may make the difference in, perhaps only one area of their performance, but that one small thing improves their performance. The top performer knows that small improvements executed consistently make a substantial difference to performance over a long period of time. This is the 1 Per Cent Rule at play.

The 1 Per Cent Rule states that over time the majority of the rewards in a given field will accumulate to the people, teams, and organisations that maintain a 1 percent advantage over the alternatives. You don't need to be twice as good to get twice the results. You just need to be slightly better. 

Do you think that Roger Federer says to his coach, or wife (or even to himself); “I’ll skip practising my first serve, I’ve hit enough of those in my life and I am the male record holder for Grand Slam singles titles, after all”?

‘Repetition is the key to learning’ is not exactly revolutionary as a concept but we have John Wooden to thank for showing us exactly how this repetition is executed when high performance is the desired outcome.

His words and gestures served as short, sharp impulses that showed his players the correct way to do something. He was seeing and fixing errors … He was a virtuoso of deep practise.”

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