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Coach Wooden believed in maintaining the details but not having too many, and it worked out quite well for him and his teams.

It is the little details that make things work.

This was one of Coach Wooden’s favorite ideas and a theme that is consistent with successful performers across many different industries, from sports to art to business. As Coach liked to say, “Develop a love of details. They usually accompany success.”

In his book Wooden on Leadership with Steve Jamison, Coach described the importance of details:

I derived great satisfaction from identifying and perfecting those “trivial” and often troublesome details, because I knew, without doubt, that each one brought UCLA a bit closer to our goal: competitive greatness.

If you collect enough pennies you’ll eventually be rich. Each relevant and perfect detail was another penny in our bank.

The key for a great coach, teacher or leader is to be able to get the people he or she supervises to execute the details properly and consistently without the need for constant correction and without the team members feeling that they are being micromanaged.

Coach was able to accomplish this by teaching the fundamentals in small parts until they became big habits that were second nature to his teams.

Coach put it this way: The greatest holiday feast is eaten one bite at a time. Gulp it down all at once and you get indigestion. I discovered the same is true in teaching. To be effective, a leader must dispense information in bite-size, digestible amounts.

Coach provided his players the proper fundamental structure, but also gave them enough leeway to use their initiative to adapt to any situation.

Coach was a master of attention to detail, but not a control freak.

An important lesson Coach learned was that details are important, but they will not be properly executed if you have too many of them.

In 1962, two years before Coach Wooden won his first national championship, UCLA came up short, losing to Cincinnati in the Final Four. Coach felt it was his fault. In Wooden’s Complete Guide to Leadership, he described the changes he made:

In the past when UCLA qualified for the NCAA postseason tournament, I had intensified our already grueling practices, working players even harder—so hard in fact, that by tournament time they were physically and mentally spent.

I had added new plays and piled on more information. Instead of staying with what had worked during the regular season—a clear and uncomplicated strategy—I intentionally made things complicated.

I resolved that in the future I would keep it simple going into postseason play, just as I did during the regular season.

The change to maintain the details, but not have too many, worked out quite well.

As Coach once said, “What I taught was as simple as one, two, three. But without being self-congratulatory I believe I taught ‘one, two, three’ fairly well.”

Photo by @FreedomTumZ/Twenty20.com

Craig Impelman
As Coach Wooden’s grandson-in-law, Craig Impelman had the opportunity to learn Coach’s teachings firsthand and wrote about those lessons for his site, www.woodenswisdom.com. He is a motivational speaker and the author of Wooden’s Wisdom, a weekly “e-coaching module” that is distributed to companies nationally.