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Coach John Wooden Pyramid of Success

It’s not what you think you are, but what you think.

In his book Wooden on Leadership, Coach Wooden described how a change in his thinking had a profound effect on his future:

At the beginning of the 1961-62 season, I’d been coaching basketball at UCLA for 13 years in conditions I would describe as harsh.

Our practice facility, the men’s gym, was cramped and poorly ventilated. It was often jammed with student athletes participating in other sporting activities during our basketball practices.

I was confronted with this situation immediately upon my arrival at UCLA, and soon concluded it was virtually impossible to achieve my teaching goals under such conditions.

It also had an impact on my assessment of the possibility of winning a national championship; specifically, in the back of my mind I just felt there was no chance that UCLA would ever be able to go all the way.

Much to the complete surprise of everyone, our unheralded 1961–62 UCLA basketball team advanced all the way to the Final Four before we lost 72–70 to Cincinnati in the final seconds of the game.

Our near-victory was a revelation to me. Much to my surprise, UCLA had nearly won the 1962 NCAA basketball championship. Suddenly—shockingly—it became clear that our inadequate basketball facility, the men’s gym, did not mean we couldn’t win the national title.

If I had been using the men’s gym as a rationale for poor performance in past NCAA playoff appearances—I couldn’t use it any more. A subconscious barrier had been removed; a light went on.

In 1964 and 1965, with the men’s gym as its practice facility, UCLA won its first two national championships.

This excerpt from one of Coach Wooden’s favorite poems Thinking by Walter Wintle, sums the idea up:

If you think you’ll lose, you’ve lost;
For out of the world we find
Success begins with a person’s will
It’s all in the state of mind.

Photo by GaudiLab/

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, He is a motivational speaker and the author of Wooden’s Wisdom, a weekly “e-coaching module” that is distributed to companies nationally.