“If I am through learning, I am through.” –John Wooden
This favorite quote of Coach Wooden’s reflected his dedication to being a lifelong learner. Coach was 98 when Alan Castel, a UCLA assistant professor of psychology, interviewed him about aging.
“When asked about the keys to successful aging, Coach was quick to respond: Stay busy, stay active, enjoy every day like it is your masterpiece, have some variety, and try to learn something new every day,” Castel said.
Coach read many books about Abraham Lincoln. In his book A Game Plan for Life with Don Yeager, Coach described how he got started:
I really came to know Lincoln for myself while I was in college. A librarian at Purdue named Blanche Miller noticed that I kept checking out books on the president. She started to make suggestions to me about new books on Lincoln, or older ones I might not have come across.
It was so exciting for me to delve into the complex mind and philosophy of a political figure such as Lincoln, because it was so separate from my athletic life and schoolwork.
His journey of learning from Lincoln continued his whole life. At the age of 99, Coach was still reading new Lincoln books. He was not through.
It is the relentless pursuit of knowledge, and keeping an open mind on a topic you may already be considered an expert in, that makes a truly great learner.
Coach never stopped learning about Lincoln; he took the same approach to basketball.
In his book How to Be Like Coach Wooden: Life Lessons From Basketball’s Greatest Leader, Pat Williams recounted what it was like for Denny Crum being John Wooden’s assistant coach:
When Denny Crum arrived at UCLA as an assistant coach in 1968, the Bruins were defending national champions. In fact, they had won three of the previous four NCAA tournaments.
Because of that, Crum says that when he first came to UCLA, he wasn’t sure that any suggestions he made would be accepted or seriously considered.
But the new coach quickly discovered that John Wooden was not the least bit close-minded or arrogant: “He was very open to suggestion and change. I think that’s what impressed me about him more than anything else—and I think it was unusual, given the success he had already had to that point.”
Crum remembers that, “I’d say, ‘I think if we tried this it might work a little bit better,’ and he’d say, ‘Well, show it to me.’ Then I’d diagram it on the blackboard and we’d talk about it.”
Coach didn’t agree to anything right away. He wanted time to think about it and see if he really thought it would work. But neither did he reject anything just because it wasn’t his idea.
Whatever the topic, Coach Wooden was never through learning, and as result, in the game of life, he was never through.
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