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Coach John Wooden Pyramid of Success

In order to be effective in our discipline (teaching, not punishing), we must have tact. Often how we say things is just as important as what we are saying.

Related: 10 Traits of an Effective Teacher

This issue will focus on the art of discipline.

In his book Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court with Steve Jamison, Coach Wooden recounts an episode where he had to discipline his great All-American center Bill Walton.

“There was a rule against facial hair for players on the UCLA basketball teams. One day, Bill Walton came to practice after a 10-day break wearing a beard. I asked him, ‘Bill have you forgotten something?’

“He replied, ‘Coach, if you mean the beard, I think I should be allowed to wear it. It’s my right.’

“I asked, ‘Do you believe in that strongly?’ He answered, ‘Yes, I do, Coach. Very much.’

“I looked at him and said politely, ‘Bill, I have a great respect for individuals who stand up for the things in which they believe. I really do. And the team is going to miss you.’

“Bill went to the locker room and shaved the beard off before practice began. There were no hard feelings. I wasn’t angry and he wasn’t mad.”

The key rule of effective discipline that Coach Wooden followed was that he did not attack Bill’s character or intent. He only dealt with his action.

Related: 8 Key Elements of a Good Working Relationship

If an employee is having a tardiness issue, it is ineffective to say, “You have been late three times in the last two weeks. That is so irresponsible. Don’t you even care about your job?” This would be attacking character and intent.

Discipline that uses shame, guilt or fear weakens people. Discipline that uses reason teaches and improves them.

A more effective approach would be, “You have been late three times in the last two weeks. I know it is not your intention to be late; however, our company requires that you are on time for work. What is causing this situation?” When we use this approach, we are focusing on the action and leaving character and intent alone.

Discipline that uses shame, guilt or fear weakens people. Discipline that uses reason teaches and improves them.

The following is an essay Coach Wooden wrote, called “How to Avoid Grievances.”

There is a definite art to criticizing others. If you want your criticism to yield positive results, observe these rules:

Get all the facts. Only then are you prepared to appraise the situation fairly. The best way to get a man to give you the facts is to ask, “What happened?” It boils down the whole issue to what went wrong rather than who is to blame.

Stay calm. You’ll create a climate of “let’s find a solution together,” in which you ally yourself with the fellow against the common enemy—a mistake. He’ll respond in kind.

Criticize in private. Test after test has proved that this gets better results than criticism in public.

Commend before you criticize and follow with “a pat on the back.” That way, you take the sting out of what is to follow. You provide assurances that you still have great regard for the person you are criticizing. And you subtly suggest that you recognize his error as merely a departure from the norm—his customary high caliber performance. In short, you help him “save face.”

Keep your criticism constructive. The purpose of criticism is to teach better ways. Collaborate with the other fellow to discover what happened and indicate ways to prevent the mistake from happening again. That’s positive, purposeful criticism—the only kind that gets lasting results.

Related: How to Set a Good Example

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.