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“The true athlete should have character, not be a character.” –Coach John Wooden

This famous quote from Coach Wooden reflected the importance he placed on character in the selection process of his team members.

Character is so important in everything, he said. Character is what you really are. You’re the only one that knows your character. You don’t know my character. I know my character. You know my reputation. It could be different. Reputation is what you are perceived to be by others. Your character is what you really are.

Coach expanded on this in his book with Steve Jamison, Wooden:

I like to think the players I coached, however they came to UCLA, left as men of character. But in truth if they didn’t have it when they came, I couldn’t give it to them. By then it was too late. That’s a job for a mother and father.

Even so, Coach felt all of us can influence good character in a positive way. How? One of his favorite poems reflects his thoughts:

No written word
Nor spoken plea
Can teach our youth
What they should be.

Nor all the books
On all the shelves.
It’s what the teachers
Are themselves.

Coach Wooden’s character was built by his parents, but greatly enhanced by the example of others. Here are a few examples Coach gave in his book with Don Yaeger, A Game Plan for Life:

Mother Teresa truly lived her life for others and showed consideration to everyone she met, whether she agreed with them or not. Her example has taught me more patience and peace than I ever imagined possible.

She presented a tremendous example in how she lived her own beliefs. But there is another, very different way that she offered me important life lessons: by respecting the beliefs of others.

My high school coach, Glenn Curtis, will always have a place in my memory as an even keeled, even tempered, and even minded man. The lessons he taught me were some of the most fundamental of my own professional and personal life. His was a life that taught by example, where coaching was teaching and where winning was incidental.

Coach summed up the great opportunity we all have to positively influence good character:

Everyone, regardless of their position or their job or their college degree or profession, is a teacher in some form or another.

You can’t be a teacher to everyone, but there always is someone you could reach with your life.

Example is the best teacher. It’s the key. It is something we all can do.

Photo by Pressmaster/

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.