Coach John Wooden’s 6 Ways to Rethink Change

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3, 2020

4 min read

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The following is an excerpt from Lynn Guerin and Jason Lavin’s Coach ‘Em Way Up: 5 Lessons for Leading the Way, out now from Entrepreneur Press. Purchase it via Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop | Entrepreneur Press

***In the spirit of this year’s tournament, you can purchase Coach ‘Em Way Up — print or eBook edition — for 25% off by using the discount code COACH at checkout when you order it here between now and April 10. 

Legendary coach John Wooden knew his team’s performance and productivity started with the quality of his thinking. He had to focus his mind, organize and plan his daily activities, and follow through on doing them. Everything in Coach’s day-to-day improvement process started with the quality of thinking (both his own and his coaches and players). As a leader and coach to your employees and teams, how do you think about making changes in your life and business?

Coach Wooden often spoke and thought about the process of change and his need to constantly assess and work on the quality of his thinking, lest he get stuck in the status quo. Think about these elements in terms of how you think about change.

Status Quo

“Not all change is progress, but there is no progress without change.” Coach recognized his life was always about change, but change did not mean breaking free from the status quo. He was always mindful of the changes he needed to make in his program, his people and his life to move forward, starting with how he was thinking.

Related: 8 Keys to Coach John Wooden’s Servant Leadership

Right Thinking

“People are usually as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Coach learned from his parents, who raised their children through difficult circumstances, that being optimistic and happy and having a positive attitude was a choice. Coach made the same choice about his thinking, especially when it came to change. If he wasn’t positive, optimistic, and happy about the change, he wasn’t thinking right.


“Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.” Once Coach felt he was thinking right, he prepared for how and when the changes should be made. He considered the solutions he was working toward. What might the obstacles be? What would he and the team have to give up to pursue the change? Who he would need to help him execute the change?

Taking Action

“Nothing works until you do.” Coach tested and tried things, but ultimately he thought about the actions he was determined to take to make the change possible and successful. Then, he took those actions and took responsibility for teaching and leading the team through them.


“Do not permit what you cannot, do interfere with what you can.” Coach knew that staying on course after making a change required as much work as making the change in the first place. He kept working on the course of action knowing he was going to fall back or even fail.


“The uphill climb is slow, but the downhill road is fast.” Coach never questioned his thinking too soon. He refused to make small setbacks bigger than they had any right to be. But when the change had run its course (or failure was apparent) and his thinking needed to evolve or be replaced, he worked on his “right thinking” and started over to avoid getting stuck in the status quo.

Related: Time for a Change? These 8 Founders Switched Things Up During the Pandemic and Thrived

The quality of Coach’s thinking set the tone for his feelings, determined the correctness of his  and defined the course of his actions — for himself and as the leader of his team. His mind was not cluttered by spending time thinking about himself, worrying what others thought about him or comparing himself with others (let alone trying to be better than them). He knew if he was not thinking correctly, not much good would follow. Instead, his thinking was driven by an insatiable appetite to learn and improve his abilities to teach and make a difference in the lives of others. The challenge for you as a coach and a leader for your employees and teams is to do the same.

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