John Wooden is considered the greatest coach in college basketball history.
His UCLA teams of the 50s, 60s, and 70s produced 10 national championships, 38 consecutive NCAA tournament wins, and a remarkable 88-game winning streak.
No other coach comes close to these accomplishments.
Mr. Wooden set the standard for excellence and is revered for the class and dignity he brought to coaching.
Ironically, however, he didn’t consider coaching to be his profession. He thought of himself as a teacher. Writer Steve Jamison, who co-authored Mr. Wooden’s 1997 book, Wooden, calls him “the legendary teacher of basketball.”
In fact, Mr. Wooden started his career as a high school English teacher and never found marked differences between the way he taught in classroom and on the basketball court.
Highly Detailed Teaching
Before the start of every season, during the first meeting with his players, Mr. Wooden would teach a very peculiar lesson.
Here is Mr. Wooden in his own words:I personally demonstrated how I wanted players to put on their socks each and every time. Carefully roll the socks down over the toes, ball of the foot, arch, and around the heel, then pull the sock up snug so there will be no wrinkles of any kind. I would then have the players carefully check with their fingers for any folds or creases in the sock, starting at the toes and sliding the hand along the side of and under the foot, smoothing the sock out as the fingers passed over it. I paid special attention to the heel because that is where wrinkles are most likely.
I would watch as the player smoothed the sock under and along the heel. I wanted it done conscientiously, not quickly or casually. I wanted absolutely no folds, wrinkles, or creases of any kind on the sock.
Then we would proceed to the other foot and do the same.
Coach Wooden would explain every detail as he modeled for his players how he expected them to put on their socks. Then he would have his players demonstrate for him, and he would watch as they practiced, offering suggestions along the way.
Although Mr. Wooden had a practical reason for doing this—socks that have creases in them tend to cause blisters—a lesson regarding such a mundane procedure, especially one aimed at grown men, seems ridiculous. But to anyone who has experienced the power of detailed modeling, it makes perfect sense.
Mr. Wooden was sending a message to his players that he expected them to strive for excellence in everything they did. A seemingly unimportant exercise like this transfers to other, more important things.
If his expectations are high for putting on sweat socks, think of what they are for using proper shooting form or for encouraging teammates?
Avoid “Big Idea” Teaching
Excellence starts with the little things, the details. If you don’t have specific expectations for how your students walk into the classroom and hang up their backpacks, then you’re going to have a more difficult time teaching them how to treat one another with respect.
“Details win championships” and “Success is in the details” are maxims that have great value in teaching. Unfocused, “big idea” teaching produces confusion. And confusion always produces misbehavior and poor performance.
Furthermore, details are inherently interesting and lend themselves to being taught with clarity. Big idea teaching tends to be ambiguous and is difficult to convey clearly and without bias. It’s also preemptive.
Big ideas should come from students, not you. Teaching big ideas or overarching themes removes the opportunity for students to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions.
Giving students the big idea (“We need to respect each other because we’re a family.”) means nothing to them. Sure, they can repeat this statement, but in order for it to resonate, they have to come to this conclusion on their own through real, experiential, and highly specific teaching. Only then will it stick. Only then will it mean something to them.
John Wooden didn’t tell his players, “Men, we need to win a championship because it would be a great accomplishment.” No, he told them how to put their socks on. He started with the building blocks necessary for being successful.
If the greatest college basketball coach in history, who first and foremost considers himself a teacher, chooses as his first lesson the finer points of putting on a sock, then we would do well to follow his example.
Here’s what Mr. Wooden has to say about highly detailed teaching:
These seemingly trivial matters, taken together and added to many, many other so-called trivial matters build into something very big: namely, your success.
Do you want a well-behaved class, one that you love to teach, one that makes you excited to come to work every day? Then stop telling your students what your hopes for them are, and start teaching them the nitty-gritty details.
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