John Wooden: How Poetry Shaped My Career

06/07/2010 03:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Great Scorer
John Wooden

Poetry Magazine

At UCLA, where I was head coach of men's varsity basketball for twenty-seven years, poetry was one of my favorite teaching tools. I have loved poems since I was a child, perhaps because my father, Joshua Hugh Wooden, introduced me to literature at an early age--reading to his four sons at night under a coal oil lamp in our Indiana farmhouse: Tennyson, Whitman, Longfellow, Whittier, James Whitcomb Riley, Shakespeare, and more.

Later, at Martinsville High School, my basketball coach, Glenn "The 'Ol Fox" Curtis, was a master of motivation and utilized poetry to light a fire in his players. Grantland Rice was one of his primary "assistant coaches" in this area.

During a game against Muncie Central in which our team, the Artesians, were trailing at halftime and were thoroughly dejected, the 'Ol Fox jumped up on a bench as we headed back out to the court. Like a fire-and-brimstone preacher Coach Curtis exhorted us to remember the following:

For when the One Great Scorer
comes to mark against your name,
He writes--not that you won or lost--
but how you played the game.

We lost, but we did not quit. That poem, like many others, worked its magic, and I remembered it when I became a coach.

At UCLA, I constantly incorporated bits of poetry, rhymes, and maxims to help focus attention, give direction, and create inspiration. This seldom occurred during games but was a constant element in the locker room, on bus rides to and from arenas, in hotel lobbies, and especially during practice, where the real work is done, the real improvement made.

Bill Walton, UCLA's center for two national championships and two undefeated seasons, tells people that I never stopped talking during practice--"an overriding chatter, never silence," as he describes it. That so-called chatter included instructions on the mechanics of the game, obviously, but also dealt with attitude, which is as important as knowing how to shoot a jump shot properly. Poetry, in all its forms, was an efficient tool for this.

While I never stood on a bench and recited Grantland Rice, I did constantly inject ideas during practice that were "poetic." If I sensed lagging energy in a player--Bill Walton, perhaps?--I might quickly take him aside and sternly tell him to step it up: "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail, Bill!"

On those occasions when I had to remind him to cut his hair or shave his beard before he could come into practice, he might offer the words of his own favorite poet: "Coach Wooden, 'The times they are a-changin.'" Well, they weren't a-changin' for those who wanted to be members of the UCLA varsity basketball team.

I began each season--the first day of practice--with the same demonstration and instruction: showing players precisely how I wanted them to put on their socks; after that, how to lace and double-tie their shoelaces. "Little things make big things happen," I cautioned them.

After UCLA won its first national championship in 1964, I quickly reminded players who might be inclined to a sudden swelling of the ego of the following:

Talent is God-given; be humble.
Fame is man-given; be thankful.
Conceit is self-given; be careful.

Is this poetry? Certainly, in my opinion. I have a book of poems on my bookshelf by Billy Collins. The rules of poetry are and should be flexible; good words in good order is good enough for me.

In 1962, UCLA came within a whisker of winning a national championship. A phantom foul called on Walt Hazzard perhaps kept us from the championship game against Ohio State in which we would have been the favorite. Our team had given it everything they had. And been outscored. I reminded them of George Moriarty's poem:

Who can ask more of a man
than giving all within his span?
Giving all, it seems to me,
is not so far from victory.

A teacher never knows what stays with those he or she is teaching. You do your best using the tools at your disposal. Poetry was one of my many tools. Thus, even though I understood that Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and many others on our teams may have raised their eyebrows at some of my maxims and poetry at the time, things changed as they matured. In fact, when Bill had children of his own, he began writing down some of my maxims on their brown paper lunch bags before they left for school.

He tells me their reaction was about the same as his while he played center at UCLA. And says he hopes some of it sticks with them like it did with him.

Poetry works its magic in many different ways.

Read more at the Poetry Foundation.