Fifty Years Later, John Wooden’s Three Things Still Matter for Good Teamwork (a.k.a. Good Collaboration) in Our Institutions

"So it takes all three of these things [conditioning, fundamentals, and a team spirit]. And it’s been my deep and abiding philosophy for many, many years that the three things are most important. Sometimes I think if the ability is equal, the most difficult to get is the true team spirit. And I don’t think that should be because I think that’s what we need in everything, whether it be in the home, as a student here at UCLA, whether it be in our city, or country or state or in the world. I think that’s all we need." --John Wooden (NCAA Championship Game, November 1971) 

Just this morning, I heard an excerpt from legendary basketball coach John Wooden’s speech at UCLA in the 1971 NCAA Championship Game. The World and Everything in It daily news podcast has a recording here. Truly, the three things of his philosophy of coaching work well for good collaboration in schools and classrooms. I found this especially timely after writing about collaboration last week, using somewhat similar connections from about thirty years ago. Wooden’s emphasis on conditioning, fundamentals, and a team spirit helps essentialize our work as educators.

Looking back over the past year, March Madness might have different connotations as we back to the spring of 2020 with the advent of COVID distancing protocols and emergency remote learning. As we near what some are calling the “Coronaversary,’ we have much to consider, both positive and negative about lessons learned over the past year. Even as one of this planet’s least of sports fans, I greatly appreciate coach Wooden’s philosophy for sports, learning, and long-term flourishing.

Here are a few of my own brief applications of Wooden’s three things for my high school English teaching context…

Conditioning: For my students and for me, we need to practice conditioning ourselves to more sustained acts of concentration on important, complex topics and texts. Here, I keep returning to the best focus from the Common Core standards, emphasizing coaching students to read complex texts independently. They need stamina for that. (The independence is not to be the sole end but more like the capacity building for discussing the complex ideas and connections from great thinkers across the ages and from many different cultures.) My experiences with Advanced Placement English, IB, and concurrent enrollment contexts reveal that students can get better at complex texts. That doesn’t mean that we should all teach the tests to do so, but the complex texts and tests can provide some good samples to condition and train with.

Fundamentals: My wise mentor and teacher from college relentlessly asserted that reading and other essential intellectual activities are all about making connections. Those connections are variously described as inferences, inductions, abductions, deductions, extractions, abstractions, and applications. For my English classroom, we’re always connecting to the texts and considering their contexts and complexities, as well as our own. The ancient name for such fundamental intellectual skills is rhetoric, and the fundamentals of rhetoric help us make sense of our lives and the world around us. Knowing such fundamentals can also help us debunk the many deceptions that come from outside and inside ourselves.

Recovering the Team Spirit of Institutions: In both micro and a macro senses, I can’t help but think of classrooms and schools as institutions. My best classes have always had a critical mass of students who like, or learn to like, the tough conditioning of studying hard things, the simple-yet-complex fundamentals, and the potential for growing together as a community of learners. Such students increasingly lose their taste for the trendy and superficial distractions of bad cultural influences.

Trendy, popular, technological, and political forces often seem leveraged to disrupt healthy ways of looking at and living with institutions. A recent publication explains how universities have become multi-versities that can’t quite find a way to organize and integrate their educational missions (hmm…sounds a bit Marvel’s upcoming Dr. Strange sequel, The Multiverse of Madness?). About the closest candidate for integration is sports, and COVID has challenged that point of integration significantly.

Beyond mere sports as a pastime, the reminder of Wooden’s wisdom as a coach redirects us to a sort of mere philosophy approach to better institutions of learning. Our institutions need to focus on Wooden’s three things now more than ever. I find political analyst Yuval Levin’s A Time to Build in line with Wooden concerning better approaches to culture and society. Levin offers the following reflection for our better sense of committing to institutions:

"And at the core of that is what I think of in the book as the great unasked question of American life in this moment, which is given my role here. How should I behave? Given that I'm a parent or a president or a member of Congress or the vice principal of an elementary school, given that, what choice should I make in this situation? I think the failure to ask that question is behind an amazing amount of what's wrong in our country in this moment, and that the people we respect in this period are people who seem to ask that question when they should." 
--Yuval Levin, interviewed about A Time to Build in "The Importance of Institutions." 

Wrestling with our work in institutions can be difficult, and I find Wooden helpful with this assertion: “And my definition of success is peace of mind through self satisfaction and knowing that you’ve done the best that you’re capable of doing.”

It’s all too easy to get negative about the struggles and the shortcomings of ourselves and our institutions, and here again, Wooden offers direction:

"And if we’re a whiner, and a complainer, and we’re always comparing ourselves with the other fella, we never make the most of what we have. And we’re just abject failures. That’s all there is to it. And my idea is to try to make the most with what you have. And then regardless of the scores, if you’re a coach, you always win." 

I’ve written earlier about mere philosophy as a guide “for” education, and I’m finding John Wooden especially helpful for inspiring and admonishing even me, the least of sports fans.

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