John Robert Wooden: the coaching process

Alexis Lebedew (link) alerted me to Marv Dunphy’s Doctor of Education thesis on John Wooden. Alexis kindly shared a pdf of the thesis with me.

Marv submitted his thesis to Brigham Young University in August 1981. The title of the thesis is the title of this post, John Robert Wooden: The Coaching Process.

Marv’s acknowledgement noted John’s support of the study and their friendship that grew through it. Much of his thesis includes verbatim statements by John, his assistants and players.

Marv’s statement of his thesis problem (1981:5) sought to discover, synthesise and interpret data pertinent to the professional life endeavours of John Robert Wooden. Marv looked at the period 1948-1975.

Marv’s historical account is informed by interviews he had with those associated with John at UCLA and with John himself (1981:20). UCLA also provided Marv with access to John’s files. The files contained newspaper articles, records and written articles. Marv also had access to all john’s practice plans at UCLA (1981:25).

Chapter 4 of the thesis provides a life and career chronology. John coached for forty years.

Chapter 5 looks at player selection and roles. Included in the discussion are: recruitment; player selection; goal setting; roles; captains and lineup changes. John saw player deselection as his responsibility and that ‘unpleasant tasks’ should not be delegated to an assistant.

John’s teams had a shared team goal. He encouraged everyone’s efforts in achieving this goal. In doing so he did not talk about winning (1981:64). John discussed players’ roles in 1:1 meetings.

A first meeting (in October) shared with all the players John’s philosophy of coaching. Tis included his reliance on seven or eight players to lead the team. In subsequent meetings he emphasised role clarity. He anticipated that players would adopt different roles as required (1981:73).

John did not believe in electing captains, he appointed them. The captain set examples on the floor and off the floor. He alternated his captains during the season (1981:76).

Chapter 6 explores team supervision (1981:80). It includes a discussion of team rules and discipline. In his early years at UCLA he had rules that could not be violated. “In his later years, Coach wooden would just talk to the player and get the same results” (1981:82). One of his overriding rules was not to do anything that would detract from the basketball program or the university. With regard to discipline, John observed that he wanted his players to understand what it meant to not practice or play. John’s colleagues noted that discipline was not an issue. Everyone wanted to be part of his team.

Chapter 7 looks at practice and game concepts (1981:103). With regard to planning, John had a general idea for the season. Some things had to be resolved before the first game others were subject to adaptation. His experience enabled him to know what was happening at each stage of the year. John had notebooks of all his practices over the years. Staff meetings tended to go over the daily practice plan. “To a large degree, Coach Wooden believed that ultimate team success was contingent on what transpired on the practice floor” (1981:108). There was a strong belief that habits gained in practice would transfer to games.

Chapter 8 reported on administration and public relations (1981:132).

Chapter 9 discusses working with assistants (1981:148). John was very selective in whom he chose as an assistant. There were specific roles to be filled (for example, academic monitoring). John tended to choose assistants who shared his vision for basketball. He wanted someone who could contribute. He expected challenge and suggestions.

Chapter 10 considers philosophies on basketball and the coaching profession (1981:168). John observed “One of the joys that comes with coaching is the opportunity to work with youngsters and see them develop and become successful in their own right after they leave your supervision” (1981:169).

Chapter 11 reports on the formation of the coaching process (1981:192). John’s philosophy of success is “the piece of mind that is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming” (1981:200). With regard to motivation, John noted “I always let the players know what I expected from them and that I knew they were human beings and that they were going to make mistakes and not to think that basketball was the most important thing in the world” (1981:201).

One of John’s assistants observed that john was able to get his players ready for big games and this involved him modulating training.

Chapter 12 describes John’s UCLA teams from 1948 to 1975 (1981:205).

Chapter 13 shares responses from a player’s questionnaire (1981:234). John Berberich said of John “he is an outstandingly successful human being”. Denny Miller suggested that John had proven himself to be a poet too. Richard Banton thought John set standards for excellence for collegiate basketball and for the coaching profession (1981:241).

Chapter 14 shares Marv’s conclusions to his thesis (1981:245). Marv notes that John regarded preparation and role clarity as the keys to his success. “He felt that the best way to prepare an athlete for basketball was to have him play basketball (1981:247).

Marv has a comprehensive bibliography at the end of his thesis. It contains 98 references. Marv includes as an appendix the questionnaire he shared with players (1981:262). A second appendix includes John’s pyramid of success.

I am delighted Alexis shared this thesis with me. It made for fascinating reading. The experience was made all the more powerful for me with Marv’s quotations directly from John, his assistants and his players.

Marv is a successful volleyball player and coach (link). I find it fascinating that a future coach could look so closely at another coach. Marv started coaching six years before the publication of his thesis. He was inducted into the Volleyball Hall of Fame (link) in 1994. The Pepperdine Alumni Coaches’ page describes Marv as “widely recognized as one of the premier coaches in the history of the sport of volleyball” (link). What a great author to have for a thesis … a coach looking closely at a coach.

Photo Credits

John Wooden (Daily News)

Marv Dunphy retires (The Graphic)

John Wooden (We Are Basket)


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