The Difference Between Winning & Succeeding

John Robert Wooden, fondly called Coach, had a profound impact on everyone he met. Considered the greatest NCAA basketball head coach ever, Wooden led the UCLA Bruins men’s basketball program to numerous wins with a 664-162 record. He was also named NCAA College Basketball Coach of the Year six times.

With a career spanning 40 years, Wooden’s legacy in the sports world is unparalleled, but his most enduring legacy is that of a master teacher whose lessons extended to life overall, not just sports. At the core of his teachings lay a simple truth – succeeding is better than winning.

How It Started

Wooden coined his definition of success in 1934 when he was teaching at a high school in South Bend, Indiana. As an educator, he struggled with a system that boxed in student achievement to grades. It was, he felt, an inadequate measure of varying intelligence in each learner. He noticed similar patterns on the basketball court and how the world judged athletic teams or coaches. ‘If you won them all, you were considered to be reasonably successful – not completely…But it seemed that we didn’t win each individual game by the margin that some of our alumni had predicted…And quite frequently I really felt that they had backed up their predictions in a more materialistic manner.

Wooden wanted to conceptualize a path that could make him a better teacher while giving his students something higher to aspire to, other than grades or more points in an athletic contest.

And I knew how Mr. Webster defined it, as the accumulation of material possessions or the attainment of a position of power or prestige, or something of that sort, worthy accomplishments perhaps, but in my opinion, not necessarily indicative of success.’ said Wooden during a TED talk. 

The Difference Between Succeeding and Winning

Wooden defined success as peace of mind that comes from knowing you put in the effort to do the best of which you are capable. He made distinctions between success and winning by likening the two to character and reputation. A person’s reputation is driven by perception, whereas character is who they really are.

Winning is a lot like reputation with its outward trappings. Success, on the other hand, is like character. It focuses on the journey and is much more important than reputation. Wooden strongly considered players who reached their full potential as his success.

Some of his other pearls of wisdom included:

  • Learn from others instead of trying to be better than them
  • Focus on things you can control. 
  • Achieving your ultimate potential which is in your control. 
  • Stressing out about factors not under your control undermines the best you can be
  • Always show up on time and close on time
  • Never use profanity
  • Never criticize a team-mate
  • Never whine or make excuses

The Pyramid of Success

Wooden went on to create the Pyramid of Success and wrote books to share his philosophy. The cornerstones of the Pyramid are industriousness, enthusiasm, working hard, and loving what you do.

Right at the top of the Pyramid are faith and patience. Long term changes come from patience and hard work. People must believe they will succeed and do everything possible to make it happen. Too often, the human tendency is to hope things will turn out the way we want them to without doing what is necessary to make dreams a reality.

Wooden was in good physical health until the later years of his life. On May 26, 2010, Wooden was admitted to the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center after suffering dehydration. He died of natural causes at age 99 on June 4, 2010. In a world that values external signs of achievement and wins, Wooden’s outlook on coaching and life was a quietly radical departure that continues to impact everyone who met him.

Written by Chiara Cipriani, Recruiter at Harp