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April 26, 2019
My Word from Wooden
The winter of 2002 was a time of transition in my life. As a college senior, my basketball playing career had just ended, and I was turning my attention away from all I had known – a lifetime of playing the game, and toward a new chapter – a career in coaching. I was starting to think and learn about the game in a new way, and as part of that pursuit I reached out to various coaches I knew or admired for advice and wisdom.

In a nutshell, that’s what led to me getting a letter from John Wooden. Despite his success and reputation as one of, if not the greatest coaches in the history of sports, the 10-time NCAA champion coach was always known as an extremely humble and helpful man of faith. His kind and selfless character is the only real explanation for why someone of his stature would take the time to respond in writing to a college-aged coaching wanna-be like me that he didn’t even know. I reference that letter regularly to this day, and it remains one of my prized possessions.
In my initial correspondence, I asked Coach Wooden about his approach to handling one of the most challenging dynamics that come with leading a team at any level - keeping all his players, especially those near the end of the bench, connected and committed. If you’re coaching a team today or parenting a young athlete who’s playing on a team, it’s a challenge you’ve probably faced or will likely face at some point. I was curious how he kept those athletes engaged as productive members of the team, especially when they got little or no playing time.

On his title teams at UCLA, most of the players at the end of the bench could have easily been starters or even superstars on the rosters of many other teams around the country. Surely plenty of them struggled to sit and wait their turn, or to do all the work that came with being a part of UCLA's program without ever seeing any meaningful playing time. How did he keep those players involved and ready, and desiring to stay a part of the team instead of packing up and heading someplace else? As an emerging coach, I knew that would be a challenge I’d inevitably face, and one I knew I’d better be prepared to handle.

I’m sharing John Wooden’s letter today because I’m guessing you might be facing a similar challenge, or preparing to face that challenge in the near future. If you’re a coach, you may be struggling to deal with the “transfer culture” we’ve seemed to adopt at almost all levels of play these days – from the pros even now into youth sports – where it’s normal and accepted for a player who has to wait his turn or who doesn’t like his role on the team to simply quit and find someplace else to play.

If you’re a sports parent, you may be facing your own challenge in this area. Maybe you’re looking for ways to encourage your child, who’s waiting for their chance to play or struggling with a role they don’t like. Maybe you or your child is feeling that pull, here in the midst of your struggle, to quit the team and find someplace else. If your child is involved with the challenges that come with playing on a team at any level, I hope Coach Wooden’s words can challenge and encourage you today.

“It is quite normal for each player to want playing time," Wooden said, "and it isn’t easy to get those who aren’t getting much playing time to understand how important they are in the development of those who get more playing time, but it must be done if you are going to have a team come close to realizing or achieving their potential."

He goes on. "Teach them to get ready, and then, perhaps, their chance will come. If they are not ready when it comes, it may not come again. Use every chance to give public praise to those who do not get much playing time. Although you must not forget the others, the media and fans will always give the others praise.”

Here’s the takeaway, I think, of Coach Wooden’s words for us here today. It’s a challenging reality of sports for the majority of athletes, including those on your team or maybe even your own son or daughter, that at least some of their time (and maybe more) will be spent waiting to get something they want. Maybe they’ll be waiting for more playing time, or a bigger role, or a chance to show what they can do, like many of those talented players who spent time on the bench at UCLA. What Wooden recognized, and what his letter is encouraging you and I to recognize today, is that whether or not a player has to wait is not what’s most important. What’s most important is, what will that player do while they wait ?

If your child is struggling through the waiting process, what will you encourage him or her to do while they wait? Will you support their pouting, complaining, or even quitting in the midst of their challenging situation? Will you focus your attention on all those unfair circumstances that that seem to exist outside his or her control? Or will you recognize that even in the midst of this struggle, there is plenty that your child can control - things like their effort, their attitude, and their improvement. They control how ready they get for that opportunity that's to come. That is a champion’s approach, like the one Coach Wooden described. I hope you’ll help your child stay in the fight and prepare for the opportunity that’s approaching. That way, when it does come, they’ll be as ready as possible. If they’re not ready when it comes, the Hall of Fame coach warns, that chance may not come again.

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