5 Essential Lessons You Can Learn From Basketball

UPDATED: February 9, 2020
PUBLISHED: April 6, 2017
5 Essential Lessons You Can Learn From Basketball

University of California, Los Angeles freshman Lonzo Ball could be the hero in this tale, finding easy basketball success since he was a grade school kid. But his hero’s journey emerges when he is named one of five finalists for the John R. Wooden Player of the Year Award that was named after the man who put the UCLA men’s basketball program on the map. The winner will be named April 7 at the Los Angeles Athletic Club.

UCLA’s return to the list of John R. Wooden Award nominees is poetic but unsurprising. “In Ball’s hands, UCLA’s offense is a 3-D representation of legendary Bruins coach John Wooden’s adage: ‘Be quick but don’t hurry,’” Sports Illustrated writes.

Wooden incorporated a lot of adages into his Pyramid of Success, which laid a blueprint for becoming a competitive success. Just as initiative, alertness, intentness and self-control constitute some of the building blocks of Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, five basic skills comprise his ideal “total basketball player”: rebounding, passing, shooting, dribbling and defense.

Related: How Coach Wooden Created the Pyramid of Success

Coach Wooden was a voracious reader of poetry and literature, and considered himself a lifelong student. Every off season, Wooden chose one basketball skill to study in depth. He created a meticulously organized research and development system to uncover everything he could find about a specific subject and apply it to his teaching.

“It might be the fast-break, rebounding, the jump shot, free-throw shooting; it might be anything,” Wooden said, as quoted by his grandson-in-law Craig Impelman for the Wooden’s Wisdom newsletter. “I did that for 20 of my 27 years at UCLA. I took a different topic every year.”


What if those basic basketball skills were metaphors for blocks in Wooden’s pyramid, or better yet analogies for our life?


What if those basic basketball skills were metaphors for blocks in Wooden’s pyramid, or better yet analogies for our life? Here are five Pyramid of Success blocks that most resemble basketball’s basic skills, based on interpretation and Wooden’s own words.

Team Spirit

To the untrained eye, shooting seems pinnacle, but coaches and students of the game will tell you passing is often more important. That’s because basketball isn’t an individual game; it’s a team sport.

Coach Wooden extolled the virtues of selflessness and sacrificing personal glory for the greater good and success of your team. “For me it meant I was constantly searching for that player who would make our team ‘great’ rather than a someone who was just a ‘great player,’” Wooden wrote. “There is a big difference and that difference is what constitutes Team Spirit.”


When you think about shooting, you recall those dramatic buzzer-beating, confetti-falling moments during March Madness that make legends of young players. But for every one of those moments, there are many more disappointing shots that are hurriedly executed, get blocked or fall short to lose the game. That’s because shooting is more than merely taking the shot; it’s having the patience to set up the play or summoning the confidence to envision the shot–not just blindly hope it goes in, as Wooden said.

Wooden describes Initiative a similar way: preparing thoroughly in all ways and summoning the wherewithal to take action. “As I reminded myself and others often: ‘Be quick, but don’t hurry,’ Wooden said. “That’s a good motto for Initiative.”


The first thing new players learn is dribbling–not because it’s the easiest, but because it’s one of the most difficult but necessary skills in the sport.

Dribbling represents the intense concentration and discipline needed to keep the ball under control as you advance down the court. It’s a difficult exercise in concentration to do two, if not three or four things at once.

Wooden wrote, “Basketball is played as much between the ears–Alertness–as between the lines on the court. This is true in life and business. Alertness is that asset that keeps you awake and perceptive and increases skill.”


In life, rebounding is the ability to bounce back and get up after falling down or failing.

In that analogy, we often believe rebounding in life is usually more difficult than rebounding in basketball, but what if it isn’t? What if getting up after falling or failing is as simple as resetting your mind–the offense–to try again.

Wooden believed Intentness was among the most important personal qualities because it meant staying the course even when that course is most difficult and the obstacles seem insurmountable. “Be persistent. Be determined. Be tenacious. Be unrelenting,” Wooden wrote.


If you’ve ever watched a youth sports game, you know that kids tend to follow the ball on offense, and don’t often have the discipline to stay back on defense. That’s because our tendency is always to follow the shiny, moving object. Without focus and discipline, we’d all be like those kids toddling up and down the court.


Temptations are often the shiny objects we want to chase, but we know that having the self-control to stay focused is the key to success.


In Wooden’s pyramid, he addressed the importance of controlling yourself in all areas. “Avoiding temptations, avoiding emotionalism, avoiding peaks and valleys of effort,” he said. Temptations are often the shiny objects we want to chase, but we know that having the self-control to stay focused is the key to success.

We all follow shiny objects that fascinate us because they’re new pieces of information or knowledge to think about. John Wooden describes alertness in a similar way—”activity going on around us at all times from which we can acquire knowledge.”

The fundamentals of basketball are a great analogy for life. It’s hard to consider dribbling an analogy for staying focused and alert to all of life’s lessons, but that proves there’s a lesson in everything we do. That’s what Coach Wooden often called us to do: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

Related: Focusing on the Fundamentals

Journalist, podcaster and southpaw Shelby Skrhak is the former director of digital content and social media for SUCCESS.com. Before joining SUCCESSmagazine, Shelby launched the weekly suburban newspaper Plano Insider, and covered topics ranging from cops and courts to transportation and fashion. Her handwriting should be a font.