Bad Times Can Make You Bitter or Better

UPDATED: October 18, 2023
PUBLISHED: February 5, 2023

The saying, “A setback is a setup for a comeback,” coincides with famed UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s philosophy for facing adversity.

In his book Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success with Jay Carty, Wooden described his perspective on adversity:

We cannot allow difficulties to discourage us. Roadblocks may cause us to alter our course a bit, but we cannot let them deter us from our destination.

“I have often said that we grow stronger through adversity. We become stronger physically through a weight-lifting program. Our muscles work against heavy objects. That’s adversity. We get stronger mentally through the progressive difficulty of education. We don’t start with calculus; we start with arithmetic. After we learn the basics, we move on to algebra, then to geometry and so on. We work our way up to calculus. In the same way, we grow stronger spiritually through the tests of life. Losing my beloved wife, Nellie, was the hardest event in my life. For a couple of years, it slowed me down; but it didn’t stop me. In the end even her loss has made me stronger. 

“In every way—physically, morally, emotionally and spiritually—we increase our strength when life is hard; therefore, we must not dread adversity, nor can we allow it to stop us from becoming the best we can be through the steadfast pursuit of our goals. In fact, as we become stronger we can and should expand our goals. Extending our capabilities to their limits requires us to realistically reevaluate our potential.”

Facing adversity makes us stronger

In 1962, Wooden’s UCLA team was defeated in the semifinals of the Final Four. In Wooden’s book Wooden on Leadership with Steve Jamison, Fred Slaughter, a member of that team, described the experience:

“We lost to Cincinnati in the semifinals of the National Championship because of a bad charging call on us during the last minute of the game. It was a phantom call, and it cost UCLA the game and maybe the National Championship. Coach’s reaction in the locker room was the same as if we’d won—cool, no complaining. He told us to keep our heads up: ‘Adversity makes us stronger.’ And then he said, ‘Remember, you’ve still got one another.’”

Sometimes it took years before Wooden’s players benefited from his life lessons on facing adversity. Bill Walton once described it this way:

“Twenty-nine years have passed since I left UCLA and it amazes me how smart Coach Wooden has become in those 29 years. I’m 50 years old now. We thought he was nuts. He was a walking antique. It wasn’t until adversity hit us that I realized he was right.”

Facing adversity in a positive way requires the two top mortar pieces of Wooden’s Pyramid of Success: faith and patience. We must remember, as Wooden put it, “Adversity is the state in which man most easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.”

This article was published in January 2018 and has been updated.
This article originally appeared on and has been republished with permission.
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Craig Impelman

As Coach Wooden’s grandson-in-law, Craig Impelman had the opportunity to learn Coach’s teachings firsthand and wrote about those lessons for his site, He is a motivational speaker and the author of Wooden’s Wisdom, a weekly “e-coaching module” that is distributed to companies nationally.