John Wooden: Be True to Your Life-Guiding Principles

UPDATED: October 18, 2023
PUBLISHED: September 25, 2022
John Wooden: Be True to Your Life-Guiding Principles

“If you sacrifice principle trying to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one,” said Coach John Wooden. This maxim is a great reminder of a key principle Wooden learned from his father: “Be true to yourself.”

In the book Coach Wooden by Pat Williams, two of Wooden’s former players shared their perspective on the necessity of staying true to yourself:

  1. Dave Meyers (UCLA: 1971-75), former NBA star and teacher, summarized his lessons this way: “If you are not maintaining self-control, then you are not being true to yourself. You are letting your circumstances or your emotions or the actions of other people control you. To be true to yourself, you have to be in control of yourself. When I played for Wooden, he used to tell the team, ‘If you can’t control yourself, others will do it for you. And if you’re not controlling yourself, you’re not helping the team.’”
  2. Andy Hill (UCLA: 1969-72), who became an accomplished television producer and co-author of the book Be Quick—But Don’t Hurry, shared this insightful perspective: “Those players who fought with John Wooden the hardest ultimately became his most outspoken advocates. That’s because he let them fight. He wasn’t intimidated by a player who had his own opinions. Coach was totally secure in who he was.”

Rather than “going along to get along,” we should have a value system that will guide us to make the right decision. Doing the right thing is more important than meeting the expectations of our peers.

The following two stories powerfully illustrate Wooden’s consistency in being true to life-guiding principles:

  1. Wooden, in his first year as a college coach, refused an invitation to the 1948 NAIA National Championship tournament because Clarence Walker, an African-American player, would have been prohibited from participating solely because of his race.
  2. In his book Coach Wooden, Williams recounts a meeting Wooden participated in prior to his last season as a college coach:

“In 1974, Coach Wooden and his assistant coaches were called to the office of UCLA athletic director J. D. Morgan. ‘We just received an offer from one of the television networks,’ Morgan said. ‘The network has offered UCLA a lot of money if we will play North Carolina State as the opening game of the upcoming season.’ Just a few weeks earlier, the NC State Wolfpack had stunned the heavily favored UCLA Bruins in the opening round of the Final Four. The network thought that opening the season with a rematch between the two teams would be a ratings sensation. But as Morgan laid out the terms of the offer, there was one big hitch: The game would be scheduled on a Sunday, the day Coach Wooden set aside as a day of rest. Coach and his wife, Nell, never missed a Sunday attending church in Santa Monica. After church, their children and grandchildren usually came over for Sunday dinner. Would Coach be willing to forego his weekly ritual for this opportunity? Morgan asked the two assistant coaches, Gary Cunningham and Frank Arnold, what they thought of the offer. Both assistants said they would prefer not to play on Sunday but would do what they had to do. But they both knew it wasn’t their opinion that really counted. Morgan turned to Coach Wooden for his response. ‘Well, Coach? What do you think about the offer?’”

‘J. D.,’ Coach said gently, ‘if you want to schedule that game on Sunday afternoon, go right ahead. But I won’t be there.’ With that, the discussion was over. There would be no Sunday game.”

In the time between his first season and last season, nothing had changed. Wooden remembered: If you sacrifice principle trying to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one.

This article was published in April 2018 and has been updated.
This article originally appeared on and has been republished with permission.
Photo by Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

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.