The top block on Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, Competitive Greatness, is defined as, “Be at your best when your best is needed. Enjoyment of a difficult challenge.”
Coach never mentioned being competitive in association with winning or being a great competitor in association with being a winner. For John Wooden, being a great competitor was not about winning or losing.
He had a much higher standard.
Coach described competitive greatness this way: “The next and last block in the structure just above poise and confidence is competitive greatness. This is the ability to be at your very best when your very best is needed…. What a wonderful thing competitive greatness is, enjoying it when things are difficult.
“Grantland Rice in his poem Great Competitor said in part:
Beyond the winning and the goal,
Beyond the glory and the fame,
He feels the flame within his soul,
Born of the spirit of the game,
And where the barriers may wait,
Built up by the opposing Gods,
He finds a thrill in bucking fate,
And riding down the endless odds.
Where others wither in the fire
Or fall below some raw mishap,
Where others lag behind or tire
And break beneath the handicap,
He finds a new and deeper thrill
To take him on the uphill spin,
Because the test is greater still,
And something he can revel in.
“Yes, the true competitor revels in it when it’s difficult. That is the greatest fun.”
Coach viewed difficult situations as opportunities for fun that don’t often occur. He described it this way: “There’s more pleasure in being involved in something that’s difficult than there is in being involved in something that anybody else could do. Most of our daily tasks that you and I do, anybody else could do most of them. They’re easy, but there is no joy in those. But there is joy in being involved in something that is more difficult.”
Coach described his attitude toward competition in basketball games as an example: “Our alumni at UCLA when I was there felt there was joy in beating some team by 50 points. There was no joy in that. There’s real joy in playing against somebody about your own level of competency. That’s the joy, the joy in the competition.”
Coach often referenced the quote, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” to describe how a competitor reacts to a difficult situation.
Being competitively great has two simple parts: “real love of a hard battle” and “being at your best when your best is needed.” Coach felt that “being at your best when your best is needed” is a result of being prepared: having the other blocks of the Pyramid in place.
Sometimes when great competitors rise to the occasion, they are described as lucky. I would add Coach Wooden’s favorite definition of luck: “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”
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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, www.woodenswisdom.com. He is a motivational speaker and the author of Wooden’s Wisdom, a weekly “e-coaching module” that is distributed to companies nationally.