‘How to Be a Champion’ and 10 Other John Wooden Selections of Favorite Poems

UPDATED: May 17, 2024
PUBLISHED: February 9, 2023
man reading book of poems about success

As Jim Rohn said, “Miss a meal if you have to, but don’t miss a book.” 

Coach John Wooden was a voracious reader, wholeheartedly believing in the power of reading. Especially a fan of prose and poetry, he could recite whole passages of his favorite poems.

Coach Wooden’s favorite poems about success

Wooden’s grandson-in-law, Craig Impelman, shared some of Wooden’s favorite poems with SUCCESS, so read on to discover 11 of them:

1. “Four Things”

By Henry Van Dyke

Four things a man must learn to do
If he would make his record true:
To think without confusion clearly;
To love his fellow-men sincerely;
To act from honest motives purely; 
To trust in God and Heaven securely.

2. “How to Be a Champion

By Grantland Rice

You wonder how they do it,
You look to see the knack.
You watch the foot in action,
Or the shoulder of the back.
But when you spot the answer,
Where the higher glamours lurk,
You’ll find in moving higher,
Up the laurel-covered spire,
That most of it is practice,
And the rest of it is work.

3. “I Keep Six Honest Serving Men”

By Rudyard Kipling

I keep six honest serving-men,
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

I let them rest from nine till five,
For I am busy then,
As well as breakfast, lunch, and tea,
For they are hungry men.
But different folk have different views;
I know a person small—
She keeps ten million serving-men,
Who get no rest at all!
She sends ’em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes—
One million Hows, two million Wheres,
And seven million Whys!

4. “A Little Fellow Follows Me”

By Rev. Claude Wisdom White, Sr.

A careful man I want to be,
A little fellow follows me;
I do not dare to go astray,
For fear he’ll go the self-same way.

I cannot once escape his eyes,
Whate’er he sees me do, he tries; 
Like me he says he’s going to be,
The little chap who follows me.

He thinks that I am good and fine, 
Believes in every word of mine;
The base in me he must not see,
The little chap who follows me.

I must remember as I go,
Through summer’s sun and winter’s snow;
I am building for the years to be
That little chap who follows me.

5. “At Day’s End”

By John Hall

Is anybody happier because you passed his way?
Does anybody remember that you spoke to him today?
The day is almost over, and its toiling time is through;
Is there anyone to utter now a kindly word of you?
Can you say tonight, in parting with the day that’s slipping fast,
That you helped a single brother of the many that you passed?
Is a single heart rejoicing over what you did or said?
Does the man whose hopes were fading now with courage look ahead?
Did you waste the day, or lose it? Was it well or sorely spent?
Did you leave a trail of kindness, or a scar of discontent?
As you close your eyes in slumber, do you think God will say,
“You have earned one more tomorrow by the work you did today?”

6. “Shut the Door on Yesterday

By Agnes Martin

I’ve shut the door on yesterday,
It sorrows and mistakes;
I’ve locked within its gloomy walls
Past failures and heartaches

And now I throw the key away
To seek another room
And furnish it with hope and smiles,
And every springtime bloom.

No thought shall enter this abode
That has a hint of pain,
And every malice and distrust
Shall never therein reign.

I’ve shut the door on yesterday
And thrown the key away—
Tomorrow holds no doubt for me,
Since I have found today.

7. Title Unknown

By Anonymous

There is a choice you have to make,
in everything you do.
So keep in mind that in the end,
the choice you make, makes you.

8. “After You Know It All”

By Swen Nater

Beyond the festive caps and gowns,
Beyond the PhDs,
Beyond the books that filled the minds
Of those who earned degrees,

A greater knowledge will commence,
For those who heed the call—
What counts the most is what you learn
After you know it all.

All graduated pedagogues,
When teaching, find in turn,
Those books on what to teach had failed
To show how children learn.

And they will soon discover that
Each child who owns a name,
Is different and unique, and so,
They all don’t learn the same.

The classroomed coach who learned, the boys
Are Xs and are Os,
Becomes adept at leadership
The moment that he knows,

Those boys need teacher-shepherds who
Will guide their little lambs
To execute the truths of life
Beyond the diagrams.

Oh decorated graduate,
Once past that college wall,
What counts the most is what you learn,
After you know it all.

9. “Press On”

By Calvin Coolidge

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.
Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.
Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.
Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

10. “If—”

By Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you; 
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, 
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating, 
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat these two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run—
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

11. “Carpe Diem

By Shannon Hughes

As daylight fades and twilight approaches,
Swift and steady night soon encroaches.
So seize this very moment and contemplate the next.
What will you do with the moments you have left?
For no gravestone can ever eulogize,
The death of great dreams unrealized.

This article was published in November 2016 and has been updated. Photo by Dean Drobot/Shutterstock