Timeless Lessons

January 29, 2015
Encouraging your coaches to take a page from the Wizard of Westwood can turn them into teachers, and have a profound effect.
By Dr. Ronald Gallimore, Dr. Bradley Ermeling, and Swen Nater

Ronald Gallimore, PhD, is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at UCLA who conducts research on teaching and its improvement, and counts what he learned from John Wooden about teaching as the opportunity of a lifetime.

Bradley Ermeling, EdD, is an Educational Researcher at UCLA and recipient of Learning Forward's 2010 Best Research Award who conducts research and development on teaching and performance improvement.

Former UCLA and NBA player Swen Nater is staff member at BeLikeCoach, and author and blogger on the subject of pedagogy and continuous improvement as the means to teaching and coaching success. They can be reached at:
ronaldg@ucla.edu, brad.ermeling@gmail.com, and snater@ihmail.com.

Every coach today, whether they are a rookie or a veteran, and no matter their sport, knows of UCLA's John Wooden--and for good reason. His men's basketball teams earned 10 NCAA titles in 12 years, reeled off an 88-game win streak, and won 38 straight tournament games. He was named NCAA Coach of the Year six times, and Men's College Coach of the 20th Century by both the Naismith Hall of Fame and ESPN.

Little wonder he was so successful, some say. He coached several of the greatest duos in collegiate basketball history, including Hazzard and Goodrich, Abdul-Jabbar and Warren, Wicks and Rowe, and Walton and Wilkes. But Wooden believed there was a second factor contributing to his success at UCLA: teaching.

He often said what he learned about pedagogy as a high school English teacher in the 1930s helped him become a better coach. He acknowledged whole-heartedly that few coaches can be successful without talent, but he insisted even superstars must be taught to play as a team. While teaching well might not always trump talent, he felt it made a critical difference in his career as a coach. In speaking to groups, he said, "when I was teaching at UCLA ..."

Wooden also believed that teaching can be improved, and that dedicated teachers and coaches should never stop trying to get better. During every year of his career, he identified an area of his teaching he thought needed improvement. Based on his research each off-season, he developed and tried out various instructional adjustments, took notes during practices, and refined his practice lessons until he was satisfied that players were progressing. He thought anyone who is "through learning, is through."

But does any of this apply to today's coaches? Should an athletic administrator insist and help coaches work on continuously improving their teaching? After all, Wooden coached his last game in 1975. Some might argue times have changed--what worked so well in Wooden's era might not be effective today.

At least one high school coach in Ohio has found Wooden's lessons to be relevant. In fact, they saved his career. The story of what this coach learned and its effects on his teaching is a great example of the effects of using continuous improvement.

In 2003, Henry "Hank" Bias, Head Boys' Basketball Coach (and Physical Education Teacher) at Fairmont High School in Kettering, Ohio, had just finished his third consecutive losing season and was profoundly discouraged by his team's 3-17 record. He questioned whether he had what it takes to coach basketball and mulled changing careers.

Thinking about going to graduate school, Bias went to see Dr. George DeMarco, a professor at the University of Dayton, who urged him to do some research on coaching and teaching before making a career change. One of the articles DeMarco recommended was a 1976 study of Wooden's pedagogy based on live observations of practice sessions in 1975. Bias was intrigued and asked one of the researchers, Dr. Ron Gallimore, if he had any films of Wooden coaching. The answer was yes, but Bias would need the coach's permission to borrow them. He was given John Wooden's home phone number.

After some initial hesitation, Bias mustered up the courage to dial Wooden's number. As Bias started to leave a message, Wooden picked up and said hello. Bias began to explain that he was a high school basketball coach in the Dayton area and had some questions about teaching the game of basketball. Wooden interrupted and started asking questions himself. To Bias's surprise and delight, they talked for 20 minutes about teaching basketball and how to improve as a coach. Then, Coach Wooden invited Bias to come visit him so they could discuss coaching and teaching at length.

A few days later, Bias was sitting in Wooden's condo, which was crammed to the ceiling with mementos and memorabilia. Wooden shared many bits of advice, but one of the most important was that better instruction was the answer Bias was seeking, and the way to get it was to relentlessly and continuously work on improving teaching, one practice session after another. Bias went back to Ohio and began following Wooden's advice

The first season after he met with Wooden, Bias's team doubled its win total, finishing 6-15. The team improved again the next year, nearly hitting .500 at 9-11. In the third year of Bias's efforts to become a better teacher, the Firebirds' record was 17-6. After winning the Greater Western Ohio Conference (GWOC) East championship, the team went deep into the state tournament and Bias won a local co-coach of the year award.

In the five seasons after Bias began implementing Wooden's lessons, Fairmont's winning percentage was 62 percent, compared to 29 percent in the seasons prior to Bias meeting Wooden. This was the best five-year record for the school since the 1920s, and it was accomplished with no significant improvement in talent level--during a period when the Firebirds' competition got tougher.

Behind the scenes, Bias's story is one of steady effort, day after day, week after week. Bias continued to communicate with Wooden and was also helped by Swen Nater, a former UCLA player for Wooden who played professionally for 11 years. But mostly, Bias worked on his own to become a better teacher. He practiced a form of self-guided, continuous improvement, which other coaches can also use to become better teachers of their sport.

The concept of Continuous Improvement (CI) applied to teaching and coaching is neither a Wooden creation nor a novel idea. Brad Ermeling identified four actions Wooden used to improve his teaching on the practice floor that bear a striking resemblance to common elements of CI employed in various fields:

1. Identify critical instructional issues.
2. Prepare and implement instructional plans.
3. Use evidence to drive reflection, analysis, and next steps.
4. Persistently seek detectable improvements.

For Bias, these four steps were the foundation of turning around his program. In one sense, they are simple--figure out how to teach the game well. But, in another sense, they are complex--teaching is an art that requires constant self-analysis and revision. Here is how Bias tackled each one:

Identify instructional issues: Contemplating what to work on first, Bias recalled one incident that haunted him for a long time. "I remember a player named Brandon commenting that it seemed like we were doing a lot of drills, but none of them applied to the games," he says. "To soften the blow, he said, 'you're a good coach,' but I think he meant my coaching didn't add up to anything, because the team was not getting better."

As he critiqued his approach to teaching, Bias realized he had no consistent principles to plan and conduct practices. He had collected a pile of resources from clinics and other coaches, and he haphazardly picked from this file to plan and teach. He looks back now and describes himself as a bull in a teaching strategy China shop, charging full speed here and there without a coherent plan or pedagogical approach. He was a student of the game, but not a teacher of it.

He also realized that practices had a lot of dead time. There was too much stoppage, where he would take extended time to correct mistakes and lecture.

Bias identified two specific improvements he wanted to make. First, he would spend more time developing practice plans that had specific learning goals for each day. Second, he would try to eliminate long lectures and stoppage of activity, and instead relay short, concise corrections to players.

Prepare instructional plans: In order to accomplish his first goal, Bias began preparing more detailed practice plans for every day, and stuck with them. In the past, he would write out his practice plans, but didn't always adhere to them. If a drill was going badly, he sometimes extended it, cutting into time for other drills, and causing practice to be extended.

One of Wooden's philosophies was to set a strict limit on the length of practices--no time was added if drills didn't go well or his players' efforts fell short of expectations. Bias followed this idea, focusing on making practices intense, demanding, and precisely two hours long. Players then knew what to expect, and there was no need to conserve energy for fear the session might be extended. He also began finishing every practice with an activity the players considered fun.

In addition, because Bias's practice plans were laid out minute by minute, his managers and assistant coaches knew when and where to locate equipment. This cut out wasted time between drills because players did not have to wait or search around for what they needed.

Bias's second goal was to curtail the amount of time he spent talking during practices, which he realized resulted in fewer active opportunities to learn and interrupted the flow of learning. Wooden told him that corrections should last no longer than 10 seconds if possible, the player should be addressed by first name, nothing should be mentioned that would discourage the player, and the correction should be packed with practical information. For example, "Kyle, make your cut at the right time. You were a little early. Wait a second and see what happens. Try it again."

Bias also started delivering corrections and praise when players learn the most--immediately after they do something--and being concise. "Justin, way to go, you cut off the driver ... Sam, good crisp, fast outlet pass ... Mark, don't pull the ball down when you rebound, keep it up."

Use evidence to reflect, analyze, and change: While working on planning and practice talk for several years, Bias kept notes and records of his practices. Team play had improved, wins were coming more frequently, and Fairmont started building a reputation as a tough and competitive team. Bias felt practices were better organized and more efficient, and he was confident he had become a more disciplined "instructional talker."

But something was missing. His changes were not adding up to the gains in student learning he thought were possible. During games, his players were sometimes confused by what he asked them to do and were not executing well--they were not "connecting the dots."

At this point, Bias put even more effort into assessing and reflecting on what he was doing. He realized that while his players were mastering the drills during practice, they were not learning principles to apply in games when suddenly confronted with unexpected moves by their opponents. They could not improvise and adapt on the court. Bias returned to his previous research method: reading what he could find and talking to Wooden, Nater, and anyone he felt could teach him something.

As he dug deeper into his analysis and reflection, Bias realized he needed to organize drills so that in practice, players were confronted with decision-making opportunities. They needed to face exactly the same decision points they would in a game. Precisely at those points, he had to teach them the various options and how to choose among them. For instance, if in a game a teammate got in the wrong rebounding position, Bias would make sure to say the same thing he said in practices: "Brad, when Jamal gets out of position, remember to fill in as the short rebounder at the free throw line."

Wooden's teachings also emphasize that the corrections must feel similar to what was said in practice. Along with being the same content, they should be the same tone and intensity. The coach needs to act the same during practices as during games. The team then plays the way it practices.

"I always wished Brandon could come back and practice with us now," Bias says. "I think he would say, 'Okay Coach, I know I'm going to be facing every one of those situations in the game on Friday night, and there's a connect with what we are doing in practice right now."

A few years after he left for college Brandon came for a visit. A current player was hurt, so Brandon filled in. After the practice session ended, he said, "Coach, if we would have practiced like that when I played here, we would have been a much better team."

Persistently seek improvements: A CI process is never truly finished. Becoming a better teacher is a career-long journey. Along with continuing to read and research about basketball and pedagogy, Bias adopted several important routines to aid his improvement efforts:

- Making notes on file cards during and immediately after practices. For example, if a drill was proving inadequate for the goal intended, Bias made a note. He tallied how many repetitions of each offensive or defensive set the team finished with a goal of 100--Coach Wooden had a rule that full mastery required 100 repetitions. On his 3x5 cards, he noted drills that required refinements, activities that needed more or less time, and specific instruction an individual player might be helped by.

- Reviewing each practice mentally for 15 to 20 minutes afterwards to see how it could improve. Bias thought about what went well and what did not, what he said, and how players reacted.

- Asking questions of other coaches, former players, and anyone who might have insights. Questions included technical details on offensive and defensive strategies, what drills work best for specific skill sets, and any feedback or criticism anyone cared to offer.

- Monitoring the pace of practice. Bias often used the scoreboard clock to check how on task he was during practices.

By continually assessing his practices, he was able to constantly improve his teaching. Some of the specific upgrades he made in later years included:

- Tweaking drills to make them more game like. Bias did this by either increasing the speed or intensity of the drill or the intellectual process the player must manage. He added a clock and score to a number of drills. And he developed more drills that helped the players practice reacting.

- Identifying areas of needed improvement for individual players, and scheduling brief instructional periods for them just before formal practices began.

- Adding a player-led offensive execution time during preparation for summer league games, so that his athletes had an opportunity to be in the "teaching/leading" role and build joint ownership of the team's offense and defense.

- Not making adjustments on the fly. When a drill was not going well, instead of changing it immediately, Bias learned to simply stop the drill and move on. "I learned from Coach Wooden that it's better to end a drill instead of trying to think on the spur of the moment of improvement," he says. "Instead, I made adjustments in the next practice plan."

- Working with coaches of the sub-varsity teams with the goal of getting them to adopt a common approach to teaching basketball.

Bias's story has inspired those who know it. But it is prudent to keep in mind that it is an anecdote. Even the least skeptical observer might wonder how much of Bias's experience can be repeated by other coaches. After all, few get direct input from a coaching legend and a former pro player.

However, Nater and Wooden both insisted that while Bias benefited from the encouragement they provided, the real key to his success was his willingness to change and relentless commitment to learning how to become a better teacher. Bias's experience points to at least four specific actions athletic directors can apply in developing the coaches on their staffs.

Adopt the CI Process: First, urge your coaches to adopt the CI process Bias used: identify critical instructional issues, plan and implement better kinds of instruction, collect and reflect on evidence, and persist until there are tangible signs of player progress. Bias's initial focus was practice planning and "instructional talk," but the choice of an initial CI focus ought to be based on each coach's careful evaluation and analysis of his or her athletes' learning needs.

Team Up: While Bias used a mainly self-guided approach, CI teams have been shown to improve instruction in the educational context. Ask coaches to team up in either small or large groups that meet regularly. This allows opportunities to share goals, ideas, and findings, and provides a setting that supports sustaining continuous improvement efforts.

Provide Support: CI effort often needs some support and facilitation to stay focused, some kind of protocol or guidelines to follow, and access to resources such as local experts, reading materials, or face-to-face talks. As athletic director, you can play the role that John Wooden did for Hank Bias, connecting coaches to new possibilities for addressing critical instructional issues.

Be Patient: Coach Wooden taught that big changes don't come quickly--they require steady work and incremental improvements--but when they come, they last. CI takes time, commitment, and persistence to get tangible gains in learning and performance. Administrators and coaches that decide to begin a CI journey should also agree to stick with it over a period of years.

The commitment to improvement sometimes leads to wins and championships. But perhaps more importantly, it leads to success as Wooden defined it: "peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming." Few lessons could be more important for administrators and coaches, and few lessons could be more valuable to model and teach student-athletes.

Sidebar: Defining Success
Along with working hard to improve his teaching of student-athletes, Fairmont High School Head Boys' Basketball Coach Hank Bias, wanted to further his individual sense of success. He wanted to enjoy coaching to its fullest and not feel burdened by its pressures.

He worked to adopt for himself John Wooden's definition of success: doing the best possible teaching instead of focusing only on the win-loss column or the final score. This was reinforced by a note he received from Wooden at one point.

Dear Hank:

Never forget that the only pressure about which one should be concerned is the pressure one puts on oneself. And that must always be present. Those who succumb to outside pressure will tighten up and will not perform to their own level of competency.

Be yourself and always keep learning.
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