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Teaching John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success - The Top Three Blocks

Competitive Greatness is the top block in the Pyramid of Success. Don't wait too long in the study of the Pyramid before giving students a vision of where the Pyramid can take them in life. You will probably have your own stories, but here is the way I begin to explain Competitive Greatness:

When I coached Little League baseball, I learned that there are two types of hitters. Consider this situation. It is the last inning of the game, and your team is down by one run. There are two outs with a runner on second. You are on deck. One type of hitter is hoping that the person at bat will get out, so they will not have to step up to the plate in such a pressure-packed situation. The other kind of hitter is hoping that the batter will walk, so they can have the game-winning hit. That type of hitter dreams about such situations; they live for such moments, and they perform better in those moments.

Ask students, “Who would not want to perform at their best when all eyes are on them, and the stakes are at their highest?” Some of your students may say they don’t want Competitive Greatness, but we know the reason is that they are afraid that they can’t perform at that level. If they say they don’t care to, then they won’t feel like a failure when they don't try, but the only real failure is the failure to try. Erwin McManus in Chasing Daylight says that when we risk –even when we fail – there is a surge of energy within us. More importantly, we learn something about ourselves. We learn that we are not sideliners in life. On the other hand, when we make it a habit of walking away from the difficult situation, we die a little inside each time. We lose self-esteem that no amount of external affirmation can help because we know something about ourselves that we feel others don't know.

People who have Competitive Greatness get more out of themselves especially in those crucial moments than normal people do. Have you ever heard that people only use about 10 percent of their brains? I am not sure what that means, but I certainly believe that most people only use 10 percent of their potential. Why that is true could be the basis of a book, but those who operate at the top of the Pyramid are on their way to becoming fully-functioning human beings. John Wooden says that success is the peace of mind that comes from the self-satisfaction of knowing that you did your absolute best. Why wouldn’t everyone want that? We have to help our students see that goal and embrace it rather the pseudo-happiness based on self-indulgence that the crazy world offers.

Now that we have helped our students grasp a bit of the vision, we have to remind them that success is not something reserved for the select few. It is possible for everyone. The only reason that so few people find success is that so few either know how or are willing to follow the necessary steps. The way to achieve Competitive Greatness is to master the blocks that undergird it in the Pyramid.

By the way, John Wooden's father told him never to compare himself to anyone else. That is a lesson that our students need to hear if they are going to reach beyond what they think is possible. Competitive Greatness often dies before it has a chance to be born when I students convince themselves that they can never be successful when they compare themselves to students whom they think are so accomplished that they can never compete with them. Billy Sample, one of my students from decades ago, is the only athlete from our town to ever have a major professional sports career. He played for the Texas Rangers, the New York Yankees, and the Atlanta Braves. After his career was over, I asked him why he thought that he was the only one to make it of thousands and thousands who had dreamed the dream of a professional sports career He said, "I think it is because I never tried to compare myself to anyone else. I always just tried to be a little better each day than I was the day before." Anyone can do that, but not many are. The amazing thing is that ordinary people can become extraordinary and attain Competitive Greatness if they follow the steps. They don't have to be intimidated by older or seemingly better competitors.
Competitive Greatness is dependent on Poise and Confidence, which are directly below it on the Pyramid. John Wooden says that Poise in the art of being true to yourself. Each person has skills and talents. All have abilities that they can depend on in key situations. For example, many basketball coaches teach players to have a spot from the floor where they practice their shot so often that it is almost automatic if they get an open shot from that spot. Therefore, they can have poise in a clutch situation if they are playing within their game. I think that Poise also comes from having been in the situation before. I may be completely confident of my material as a speaker, but if I have not spoken to a large group, I may very well lack Poise. Teams often lack Poise when they are in a championship game for the first time. The high school where I teach went 20 years without a state championship, but once they won the first won, they won 6 in 12 years. Some of those championships were won against better opponents who had not been in the championship game previously.

Confidence simply comes from mastering the three blocks that sit below it. First, if a competitor, in sports or in the classroom, knows that he has the perseverance and the physical or mental ability to stick to a task until it is accomplished, that produces confidence that he or she will prevail. In addition, if the person developed the necessary skills over many years of practice to the point that there is no question about the ability to accomplish the required task, then confidence is the natural outcome. Finally, Confidence is enhanced tremendously when competitors can depend on teammates to cover mistakes that they will occasionally make in the contest.

As you move on to more blocks of the Pyramid, don’t forget to visit the previous blocks. The danger always exists that students, and teachers, may begin to see the Pyramid as a list of words rather than a dynamic instrument that can help students get a handle on their lives.

Here are some suggestions for going back to the first four:

After introducing Industriousness and Enthusiasm, we have a new tool to use in the classroom when students come in with the infamous questions: “Can we do nothin’ today?!” or “Can we just sleep today?” The answer now can be: “Are you kidding me?! How can we possibly be successful in this class with you knocking out the cornerstones of the Pyramid of Success?!” After the teacher does that a few times - particularly if a team of teachers is doing that - classmates will begin to say "Cornerstones" to their friends who come into class with those offending comments.

We must also find ways to reference the cornerstones of the second row, Self-control and Intentness. Self-control is a particularly difficult quality to work into our lives, so we need to talk about it with students. A way to do that is to discuss our own challenges in mastering this block. One of my weaknesses in life is late night eating. I really want to cut it out, but the habits* that I have created in my life conspire to convince me each night that I really can’t live without popcorn and cheese. If I am going to reach my goal of losing weight by ending my nightly eating binges, then I must be very focused on my long-range goal in order to deny my present desire. Of course, focus is another word for Intentness.

Likewise, remaining focused or intent on a long-range goal requires self-control. Our students can begin to see the complementary character of these two qualities. We can also help our students to see that Industriousness and Enthusiasm have a similar complementary nature. In order to work hard at a task, a person must have a passion or enthusiasm for that work. When work results in increased proficiency, it can have a major influence on a person’s enthusiasm for the task.

One of the great joys of teaching is helping students master a difficult task and then see them gain a new enthusiasm for our subject matter as a result. When possible, we also should celebrate those victories. Such a celebration can be crafted into an object lesson of how the Pyramid can be used to help individuals realize increased strength over their lives.

* The topic of habits deserves attention because habits play such a huge role in undoing us or helping us to control our lives. I recommend a well-known poem that I first saw in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey. The name of the poem is "Who Am I?"

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