The Key to Success in Sports and in Life

Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”—John Wooden, former UCLA basketball coach

During a 12-year period from 1963 through 1975, John Wooden’s teams won 10 NCAA championships. To accomplish this legendary feat, you might think Wooden and his Bruins had to be single-mindedly focused on winning games. And yet, where Wooden was concerned, this was not the case. Rather, as indicated by his definition of success, he placed an emphasis on the process of striving for excellence.

Mastery vs. Ego Climates

Coach Wooden’s perspective on success may be the most important reason he deserves the title “Wizard of Westwood.” His coaching approach stressed the creation of what is now known as a mastery climate.

In a mastery-oriented motivational climate:

  • The goal is to foster positive growth as an athlete and as a person.

  • The emphasis is on effort, learning, and personal improvementdoing what it takes to be your best.

  • Without a doubt, winning is highly valued, but well-informed coaches realize that winning takes care of itself if athletes are having fun, improving their skills, and giving maximum effort.

  • Mastery climates foster an atmosphere of mutual support and encouragement, and everyone, regardless of ability, is made to feel an important part of the team.


In an ego-oriented motivational climate:

  • Coaches often focus their attention on the most talented athletes, who have the greatest influence on winning.

  • Effort and improvement are not emphasized as much as performance level.

  • Rivalry among teammates may be encouraged by comparing them openly with one another.

  • Inadequate performance or mistakes are often punished with criticism, teaching athletes that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs and thereby building fear of failure.

  • Coaches show the willingness to win at all costs, even if rule-breaking is required to gain a needed advantage.


Scientific Evidence Supports a Mastery Climate

Which approach is best for youth sports? Research conducted at the University of Washington has shown that a coach-created mastery climate:

  • Promotes higher mastery-oriented achievement goals in sports and in school.

  • Fosters positive coach-athlete relations and greater mutual respect.

  • Increases the amount of fun that athletes experience.

  • Creates greater team cohesion and a more supportive athletic setting.

  • Increases athletes’ self-esteem.

  • Reduces performance-destroying anxiety and fear of failure.

  • Reduces dropout rates.

  • Produces equally positive effects on boys and girls teams.


Prominent Athletes and Coaches Endorse a Mastery Climate

  • “A winning desire should be stressed at all levels of sports, but it shouldn’t be a life-and-death situation. Simply give your best and have fun doing it.” —Gordie Howe, NHL Hall of Famer

  • “Doing your best is more important than being the best.” —Forest “Frosty” Westering, College Football Hall of Fame coach

  • “I have no control over results. All I can do is play to the best of my abilities. Success is me giving everything that I have” —Ichiro Suzuki, MLB All-Star outfielder

  • “The bottom line in youth sports should not be based on pressure to win. Instead, it should be on the enjoyment of competing and the opportunity to develop positive attitudes toward other people through that competition.” —Lute Olson, Basketball Hall of Fame coach

  • “The only successful youth sport program is the one with coaches who will accept losing along with winning, last place in the league along with first place, and still be able to congratulate their team for their efforts.” —Roger Staubach, NFL Hall of Famer

  • “You cannot find a player who ever played for me at UCLA who can tell you that he ever heard me mention ‘winning’ a basketball game. He might say I inferred a little here and there, but I never mentioned winning. The last thing that I told my players, just prior to tipoff, before we would go on the floor was, ‘When the game is over, I want your head up, and I know of only one way for your head to be up. That’s for you to know that you did your best. No one can do more…You made that effort.’” —John Wooden, Basketball Hall of Fame coach


The “Bottom Line”

  • All athletes can achieve success, because this relates to the effort put into realizing one’s personal potential.

  • Coaches who create a mastery climate never lose, regardless of the score!


Editor’s Note: Thank you to Frank L. Smoll, Ph.D., and Ronald E. Smith, Ph.D., for this article. Drs. Smoll and Smith are sport psychologists at the University of Washington and co-directors of the Youth Enrichment in Sports program. To see previews of their Mastery Approach to Coaching and Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports DVDs, visit www.y-e-sports.com.
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