Ronald GallimoreEveryone's a teacher to someone (John Wooden)

A High School Coach Mentored by John Wooden

Reflective practice and ongoing learning: a coach’s 10-year journey
Gallimore, R., Gilbert, W., & Nater, N. (2013). Reflective Practice and Ongoing Learning: A Coach’s Ten Year Journey. Reflective Practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, DOI: 10.1080/14623943.2013.868790

Commitment to ongoing learning is a hallmark of effective sport coaches. Available literature indicates: (a) coach learning inquiries have become more common but mostly conceptual not empirical; (b) the few available empirical studies provide only brief snapshots of ongoing learning efforts and seldom track learning impact; and (c) ongoing learning for sport coaches should be coach-driven and contextually-situated. To help close the gap between conceptual advice and empirical evidence, this paper shares our collective reflections on a unique, 10-year ongoing learning effort initiated and sustained by an American high school basketball coach in a suburban Midwestern community. This story is compelling, not only because of its sustained longitudinal nature, but because of the peer teaching role played by the iconic American basketball coach John Wooden. The story we tell is based on our conversations and interviews with the high school coach, media documents, systematic observation of the coach’s practice videos seven years apart, and perspectives from his school administrators and one of his former players. Ermeling’s four-feature reflective practice typology is used to frame the coach’s ongoing learning effort, and connect the story back to the coach development literature.


teaching, coaching, continuous improvement, learning teams, improving teaching and coaching, John Wooden

John Merrrow, PBS education reporter, posted an interesting comment on his blog.
John Merrow, education correspondent for PBS Newshour, posted an interesting comment on his blog. Here are some key points he made:

“Referring to teachers as Coaches has been in vogue for the last dozen years or so. . . . . “Coach” was understood to be a high compliment, a term of great respect. It carried the message that this particular teacher understood individual differences among his or her students and had the skills to bring out the best in each kid. That was then…..

Times have changed, and, if I were still teaching, I don’t think I would want people calling me “Coach.”

Here’s why: the bottom line mentality is increasingly in charge in public education, with 25 states (and counting) judging teachers according to their students’ test scores. That’s a key provision of the federal government’s “Race to the Top” program as well.

This bottom line philosophy is built on the concept of winners and losers, profit and loss. In education the bottom line is, of course, test scores. And the Coach is responsible for the bottom line.

And, so, to me anyway, calling a teacher “Coach” is less a compliment and more a way of setting her up to fail. Football and basketball coaches have win-loss records that determine whether they keep their job or get fired, and I fear that’s the road education is rushing down.

Here's a link to his complete post link: and his invitation to reply, which I did as follows:

“Winning” is not the only outcome effective sport coaches pursue, and not the only lesson they can teach teachers. Academic researchers Côté and Gilbert argue effective coaches aim for developmental growth, what they label the 4 Cs: competence, confidence, cooperation, and character. These outcomes were the goals for ESPN’s coach of the 20th century, UCLA’s John Wooden. He insisted that effective coaching is teaching. Coach attributed his teams’ successes to what he had learned in the 1930s as a high school English teacher––the importance of continuous improvement of instruction. He liked to point out it took 16 years of incremental teaching improvements to earn a national title. Analyzing Wooden’s continuous improvement process, researcher Brad Ermeling identified four elements that all teachers could put to good use:

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 in learners' performance. 

Wooden never said anything about winning or wins to his players. He defined success not as winning but as “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." He believed helping learners achieve that peace of mind is a byproduct of teachers teaching for competence, confidence, cooperation, and character. There are many teachers already doing that, and they don’t care what you call them. Teacher, coach, mentor, just tone down the talk of scoring testing points and let them get on with their work. The students will be at school tomorrow.

John Wooden Taught Concepts Too

Many stories about Coach John Wooden emphasize his use of repetition as a key teaching approach. It’s true that practicing until certain actions were automatic was part of his approach. But it is not true that this was the foundation of his approach. He focused on development of players’ conceptual understanding that in combination with lots of practice led to a level of performance seldom equal in athletics.

A key goal of Wooden was the development of players who were creative, confident problem-solvers. As games progress, teams change tactics, presenting new problems by to force the opponent to play in a way it might not want to. In response to changing tactics by opponents, Wooden wanted …to be as surprised as our opponent at what my team came up with when confronted with an unexpected challenge (Nater & Gallimore, 2010, pps. 89-90).

Wooden’s goal was to teach the underlying concepts of basketball, so that when opponents surprised his players with new and different challenges they in turn surprised their coach and the other team with creative and effective solution methods.

To develop his players' capacities to “surprise” him with their solution methods during games, Wooden used a systematic pedagogical approach that he describes as the “whole-part” method.

I tried to teach according to the whole-part method. I would show them the whole thing to begin with. Then I’m going to break it down into the parts and work on the individual parts and then eventually bring them together.

(Wooden, personal communication, February 12, 2002).

There’s an interesting parallel between Coach Wooden’s pedagogy and contemporary views on teaching mathematics. It is not a perfect analogy because the subject matters are different in fundamental ways. Consider Coach Wooden’s hope “ …to be as surprised as our opponent at what my team came up with when confronted with an unexpected challenge.” The desire to be “surprised” by his players is surprisingly analogous to contemporary ideas on teaching mathematics. If students are only taught to memorize solution methods, any deviation in problem structure or form may stymie them. If they were taught to understand conceptually the underlying mathematics, they are typically better prepared to devise solution methods as the need arises.

Learning the “basics” is important; however, students who memorize facts or procedures without understanding often are not sure when or how to use what they know. In contrast, conceptual understanding enables students to deal with novel problems and settings. They can solve problems that they have not encountered before.

(National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2005) ).

Coach Wooden emphasized repetition of fundamentals so that his players would be resourceful, imaginative, and creative, not because he wanted them to be robots mindlessly relying on rote memory. For him, repetition is a means to an end; he firmly believed that when students understand what they are doing and can connect the ideas they are taught, they are better prepared to solve new problems as they arise in the future. He teaches that understanding and conceptual knowledge, supported by automatic mastery of fundamentals, prepares students to tackle problems of all kinds, like those they had encountered before, and novel ones, too.

For more how Coach Wooden taught concepts and used repetition to build automaticity, see Nater and Gallimore (2010), Chapter 6.


John Wooden's Timeless Lessons

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In 2003, Hank Bias called me asking about films of Coach Wooden teaching on the practice court. Hank was and still is head basketball coach. He coaches the Fairmont High’s Fairmont Firebirds of Kettering, Ohio. When he called, the team had lost 17 games, winning only 3, and Hank was thinking of leaving coaching. He called because he’d read an article Roland Tharp and I wrote about John Wooden’s teaching practices. Hank wanted films so he could learn to be a better teacher of basketball. I had made digital copies of old films Coach Wooden gave me, but I told Hank he’d have to call Coach Wooden to get permission to get copies. After some hesitation, Hank phoned Wooden who invited him out to California to talk about teaching. That began a story that some describe as “too Hollywood” to be true. But it is true, and what happened in the following years is quite a story. For ten years, beginning in 2003, I tracked Hank’s progress, visiting him twice, interviewing him in person and on the phone, and keeping up an email correspondence. Our research team recently published the first of several articles on Hank’s story. This first article describes how Hank learned to apply Wooden’s approach to steadily, continually improving his teaching, and the effects it had on him and his team. Read more about Hank and Coach Wooden: click here.
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