Home | In The Classroom | Basics to brilliance, part 4: the ‘greatest coach’ and a Honolulu reading program

Basics to brilliance, part 4: the ‘greatest coach’ and a Honolulu reading program

This was great coaching?” they asked themselves incredulously. Even after coming to terms with this doubt and initial negative emotive and social ambivalence about Wooden, and his coaching methods, Gallimore and Tharp decided to keep on attending Wooden’s training sessions in their attempt to objectively record and quantitatively measure and record their science-formulated observations: the purpose of which was to accurately answer (from an objective science perspective), not only the how and why Coach Wooden was elected by ESPN as the “greatest coach” of all time, but to also answer the how and why Wooden was achieving such amazing, and irrefutable, consistently successful outcomes. Especially, as noted, Wooden was engaged in an unforgiving, intense, highly competitive, and emotionally, a highly charged national elite sports performance arena where success was only judged by one word, one result, and one outcome: winning!

Pure information

In their quantitatively recorded observations of Coach Wooden, Gallimore and Tharp recorded and coded 2,326 discrete acts of teaching. Of them, a mere 6.9 per cent were compliments. Only 6.6 per cent were expressions of displeasure. But 75 per cent were [what Gallimore and Tharp described as] pure information: what to do, how to do it, [and] when to intensify an activity” (italics added).

Three-part instruction

As part of this process, according to Coyle, Gallimore and Tharp recorded that “Wooden’s most frequent forms of teaching was a three-part instruction”. In the first instance, he demonstrated the correct performance and the precise action of what he wanted achieved. The second part of the instruction was to demonstrate the action and/or performance that was being performed incorrectly. The third step was to again demonstrate the correct performance and action.

A picture is worth a thousand words 

What was equally and additionally amazing to Gallimore and Tharp was that each demonstration by Wooden generally only took no more than five to 20 seconds; with barely more than a few words spoken. The words used were specific to the action. With the implied and applied maxim: ‘A picture is worth a thousand words.’

Structured, purposeful intensity continues

Gallimore and Tharp also observed that these ‘few seconds-of-demonstration’ rarely, if at all, ever slowed down the intensity of the practice. Moreover, during most of his training sessions, Wooden had his players “running harder than they did in games, all the time,” and, in addition to this “no detail was too small to be considered” or thought of as being unimportant. An example of Coach Wooden’s specific attention to meticulous detail included how the players wore their socks. For example, “Wooden famously began each year by showing players how to put on their socks, to minimize the chances of blisters.”

Self-evident sock rationale

The obvious and self-evident rationale for this explicit ‘sock-wearing-information’ was to inform all of the players that incorrectly applied socks would cause blisters, and these blisters would, self-evidently, reduce practice time, player efficiencies, learning time, playing intensity and as such the absolute potential of winning in each-and-every game played.

Coaching, at all times, needed to be based on universal truths

Wooden understood, especially in ‘elite sports terms,’ winning was the only thing that mattered. What that meant to Coach Wooden was that the purpose of every game played, and the allied purpose of every training session only had one objective: winning. Therefore, coaching – at all times – needed to be based on the universal truths, that of advancing and continually improving skills and knowledge, with the ultimate outcome being that of winning. As such, ideologies, ‘office player politics’, petty platitudes, or meaningless ‘motivational-styled’ statements, offered little or no meaningful value whatsoever. Ultimately, all that mattered was the integrity of the training, with the ultimate goal being winning the next game.

The only purpose of each training session

In terms of sports with the ultimate goal being winning, what this must also axiomatically mean is that the only purpose of each training session is to engage in skills, drills and practices (which will advance skills, knowledge, abilities and capacities that will lead to victory). Coach Wooden also placed a great store on each player’s character.


In terms of teaching and coaching, What Gallimore and Tharp saw in Coach Wooden was that he was a person who also understood the significance of character. What this meant to Gallimore and Tharp was that Wooden placed a great deal of importance (both in training and in each game played) on the attitude and application of respect and self-motivation of each player. Every training session and every game had to be engaged in and played respectfully. Plus, each and every player had to be passionately self-motivated. Coach Wooden made it very clear from the outset, and from then on, on regular occasions, that all a coach can do is present the information. It is the player who must have the character to play each game respectfully and to also be totally committed. It is the player who must then use and apply this information during each training session and in every game played.

Respect, reputation and character

In terms of character Wooden declared the following: People need to be "more concerned with [their] character than [their] reputation, because … character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.

"As such [t]he true test of a [person’s] character is what [he or she] does when no one is watching.”

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.

Watch your words, for they become actions.

Watch your actions, for they become habits.

Watch your habits, for they become character.

Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny." – Anonymous


Applying the principles of the ‘greatest coach’ to a reading program

Gallimore and Tharp returned to their school, and their reading and literacy program, at the Kamehameha Early Education Project (KEEP) in Honolulu. Upon their return they immediately began to apply what they had learned during their time with Coach Wooden. Their explanations were presented in short, explicit getting-to-the-point demonstrations. They also demonstrated what was right, what was wrong, and what was right which then needed to be applied. Added to this, Gallimore and Tharp informed the students that their success also depended on their own personal motivation, hard work, their attitude, application, and their character.

Motivation and application lead to achievements

Through the application of their ‘new short and getting-to-the-point explicit methodology,’ and the required and associated personal passion and the motivated behaviours of each student, Gallimore and Tharp found that the reading scores began to improve; as too did the concomitant comprehension. As such, the overall literacy attainments and success goals of all of the students were also being consistently achieved.

Highest honour

In 1993 Gallimore and Tharp’s KEEP project received the Grawemeyer Award, one of education’s highest and most prestigious honours. The success of the KEEP project was chronicled in their book, Rousing Minds to Life. “It’s not so simple as to say John Wooden made the school work – there were lots of dimensions to this,” Gallimore and Tharp said. “But he does deserve a lot of the credit.”

The goal in life is just the same as in basketball: make the effort to do the best you are capable of doing." – John Wooden


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Dr Ragnar Purje is adjunct lecturer in the School of Education and the Arts at Central Queensland University. Under the supervision of Professor Ken Purnell, Purje’s doctoral dissertation focused on the success of his neurologically focused acquired brain injury rehabilitation therapy.

Basics to brilliance, part 1

Basics to brilliance, part 2: resilience 

Basics to brilliance, part 3: search for the greatest teacher

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