Tierney Consulting, LLC


Musings on Athletics, Life, and Leadership


John Wooden is considered by many to be the greatest sports coach of all-time. Between 1963 and 1975, Wooden led his teams to 10 NCAA National Championships, orchestrating one of the most dominant and enduring dynasties to ever be witnessed in the world of athletics. The creative abilities of a successful coach entail bringing teams together, motivating individuals and groups, organizing practice plans, devising plays and schemes, and instituting a team image and culture, among many other duties. In just this sense as a coach and leader of men, Wooden holds his own as a creative luminary. More than that though, it is through his self-defined roles as a gentleman, a scholar and a teacher, in which his creative traits of being generous, intellectual and philosophical (characteristics which have been found in many of the world's most creative people), stand out the most. 

If creativity includes enriching the lives of others, then that inherently entails the act of giving. Without physically producing one’s creativity in the world, then there is nothing new for anyone to receive. In fact, one characteristic of Carson’s (2010) definition of creativity is that, “You can take these elements of novel/original and useful/adaptive and apply them to virtually any aspect of your life to increase your productivity and happiness.” (p. 5). One of Wooden’s greatest strengths was his generosity and constant giving of his time, energy and wisdom to others, a trait that is illustrated by his innumerable humanitarian awards. (Johnson, 2004, p. 9). Without his tireless generosity to those in his community and dedication to teaching young men, his creative energies would be nothing more than thoughts and musings, and his achievements nothing more than trophies collecting dust. Wooden noted that one of the most valuable pieces of advice that he learned from his father was to, “Be a doer...He who makes no mistake does nothing and contributes nothing and we are all here to contribute something, one way or another” (Johnson, 2004, p. 14). In the sports world, where many are accused of leading selfish lives driven by egotistical desires, Wooden’s altruistic path was defined by his passion for teaching and working with others.

Another criticism of coaches, is that they can be single-tracked or close-minded. In many instances, their world revolves around their sport, their team, and their win-loss record. Wooden’s disposition could not be further from this stereotype as he was deeply intellectual and a renaissance man in many ways. Johnson (2004) noted that Wooden earned his masters degree in poetry, was inspired by a variety of leaders including Lao-Tse, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson (p. 193-199), his heroes were, “the great poets of history,” and he had a deep respect and admiration for Helen Keller (p. 29). Not surprisingly, this trait of open-mindedness and having a “multitude of varied interests across a broad spectrum of topics” has been shown to be an indicator of creativity as it is an important aspect of the “absorb brainset” that Carson (2010) proposes in her model of creativity. (p. 88). Wooden’s desire to be a student and learn continuously was what allowed him to piece together his own teachings for others.

The greatest creative gifts that Wooden gave to the world through his motivational writings and lectures came from his philosophical nature.  The most famous lecture that he gave around the world was entitled, “The Pyramid of Success.” This lecture and essay has been described as, “a philosophy for living, loving, achieving and understanding the human condition” (Johnson, 2004, p. 145). These creative pieces that Wooden produced are available through his books, essays and poetry and have made a significant impact on many people’s lives. Although the role of coaching may not be seen as creative in the artistic sense, Wooden certainly saw it that way, along with every other calling in life. One of his teachings that he relayed to his players and others was to, “make each day your masterpiece,” (Johnson, 2004, p. 118). This was certainly an ideal that he lived by through his generosity, intellectual drives and philosophical nature. These are the traits that made him not just a great coach, but a creative luminary in every sense of the word.


Carson, S. (2010). Your creative brain: Seven steps to maximize imagination, productivity, and innovation in your life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Johnson, N. L. (2004). The John Wooden pyramid of success: The biography, oral history, philosophy and ultimate guide to life, leadership, friendship and love of the greatest coach in the history of sports. Los Angeles, CA: Cool Titles.

Trevor Tierney