5 Life Lessons Every Nurse Can Learn From John Wooden

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John Wooden was arguably the most successful, probably the most influential, and certainly the most studied coach in the history of US sports. His UCLA basketball teams won 11 national championships over a 13 year span. But, his influence is more than a matter of wins and losses. He spoke very little about “winning”. Winning – the final numbers of the scoreboard – was the result of a process, of doing things the right way. And it was the way he coached that made a difference and led to his phenomenal results.

[easy-tweet tweet=”Winning is the result of a process, of doing things the right way.”]

I admire Coach John Wooden because he “wanted to grow his people,” and he enabled others to “see their success in terms of how you carry yourself, how you live your life.”

Success is the peace of mind which is a direct result of the self-satisfaction in knowing that you have made the effort to become the best of which you are capable,” said Wooden when asked to define success.

Wooden’s approach was unique, according to researchers Richard Gallimore and Roland Tharp, who studied the processes of many coaches. They found that Wooden gave very few “motivational” speeches and rarely got overly emotional, whether up or down.

What he did was simply teach.

In their study of Wooden, Gallimore and Tharp recorded 2,326 discrete acts of teaching, which they categorized as:

Compliments: 6.9%
Expressions of displeasure: 6.6%
Pure information (what to do, how to do it): 75%

Coach Wooden taught via what he called the “whole-part” method; he would teach an entire move or play and then break it down to work on its essential elements.

As a nurse, that may feel very familiar to you because we do the same thing. We don’t care for the pancreatitis patient or the gallbladder in room 14. We care for Mr. Rossi who was just diagnosed with bladder cancer but also has a whole host of other issues that we need to consider.

Although Wooden’s last on-court victory was secured more than 40 years ago and he passed away in 2010, his lessons are as relevant today as ever. Coach, as he was simply known to all, believed that real success is defined not by wins and losses, but by the daily development of yourself and giving your best in all you do.

Here are 5 life lessons Nurse Leaders can take from one of the greatest coaches of all time:


“It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.”

Although nursing care is largely delivered on an individual level, we train within a collective. When we are supportive and encouraging of the goals of the colleagues we work with we help to foster a culture of excellence.

One nurse trying to accomplish great things is powerful. But the wake that is created by a team all chasing a common goal is nearly unstoppable.


At the beginning of each season Coach Wooden would sit his players down and instruct them on how to properly put on their socks and shoes.

Newcomers unfamiliar to this would be forgiven for being thrown into shock. Here was the top basketball program in the country, some of the very best players in the nation, being instructed on how to correctly put on a pair of shoes?

Long before you master the intricacies of the playbook Wooden had you start at the very beginning.

The same can be applied to your nursing career goals.   When you execute the basics correctly, and build a foundation with proper fundamentals, everything else falls into place.


“Don’t let what you don’t have interfere with what you can do.”

There will always be someone who has a better set-up than you. A better manager.  Nicer facility. Better access to services. Fully staffed unit.

And there will always be someone who has it far worse than you. A bad manager. No budget for staff development. No Clinical Ladder. No staff.

Don’t allow your current circumstances be the defining thing of whether or not you take action today. Don’t allow your environment to be the decider when it comes to developing killer clinical skills or having a positive attitude.

Make the most of what you have, for it is usually more than enough.

[easy-tweet tweet=”Make the most of what you have, for it is usually more than enough.”]


“Seek opportunities to show you care. The smallest gestures often make the biggest difference.”

There are many memories that I carry from my nursing career. The most potent ones?
Where an experienced nurse reached out to help me with a technique correction. Or when the nurse manager I looked up to most on the team was leading the cheers for our nurse residency project.  These things matter, and they create more impact than you can imagine.

Spend time working with the youngsters on your team. Share your knowledge and experience of the profession. You might not think it’s a big deal, but to the next generation of nurses…it’s a huge deal.


“If we magnified blessing as much as we magnify disappointments, we’d be much happier.”

Our brains are hardwired to focus on the negative. It’s a survival instinct—“Hey look at that sabre toothed tiger hanging out in the bushes over there!”—that has served us well. But the modern man or woman continues to experience the pull of fear even though there isn’t a 500-pound jungle cat hiding around the corner.

Which means that we have to go out of our way to be grateful for the things that we have. Keeping a nightly gratitude list has been shown to help you feel more positive and optimistic, and can also help you fall asleep better at night.

There is a lot to be positive and optimistic about. It’s simply up to you to seek it out.

Ready to dominate the competition “Wooden style”? Check out my book “Human by Birth, Hero by Choice!

Thanks so much for reading!

Take care. Be kind. Stay connected

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