Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Lesson for Educators: John Wooden on Why Joy and Frustration Should Not Come from Scores and Outcomes

"It is difficult for young players to learn - because of the great emphasis on records - but, ideally, the joy and frustration of sport should come from the performance itself, not the score. While he is playing, the worst thing a player can think about in terms of concentration - and therefore of success - is losing. The next worst is winning.”

Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden sums up nicely a concept that has taken hold of me and won’t let go. In my research for What Teachers Can Learn from Sports Coaches, I heard from a number of incredible coaches a theme similar to what Wooden emphasizes in this quote. (It is worth noting that Wooden uses the word performance in this quote to mean the game itself, not the final outcome of the game.) Indeed, in sports today, people have become obsessed with the scores, records and stats, and the joy involved in the performance, the process of mastering the game itself, often is forgotten. The message this sends to youth may be costly because it implies that the outcomes are more important than the processes involved in learning, improving and mastering the skills involved in a sport.

In my last post on this quote, I focused on the importance of the process. Here, I want to shift my focus to Wooden's idea that "the joy and frustration of sport should come from the performance itself, not the score." Wooden's wisdom shines here. The reason any young person should take up a sport is because he or she loves it, not to win games or accumulate stats. Winning is nice, an enjoyable by-product, but it should be neither the sole measure of success or joy nor the motivation for engaging in sports. For Wooden, true joy lies in mastery, or in progressing toward mastery. Through the process of learning and trying to master a given sport, a young person can learn myriad life lessons including but not limited to dedication, perseverance, grit, growth mindset, and how to deal with winning and losing with class. Of all these, I believe Wooden would have valued growth mindset the most, because it lines up so well with this quote. That the potential to grow and improve in an endeavor, i.e. mastery of the golf swing or the jump shot, lies within a player is a notion that lines up perfectly with Wooden's philosophy.

A great coach or coaching staff can instill in athletes a love of the process, or the "performance" as Wooden refers to it. When an athlete come to love and find joy in the performance, he or she will see the struggles involved in trying to master the sport as part of the growth process. USA Wrestling Coach Brandon Slay told me, "I have to get my guys to enjoy the process of going through the drills." He wants his athletes to be able to say, "At the end of practice when I’m totally drenched in sweat, and every muscle in my body is killing me, I love it. I’m a warrior and I got to do something I love to do." He went on to say, "The more that they love the process, the more meaningful those drills in practice are." Wooden would have loved this. This philosophy implies, then, that coaches should emphasize and praise growth and improvement and not just the score and winning. Otherwise, athletes receive mixed signals or the wrong message altogether.

Let's not forget the frustration Wooden mentions in this quote. For some this may be counter-intuitive, but Wooden means that the frustration of sport should come not from losing or from the score. Rather, frustration should come in the process, the growth and the development. For anyone who ever has attempted to master a golf swing, frustration abounds. This frustration, though, is both natural and healthy, especially in the context of a growth mindset. With a growth mindset, an athlete attempting to master a skill or sport can use the frustration as motivation to continue working toward mastery. After all, with a growth mindset, an athlete has control over his or her own growth and improvement. This philosophy implies that coaches should make sure, as much as possible, that an athlete's frustration centers not on the score and losing but rather on the growing pains of player development.

Simply put, the lesson for educators is this: as education leaders, we must help our students shift their thinking so their joy and frustration lies not with scores and grades but rather with the growth, the process of learning and their journey toward mastery. In the classroom as in sport, according to Wooden's philosophy, the driving force behind instruction and learning should be growth, mastery and the process rather than the grades, scores and outcomes. Grades and other quantification of learning should not be the source of either students' joy or frustration. Good grades and high test scores, like wins in sport, should be merely a byproduct of mastery, growth and the process, not the motivation behind what happens in classrooms. With the current landscape in education focused so much on tests and testing, and therefore on grades and scores, Wooden's approach appropriately applied in classrooms runs opposite that mindset. Thankfully, there appears to be a shift beginning with educators at the grassroots level that would have made Wooden proud.

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