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What’s the Difference Between Winning & Success?

08/09/2017, 5:00am PDT
By Kelvin Cech


Legendary basketball coach John Wooden grew up on a small farm in Indiana before leading the University of Los Angeles to ten NCAA titles in a 12 year-span. This included seven straight championships, a feat further driven home when you learn that no other team has ever won more than two in a row.

So what can we learn about life from a high school teacher who established his life’s mission in South Bend, Indiana in 1934?

This is a man who knows a thing or two about winning, but for coach Wooden, winning and success aren’t always related.

In a TED Talk he gave prior to his passing in 2010, Wooden talked about his own personal definition of success that he arrived at while teaching in South Bend. As a teacher, he faced plenty of feedback from parents questioning his methods for giving out particular grades. A’s, B’s, C’s - wait, parents in the 30’s wanted explanations from the teachers about grades, too? I thought that was a new thing!

The problem was the parents would compare their children to other students. If one student got a C, then theirs damn well be getting B’s or higher. 

Trying To Be The Best You Can Be

Wooden’s definition of success: 

Always learn from others but never cease trying to be the best you can be. That’s under your control.

Peace of mind attained only through self satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you’re capable. 

Your reputation is what you’re perceived to be, your character is what you are.

Wooden’s definition brings me to fitness centres, gyms, hockey rinks, tennis courts, classrooms, and offices all over the world. How often are we striving to be the best we can be exclusive from the actions of others? Even when we compete on the ice or on the court - is that competition the culmination of hours of training and practice and dedication to our craft? Are we not then successful before we engage in the game?

Parents worry that opportunities offered to other athletes will steal opportunities from their own children. We worry that spots on teams or in tournaments are finite. We’re convinced that there will be no room left for our kids. 

Well, this isn’t Highlander. There can be more than one. In fact, there can be many. 

As long as we recognize the difference between success and winning. 

I Still Want to Win

John Wooden’s lifelong pursuit of success involved plenty of winning. A streak of championships that stabilized the legacy of a basketball program certainly qualifies for both. I’d call ten championships in 12 years a success!

But it’s in the pursuit of those wins that success was achieved. John Wooden and his players were successful before they stepped on the court the day each of their championship rings were earned. In fact, I’d wager Wooden considered his program successful in the years in which the ultimate prize wasn’t achieved. 

I often tell the story about Coach Mike Sullivan and his first Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins a couple years back. Sullivan had taken over a sinking Penguins squad which had high hopes for a second Stanley Cup part way through the 2015/16 season. Something wasn’t working in Pittsburgh. They’d won a championship with coach Dan Bylsma in 2009, but something needed to change. 

Two seasons and back to back championships later Mike Sullivan was being showered with confetti on the ice as the cup was passed around amongst his players. He was asked if he talked to his players about the possibility of winning the Stanley Cup again when he took over the team in 2015.

“Actually,” Sullivan said matter of factly. “We didn’t even talk about winning the Stanley Cup this morning.”

Winning is something you achieve once. Success is something you achieve every single day. 


Watch John Wooden's Ted Talk here.

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