Coach John Wooden and His Two-Hour Practices – An Example of Deep Work

wooden-on-leadership-how-create-winning-organization-john-hardcover-cover-artIt is the hard work you do in practice after you are “all in” that improves your condition. Force yourself when you are tired.
John Wooden, Wooden on Leadership

Daily practice plans are very important. I could tell you what we have done at UCLA each day of practice in all the days I was there. I can look up any practice session and see what we did on that day and also see my notations. I learn from these plans; as a coach, I must change and grow if I expect my players to improve. I can improve with the help of these plans.
From Coach Wooden on Basketball Practice


I can’t quit thinking about the book Deep Work by Cal Newport. Seldom has a book that I have read, and presented, had this kind of impact on me. I’ve come to realize that I have allowed my work life to evolve into too much “shallow work,” and thus I have allowed far too many days go by without investing the kind of time and focus I needed to invest in “deep work.” (See this blog post for my key lessons and takeaways from the book Deep Work).

Wooden philosophy
Coach Wooden on Practice Sessions

So early this morning, I snapped awake with a nmemory about Coach John Wooden. Coach Wooden was probably the greatest college-level basketball coach of all time – certainly so for the men’s game. (Pat Summitt may well have been his equal for the women’s game). And, among the many books and articles I have read about Coach Wooden, what snapped me awake this morning was his practice of running practices. He would plan meticulously for his practices. His planning was an act of deep work. He frequently spent longer planning his practices than he did running the actual practices.

His practices were 2 to 2 1/2 hours long. That’s it – two hours to two and a half hour practices, and no longer. Call them “deep-work practices.” Every minute was planned. He was convinced that two hours of intense practice was much more effective than more hours of less-planned, less-intense practice. And, I think his record proved that he was right.

But, obviously, it took a lot of deep work to plan such deep-work practices. He would reduce his practice plan to a 3×5 cards, and he would follow his plan to the minute and the drill. (Later, an assistant coach would copy each practice session plan into a notebook, thus providing/keeping a record of all practice sessions).

So, as you think about your own deep-work work, here’s the lesson from Coach Wooden. Put in the time for the deep work of meticulous planning. And then do the actual deep work you planned to do with the same meticulous, focused attention to detail.

Coach Wooden, hand-written practice plan (from Wooden on Leadership)
Coach Wooden, hand-written practice plan (from Wooden on Leadership)

Maybe Deep Work, the book, helps us understand the people who succeed because of their own devotion to and mastery of the deep-work approach – people like Coach John Wooden.


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