How to apply Coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success principles to running

johnwoodenbrirunI like to listen to fitness, health and business related podcasts when I’m on the treadmill and getting ready for work in the morning, and one name in particular kept coming up on several of my favourite podcasts that warranted an online search to see who this wise and influential person was. This person had clearly impacted and shaped the lives of the podcast hosts and guests, so I wanted to know what he was all about.

If you’re a basketball fan or participate in sports of any kind, you may have heard about John Wooden. Wooden was an English teacher, American basketball player and coach who, during his time as head coach of the basketball team at UCLA, won 10 NCAA national championships in a 12-year period, including a record seven in a row. No other team has won more than two in a row since.

It’s no wonder he was named national coach of the year six times and is one of the most revered coaches in the history of sports.

As a strength and conditioning coach, I’m always looking for tips and tools to not only help my clients reach their full potential in whatever health and fitness goal they want to achieve, but also to help develop myself to become a better coach and athlete.

During his years spent as an English teacher and coach, Wooden developed a guide to help his students and players become the best version of themselves that he called “The Pyramid of Success”.

The Pyramid of Success, made up of 15 guiding principles that “became a model for personal and team excellence that produced the greatest dynasty in the history of American sports”, also became a “’behavioral blueprint’ for tens of thousands of successful Americans from all walks of life.”

Looking at the pyramid, you can easily apply Wooden’s principals to running, especially if you’re striving towards a specific goal but aren’t quite there yet – like I am with trying to qualify for Boston.

I’ll use running a faster marathon time as an example on how to apply these principles below, but they could be used for any running- or fitness-related goal, such as completing your first 5K, doing 10 push-ups in a row, hitting a new one-rep max weight, or setting a new half marathon PR.

How to apply Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success principles to run a faster marathon

Before we get into the principles, ask yourself the following questions if you have a goal in mind you’d like to achieve:

  1. Are you willing to work hard for the goal you want to achieve?
  2. Do you really love what you’re trying to achieve?

If you answered yes to both, then you’ve got what it takes to start. If you said yes to one but not the other, you’re going to have a hard time being successful in achieving your goal. If you answered no to both, you might want to pick another goal.

Over the past three years or more, I think I’ve said “yes” to loving what I’m trying to achieve (run the Boston Marathon), but “no” to the hard work involved in getting there. In the past, I’ve been careful not to sacrifice my social life, health and work to train to run a time good enough to get me into Boston. But at the same time, I also know I’ve been lazy. Instead of running five or more days a week during marathon training, I would run three because I wanted to lift weights a few days a week instead. If I planned a run with a 30-minute 4:30 pace, I’d maybe do 4:50 for 20 minutes and think that was good enough, knowing I really just didn’t feel like pushing it that day. I don’t think I’ve been ready to work hard for this goal until now. Having come close twice, I know what I need to do now to make it happen (more on that to come in a future blog post).

It’s no wonder, then, that “Industriousness” (hard work) and “Enthusiasm” (love for the goal you’re trying to achieve) are the two cornerstones in Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success. “Industriousness and Enthusiasm provide strength individually but much more strength when combined as one,” explains Wooden. “I describe Industriousness as very hard work. But hard work is not enough. It must be ignited, lit afire by something that will raise it to the extraordinary level required for success. That ‘something’ is your Enthusiasm which infuses hard work with inspired power that all great competitors have.”

With that in mind, let’s take at all 15 principles and how they can help you run a faster marathon by adopting them.

  1. Industriousness“In plain and simple English this means hard work. Very hard work. There is no substitute for very hard work when it comes to success.” You have to be willing and able to put in the time and effort it takes to train for a specific time goal. If that means running six days a week and doing a 16-week training plan, so be it.
  2. Friendship “The two qualities of Friendship that are so important are respect and camaraderie. To me these are the most noteworthy characteristics of true Friendship as it pertains to leadership”. Although Wooden was speaking about the relationship between team players and their coaching staff, you could easily apply this to your running group, coach, or just to yourself. Develop a friendship with your body by respecting and honouring it, and believing what it can do for you if you give it the training it requires to achieve your goal.
  3. Loyalty “Loyalty is part of our higher nature and it is also part of the nature of leaders who achieve higher goals.” This can be loyalty to your running team, coach or even a brand if you wear sponsored running gear. More importantly, however, is a loyalty to yourself. Like the Friendship principle, it’s important to honour and respect who you are and what you’re capable of.
  4. Cooperation “A strong self-confident leader gives credit to others, when deserved, and takes blame. A weak leader takes credit and gives blame”. When I’ve missed running goals in the past, I was quick to blame external factors like getting injured or sick, which may or may not have been the cause of me missing my goal. But this time around I knew I got in my head and did not do sufficient training – both physical and mental – to run a 3:30 qualifying time. Since I was my own coach, I only had myself to blame.
  5. Enthusiasm “Your heart must be in your work. Your energy and Enthusiasm stimulates those you work with. It is the ingredient that transforms Industriousness into something of great magnitude.” You must love running and the idea, recognition or experience you’re working towards… otherwise, what’s the point in doing it?
  6. Self-Control “Getting to the top and staying there (somewhat different tasks) present unique and formidable challenges. To do either requires great Self-Control: avoiding temptations, avoiding emotionalism, avoiding peaks and valleys of effort.” Because I qualified before with a solid but light-on-running training plan, I decided to use the same model simply because it worked before. I remember last time I gave into food cravings, missed runs and got lazy, which hindered my performance this time around. If I want something bad enough, I’m going to have to be disciplined and maintain self-control to get there.
  7. Alertness – “There is activity going on around us at all times from which we can acquire knowledge if we have Alertness. Too often we get tunnel vision and don’t see the full picture which precludes learning things that are available.Observe your body and training constantly. When you spot an issue, such as feeling tired, unprepared for certain workouts or you feel any kind of issue or pain, be quick to correct it. Get to know your body and what performing at your best really means. Keeping a training journal is a great way to track this.
  8. Initiative – “Failure happens. None of us is perfect but you must train yourself not to fear failure. Fear instead inaction when it is time to act.” If you have the desire to work hard and love what you’re doing, don’t ever let the thought of not succeeding hold you back. During this last marathon I almost decided to DNF when I saw the 3:30 pace group go by. “What’s the point?” I thought. But I’m glad I didn’t. I spent a moment too long in the “inaction” zone before deciding that no, I was going to try. And I’m glad I did.
  9. Intentness – “Be persistent. Be determined. Be tenacious. Be unrelenting. The road to achievement is rocky, hard, and long. Things easily achieved are rarely long-lasting or significant”. I wish I had read that when I started training and bragged about how easy training was going. The harder the road during training, the easier achieving your time goal will be.
  10. Condition – “You must be in physical Condition, but you must also have mental and moral Condition. All three are components in this block of the Pyramid because you can’t have one without the others. Weak mental or moral Condition precludes top physical Condition.” If you’ve run a marathon before, you know the last 10K can be purely mental. You may be in peak physical condition and fully capable of completing a marathon, but if your mind tells you your legs are heavy and you can’t finish in the time you want to, you’ll slow down, guaranteed. Training your mind as well as your body is key.
  11. Skill – “You have to know your stuff and that includes a mastery of details. Skill is an ongoing and lifelong process.” Seek out a running coach. Read articles and books on marathon training. Apply what you’ve learned, practice, and tweak until you get it right.
  12. Team Spirit – “This block of the Pyramid addresses a most important characteristic: selflessness which is the opposite of selfishness. I mean by this that you are eager to sacrifice personal glory or gain for the greater good, namely, the welfare and success of your organization, your team, your group.” Although running a marathon is largely an individual sport and I prefer to run on my own most days, I still love being a part of the running community and all the comradery, team spirit and support that comes with it. I have my online fitness blogging groups, Oiselle Volee team and close running buddies who I lean on for support and am always quick to offer help and advice to when needed.
  13. Poise – “Just be yourself. Don’t pretend to be what you are not. Don’t get rattled, thrown off or unbalanced regardless of the circumstance or situation.” Because I train alone for the most part, I always seem to play the comparison game on race day, which completely throws off my race day strategy and training. My internal dialogue goes something like this: She’s got a similar build as me, so I’ll try to keep up with her. Hmm, she’s going a bit faster than I’d like, but I don’t want to get dropped now. Ohh, I passed her! I’m doing great! Oh no, she’s passing me and I can’t keep up. Lesson learned: Run your own race as planned. “Poise means holding fast to your principles and beliefs and acting in accordance with them regardless of how bad (or good) the situation may be. Know who you are and be true to yourself.”
  14. Confidence – “True abiding confidence is earned through tenaciously pursuing and attaining those assets that allow you to reach your own level of competency; that is, excellence. You must monitor Confidence because it can easily turn into arrogance which then can lead to the mistaken and destructive belief that previous achievement will be repeated without the same hard effort that brought it about in the first place.” Sound familiar? During my last BQ attempt, I mistook confidence for arrogance and thought that my previous achievement meant I could do it again without the same hard effort as before. Confidence is good to have, as long as it doesn’t turn into arrogance.
  15. Competitive greatness – “A tough fight can bring forth Competitive Greatness. The hard battle inspires and motivates a great competitor to dig deep inside. That’s why I relish the challenge a worthy competitor presents. You are tested. When properly prepared you will rise to your highest level and achieve Competitive Greatness.” When you do reach your marathon time goal, know that your achievement will be so much sweeter knowing how hard you worked for it. I’ve never cried after finishing a race, but I might next time if I have to fight long and hard to finally  achieve my goal of running the Boston Marathon.


Have you worked hard to achieve a fitness or health goal only to fail? What did you learn from that? What was missing?
Have you worked hard to achieve a fitness or health goal and succeeded? How did you make it happen?
Which of the 15 principles resonates most with you and why? What principle do you need to work more on?


Linking up with the lovely:

Annmarie at The Fit Foodie Mama, Nicole at Fitful Focus, Michelle at Fruition Fitness and Jen at Pretty Little Grub


I’m also  linking up with these sexy RRCA Certified Running Coaches: Susie of Suzlyfe, Rachel of Running on Happy, Debbie of Coach Debbie Runs, and Lora of Crazy Running Girl