A Relationship Lesson From the Greatest College Coach of all Time

Posted by wendy on March 9, 2011 under Uncategorized | Comments are off for this article

I have a guest columnist today. It’s Matt Sargeant, a recent Princeton graduate who played basketball there and is a big fan of John Wooden, the greatest college basketball coach of all time.

Can couples learn about teamwork from John Wooden? He took over an undistinguished, faltering program at UCLA in 1948 and never had a losing season when he retired in 1975. He won 10 national championships in 12 years including 7 in a row.He often used this Will Rodgers quote when talking to his players, “Don’t let yesterday take up too much of today.”

He also had another rule for his players: If you throw a pass to a teammate and it is not caught, you say,  “My fault bad pass, we’ll get the next one.” Or give some encouraging words like, “Don’t worry, no problem” and move on to the next play – even if you think it’s a perfect pass that should’ve been caught.

This approach will help them BOTH succeed in the future.

The above quote and the rule are philosophically linked. The rule is set up so that the players are encouraged to move on to the next play and not dwell on what just happened. It’s over. Nothing you can do about it. Let’s succeed on the next play.

“Don’t let yesterday take up too much of today.”

Getting angry at a blown catch, no matter how well thrown, is hugely counter-productive. The catcher knows it was a good pass. The scolding will make him feel worse or get defensive. He’ll stop moving forward because he’ll continue to think about and/or emotionally react to that play that is no longer occurring, and that will negatively affect him on the next play. Nobody wins.  When the passer verbalizes responsibility and keeps encouraging the other player, the oddest of things happens. The teammate will usually reply, “No, it was my fault, I’ll get it next time.” Now both players are moving forward positively, and everyone has admitted their role in the situation.  The passer by definition didn’t throw a perfect pass, because it wasn’t caught. The teammate admits the pass was good enough to catch, and he will catch the next one. This duo has a far better chance of success on the next play over the duo that is angry at each other over a play that is in the past and cannot be changed.  The game of Basketball, like relationships, is a fluid process, and because of that it doesn’t help to stick on a “busted play.” If someone keeps obsessing about the previous situation, it will affect his or her performance in the present moment. In any relationship it is the responsibly of each person, as a good partner, to put their partner in the best situation to succeed on the NEXT situation if they made a mistake on the previous attempt.  It is not beneficial to any party to obsess or get angry over a mistake. People make mistakes. But it is normal (not healthy) to assign blame.  Allow your partner to be accountable by encouraging him and looking for ways to help him improve, rather than get angry and give him the opportunity to be defensive.

The next time your partner blows it, makes a mistake, or gets testy, try two things:

1) Take a few deep breaths. Breathing helps you manage your reactive emotional brain.

2) Express how you feel, but use positive language and emphasize how you want to focus on ways you could have helped your partner succeed or feel less defensive.

We all make mistakes, and the true test of a partnership is letting your partner know they are not alone when they feel defensive or angry or insecure. Start by saying, “It’s OK, we will find a better outcome.”

Let them know they have someone to help them figure out a better way or a better response. Because, wouldn’t you appreciate it if they treated your mistakes or defensiveness with kindness and support with an emphasis on moving forward?

It is not easy doing this, but then being the most successful coach ever is not easy either.

Dr. Ellyn Bader and Dr. Peter Pearson, Founders and Directors of The Couples Institute,

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