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  • Writer's picturePaul Neville

Why I Finally Read John Wooden

This spring I am moving into a new phase of Transformational Coaching. I love going back to John O'Sullivan and his website, changingthegameproject.com for his latest podcasts and for his annual book list. On that list I found The Culture System by J.P. Nerbun. I am eager to finish the book and begin to plan to implement is ideas into the Fall 2023 NorthStar Soccer season. I started reading around February but stopped on chapter 7. What happened? If I love it so much why did I stop? I decided to pursue a very productive rabbit trail.


In chapter 3 - Align Behaviors with Beliefs: Core Values. Nerbun writes, 'Early on, I had an obsession with Coach John Wooden. I read every book written both by him and about him. . . If you asked who I modeled my coaching after, I would have said, without hesitation, Coach John Wooden . . . I thought I was on my way to become the next Wooden. Except I wasn't." He talks about how would rarely listen to parent criticism (at the time Nerbun was a high school basketball coach) but one day a father who he admired dropped by after practice for a word. Here's what he said.

When we brought our son to this school, we were really excited that he would have you as a coach, because of the things you claim to value and the leadership principles you preach. When I look around the walls of your office and locker room, it is clear to me you admire and value many of the same things John Wooden valued. But while you claim to value things like hard work, a positive attitude, self-discipline, and respect for others, the individuals you play in the games don't seem to mirror many of these qualities at all. Laziness, selfishness, and a lack of discipline are behaviors that seem to be tolerated in your program. More importantly, when I see how you handle yourself in the heat of a game, I don't see you modeling the values you preach. Swearing. Yelling at referees. Poor body language. Harshly criticizing your players. You appear impulsive and out of control. These are the things I see, what the other parents see, and most importantly, what the players see.

Hearing that feedback from the parent was one of my most painful moments as a coach -- not because it wasnt true, but because I knew it was true. As I started to observe my own behaviors over the course of the season, I realized I was reinforcing all the wrong things. After all, while people aren't very good at listening to leaders, they are quick to act like them."


Wow. Powerful. I admire the vulnerability Nerbun shows in giving this example. It seems that he spent years turning this around and then writing this book so that I could learn from him and help NorthStar coaches take our program to the next level of Transformational Coaching. I am very grateful. I am also grateful for this courageous parent who was willing to have the hard conversation that sparked this change.


This summer I will definitely get back to reading The Culture System and making plans from it. But in the meantime I took a big detour because I thought I should directly go to Wooden on Leaderhip which had been sitting on my shelf for about a year.


See below for my June 2023 prayer letter in which I share one ministry story flowing from John Wooden quotes and concepts. I do plan to make my next post here about that book. I will return to more thoughts on The Culture System after I have experimented a little.


June 2023 - Paul Neville prayer letter
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