What John Wooden can teach us about improvisation

To get to my high school, Martinsville High School in Martinsville, Indiana, I had to travel down John R. Wooden Drive—named, of course, after legendary basketball coach and hometown hero John Wooden, who coached the UCLA men’s basketball teams to 10 NCAA championships, a feat that will probably never be repeated.

Coach John Wooden died last night. He was 99. Wooden was more than a living legend in Martinsville. All of us felt as if we had a direct connection to him: many of my classmates had gone to West Middle School, which was what the old high school had been turned into, and took gym classes on the same gym floor where Wooden first learned the game and later achieved basketball greatness, leading the high school team to three state championships, winning once. And, as others have reported, whenever he was in Indiana, he frequently made the trek 30 miles south to visit the town, see old friends, and watch his grandchildren and great grandchildren dribble on the same floor he had only decades before, back when players were still being called “cagers” because its meaning—basketball used to be played in an area completely enclosed by netting—hadn’t yet been lost.

Almost everyone who knew Wooden would probably say that “improvisation” was the last thing he valued. Indeed, preparation, practice, details—these were the things, as he understood them, that led to success. Wooden systemized his experience and beliefs into what he called a “success pyramid,” the components of which were performed daily by those he coached and mentored, the prescripts from which he was constantly peppering his practice sessions with: “be quick, but don’t hurry”; “failing to plan is planning to fail.” John WoodenNo detail was too small for Wooden, and no element of the game, or the players under his tutelage, escaped his attention:  the first thing every UCLA Bruins player learned to do when they played for Coach Wooden? To put on his socks and shoes. Wooden believed that there was a correct way to do these things to prevent foot injuries, and this was the first lesson he imparted to new players. In essence, he literally refashioned his players from the ground up. Such systemized attention to detail no doubt led to his success at every level of the game—he was the first person to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both player and coach—but it doesn’t really lend itself to the ad hoc nature of improvisational comedy.

True. But there is a lesson we can learn from John Wooden: the fact that he cared less about the result, specifically winning. Player after player testified before and after his death how the word “winning” never came up during the season, during practices, during half time speeches. It’s how all understand success in athletics is measured, and yet it was something he never talked about or focused on. Instead, he focused on the principles that guided his system. A half-time speech, one player offered in remembrance, wouldn’t be about what the team could do to win, but instead how the team wasn’t being “enthusiastic” (“Enthusiasm” being one of the components in his success pyramid).

What if improvisors acted like John Wooden, and decided to not be concerned with the outcome of their endeavors? What if we stopped caring about the end result of a scene: where it’s going, the plotty path we’re going to take to get there, the so-called “loose ends” we think we need to tie up, the up-in-our-head hoops we think we need–or the scene needs, or our partners need—to jump through to arrive at some vague destination in our heads? Or, better still, what if improvisors stopped worrying about what the audience thought (or would think) of the scene long enough to concentrate on simply being in it?

As any novelist can you tell you, you never end up writing the story or novel you plan to write: the process is constantly one of discovery, of the story, of the characters, of the theme, even as you’re crafting it, and then getting the hell of out of the way to let it be told. Improvisors shouldn’t be any different from writers, or even John Wooden, in this respect: they should worry less about the outcome, and take sheer playful pleasure in the journey that will get them there. That’s what Wooden did, and the results are now the stuff of legend.

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