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John Wooden & Swing Dancing

March 11, 2014

wooden saturated

As a student of teaching, coaching, and practice method, I often hear the name John Wooden, usually followed by some of his famous sayings.

Wooden (1910-2010) was an UCLA basketball coach who, among many things, won seven NCAA championships in a row. However, such results were merely a reflection of his much greater accomplishment: an incredible understanding of coaching (and, arguably, living). In 2003 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the government awards a civilian.

He’s a hero and a great inspiration in my practice, and living. Here is a list of some of the Wooden-isms that can easily apply to getting more out of swing dancing.

(A note on the source: This list was sent to me a long time ago, and I have not been able to confirm that all are Wooden-isms. Most of them are, according to Wooden’s website or books.)


“Big things are accomplished only through the perfection of minor details.”

A fancy-pants move will look good only if its rhythm, balance, and traveling distances are precise. Getting an extra six inches in height on that aerial doesn’t take more muscle and strength, but perhaps just focusing on popping the hips at the precise time. A great choreography is honed by focusing and perfecting several counts at a time.

“Do not mistake activity for achievement.”

It’s not working hard on your dancing that matters. It’s working both smart and hard that matters.

“The best way to improve the team is to improve ourselves.”

In dance partnerships, because of the support partners can give to each other, the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts. However, in a lot of ways, a great way to improve a dance partnership is for both members to see how they can improve themselves individually. For instance, if both partners work towards better rhythm individually, then when they get together, they can reinforce and support each other’s good rhythm even more.

“Be fast but do not hurry.”

Incredible fast dancing advice in only six words.

“I will get ready and then, perhaps, my chance will come.”

Preparing and working hard at being a better dancer are in one’s control. Winning the big contest or being asked to teach around the world are things that are, ultimately, in other people’s control.

Sure, there are things you can do to encourage those chances, but they are still ultimately not in your power. Thus, work hard and try to find happiness in the things that are in your control. Perhaps things that aren’t in your control will follow.

“If I am through learning, I am through.”

“It is what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

The best dancers I know are always playing around with new things and revising their views of what swing dancing is, whether in big, medium, or minuscule ways.

“The person who is afraid to risk failure seldom will have to face success.”

Attempting to be perfect at something often leads to not taking risks and a fear of error. But it’s in taking risks that dancers grow and invent and have fun, and, ironically, find their own path to what “success” means to them.

“Goals achieved with little effort are seldom worthwhile or lasting.”

Just something to keep in mind the next time you can’t get that one $#%&^ technique that you really, really want to get.

“What is right is more important than who is right.”

Just something to remember the next time your partner points out something about your dancing that is infuriating but true.

“Earn the right to be proud and confident.”

Occasionally I’ll see a dancer who acts as if they deserve a great deal of attention and respect, perhaps because they have done well in contests, teach a few classes, get large amounts of audience applause in jams, or know some fancy-pants moves.

However, respect is more complicated than that. For instance, some dancers in the modern scene have now spent fifteen or more years of their lives not only dancing but dedicated to this dance. That’s fifteen years of breaking down movement, working on their individual voice and technique, studying old timers/new timers, and trying to understand what the dance means to them—which, not to give it away, is a whole lot more than just some fancy-pants moves and a few contest placements.

Respect from those is not going to be earned easily. It doesn’t mean you have to also spend fifteen years doing similar things before you get respect, but it does take a lot of hard work and/or talent.

And, perhaps of greater importance, I think this goes back to things that are in our control and things that are not. The true sense of pride and confidence should come from oneself, based on realistic goals and working for those goals. Thus, in my opinion, it’s in being tested by your most realistic self that true confidence and pride begin.

So, that’s my personal addendum: Before trying to earn respect from others, first try to earn it from yourself. (The version that only gives it away fairly.)

That’s the kind of person I respect.

“Do not permit what you cannot do to interfere with what you can do.”

So you don’t do air steps. So you don’t do fancy slides. So you have all these things you can’t or don’t do in your dancing. Dance what you can do, and dance the crap out of it. That’s not only what’s important, it’s also what makes you an individual.

And…some Wooden-isms that just simply apply to life.

“Discipline yourself and others won’t need to.”

“If you do not have the time to do it right, when will you find the time to do it over?”

“The smallest good deed is better than the best intention.”

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

“Time spent getting even would be better spent trying to get ahead.”

“You discipline those under your supervision to correct, to help, to improve; not to punish.”

“Be most interested in finding the best way not in having your own way.”

“As long as you try to your best you are never a failure; that is, unless you blame others.”

“Don’t let making a living prevent you from making a life.”

“If I were ever prosecuted for my [beliefs] I truly hope there would be enough evidence to convict me.” (Note: Wooden originally said “religion.”)

“Although there is no progress without change, not all change is progress.”

“If we’d magnified blessings as much as we magnified disappointments we would all be much happier.”

“Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation. Character is what your really are; reputation is merely what you are perceived to be.”

“Never make excuses; your friends don’t need them and your foes won’t believe them.”

“We don’t have to be disagreeable just because we may disagree.”

“The more concerned we become over the things we can’t control the less we will do with the things we can control.”

“The time to make friends is before you need them.”

“We are many but are we much?”

“Make each day your masterpiece.”

“Acquire peace of mind by making the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”

“Learn as if you were to live forever; live as if you were to die tomorrow.”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Sherry Richmond-Frank permalink
    March 11, 2014 7:35 pm

    Nice article! I admire John Wooden and your applications of these ideas to swing dancing. Thanks.

  2. Chuck permalink
    March 13, 2014 12:19 am

    Great post. Thanks. Given your interest in teaching, coaching and practice method, are you familiar with the work of K. Anders Ericsson? He’s a Swedish psychologist who’s spent his life researching expert performance and the the role of deliberate practice in its acquisition. If you don’t know his work, check it out. I think you’d find the concept of “deliberate practice” illuminating.

  3. March 16, 2014 1:23 am

    Did John Wooden really come up with all these sayings? It’s amazing he had time to coach!

    He sounds like a pretty charismatic guy—I’ll check him out. Thank you!

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