Why thorough preparation trumps sporadic emotions

by | August 20, 2012

Everyone loves heart-stirring, blood-pumping halftime speeches in sports movies.

The team is outmatched, whipped, down for the count. Spirits are crushed, heads hang low, tails are tucked between tired legs.

Then, the coach reaches deep into his champion’s heart to pull out a rip-roaring speech.

The fog of defeat is pierced by the sun of encouragement. Heads lift and begin to nod, spirits are aroused, and soon the team is shouting their conviction that victory is theirs.

Refocused and rejuvenated, they charge the field and win the day.

Halftime emotionalism may make for good Hollywood drama. But true champions never depend on it to win.

That’s according to John Wooden, by far the most successful coach in the history of basketball.


  • Wooden’s UCLA teams won ten NCAA championships in twelve years, including seven in a row.
  • He coached 88 consecutive victories, smashing the previous record of 60.
  • His teams enjoyed eight undefeated Pacific conference crowns.
  • His unprecedented lifetime winning percentage exceeded 80 percent.

With that context, now ponder his counterintuitive insights into emotion, as revealed in his book, Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court:

“I believe that for every artificial peak you create, there is a valley. I don’t like valleys. Games are lost in valleys. Therefore, I wasn’t much for giving speeches to stir up emotions before a game.

“If you need emotionalism to make you perform better, then sooner or later you’ll be vulnerable, an emotional wreck, and unable to function to your level of ability.

“My ideal is an ever-rising graph line that peaks with your final performance.

“I prefer thorough preparation over some device to make us ‘rise to the occasion.’ Let others try to rise suddenly to a higher level than they had attained previously. We would have already attained it in our preparation. We would be there to begin with. A speech by me shouldn’t be necessary.”

If your performance depends on stimulating your emotions at critical moments, something is wrong. It’s not sustainable, and neither does it create long-term success.

Games are won long before you ever set foot on the court. You can’t expect to hit homeruns if you rarely show up for batting practice.

Larry Bird may have dreamed of holding an NBA championship trophy high under flashing lights. But while he was dreaming, he shot at least 500 free throws every day.

The sugary high of sporadic emotions is nothing compared to the enduring nutrition of preparation. And no amount of positive thinking can compensate for incompetence.

This is why any personal development guru who promises to “change your life” through an “experiential” event is a fraud. After the emotions stimulated by fast talkers, cheering crowds, and sleep deprivation have faded, what remains is the same person with the same skills, habits, and character. And those, like anything worthwhile, take years of sustained effort to develop.

So you can dream of glory or think as positively as you want. But when you show up to deliver a speech, close a sale, counsel a wayward youth, perform a surgery, or launch a business, the cold, hard truth is this: either you’re ready or you’re not. And no pep talk in the moment, no matter how heartfelt, will change that inescapable fact.

Be not deceived by charismatic charlatans or Hollywood drama. Your character is not forged from the sparks of “life-changing” weekends, but through the fires of daily choices over years.

And championships are not won because of rousing halftime speeches. They’re won because of years of hard practice.

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