England footballers can learn from the gospel of John Wooden

England’s footballers do not need a football coach, they need a life coach. Until yesterday [when they beat Slovenia 1-0 to qualify for the next phase of the World Cup] they had appeared out of touch, pampered, bored, disgruntled, disjointed and unable to cope with pressure. As would most technical coaches, Fabio Capello looked lost when asked for the reasons why.

Once they reach a certain level of proficiency, elite sportsmen do not need to be told whether to play 4-4-2, or 4-4-1-1, or how to play a forward defensive or a cover drive, they need someone to help them to become rounded human beings – a necessary first step to becoming better performers at the highest level. They need someone like John Wooden. Trouble is, he died two weeks ago, on the eve of the World Cup.

Little-known in Britain because he coached basketball in a city better known for its navel-gazing celebrities rather than its sportsmen, Wooden could lay claim to being one of the greatest sports coaches. Known as the ‘Wizard of Westwood’ – a moniker he detested – Wooden coached University of California, Los Angeles basketball team to ten national titles in 12 years [between 1964 and 1975], eight more than any coach has achieved before or since. In that period, one of his teams achieved an 88-game winning streak – a record still – and his teams overall had a win-loss ratio 664-162.

He did it with simple, homespun philosophies, Jimmy Stewart-like morals and a broad focus. Like John Buchanan, the former Australia cricket coach, his aim was to help his players become better human beings as well as better sportsmen; one could not come without the other.

His methods worked: with small teams – his first championship side was tiny by basketball standards – and with big egos. The bigger the ego, the greater the eventual loyalty so that, three decades after he had stopped coaching, some of the greatest players in history still referred to him as their mentor, their teacher. Many kept in touch; there was a steady stream of acolytes to his humble condo throughout his final years.

When I say that England’s footballers need to become more rounded human beings before they can become better footballers, I don’t say it out of some inbred arrogance that footballers are worse human beings than other sportsmen – although they often give us cause to think that. It is simply that, by the very nature of their existence, the vast majority of professional sportsmen are self-absorbed, narrow-minded, fretting obsessives who often fail to cope with the pressures – and do not let anyone tell you otherwise – of international sport.

Not that many of the managers in the World Cup are coping much better. In fact, as those on the pitch have failed to ignite, the most interesting narratives have concerned the coaches: Dunga’s battle to combine ruthlessness with the beautiful game; Sven-Göran Eriksson’s attempt to turn a colourful African team into a colourless northern European one; Raymond Domenech’s horror story; the challenge to Fabio Capello’s dictatorship; and Maradona’s permanent high-wire act, balancing between madness and brilliance.

All of them, players and managers, could do with a small dose of John Wooden:

‘I have always tried to make it clear that basketball is not the ultimate. It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live.’

Often, when things go wrong in major tournaments, it is not that players (or managers) want success too little, but that they want it too much. According to those following the England team in South Africa, the campaign has been thoroughly joyless. The hardest thing in professional sport is to play as if winning is the only thing that matters, with the knowledge that it does not matter at all. It is what Andy Flower, the England cricket team director, was trying to achieve when he took his team to Ypres on the eve of the Ashes [in 2009]. ‘Failure is not fatal. Failure to change might be.’

With a small team, Wooden incorporated a little-known zonal press defence to win his first three national championships. Success brought recruitment of better players and when the 7ft 2in Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) joined the team, Wooden altered his tactics completely and built his team around a man who was to become an all-time great. In team selection and tactics, stubbornness is not a sign of strength but weakness.

‘I’d rather have a lot of talent and little experience than a lot of experience and little talent.’

Some coaches are afraid of big-name players and big egos. Wooden was not. He saw it as his job to manage those egos and integrate them into the team. In Alcindor and Bill Walton, Wooden had two of the most difficult to handle. ‘I wanted to give them something to aspire to beyond statistics in sport,’ Wooden said. Alcindor credited Wooden with his decision to convert to Islam; Walton wrote the lessons he learnt from Wooden on his sons’ school lunchboxes. Both visited him shortly before he died.

‘The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team.’

Wooden never forgot, though, that no man was bigger than the team. He had strict rules on personal conduct and standards of dress. One day Walton turned up with a full, straggly beard and when Wooden insisted he cut it, Walton refused, saying, ‘It’s my right.’ ‘That’s good, Bill,’ said Wooden. ‘I admire people who have strong beliefs and stick by them, I really do. We’re going to miss you.’ Walton went to the barber’s straight away; there might be an absence of fit centre-halves at the moment but John Terry should be wary.

‘Be more concerned with your character than your reputation because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.’

We know that Terry spent the morning before his press conference reading the papers to give himself some idea of the mood before attempting to undermine Capello [by revealing his own thoughts on selection issues and other matters]. This is a bad sign. Ignoring popular, and even informed, opinion is easier said than done, but no good ever comes from wasting time reading about what others think of you or your team.

‘Adversity is the state in which man most easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.’

In other words, failure is sometimes a good thing because you get to learn a lot about yourself and team-mates in difficult times. The French learnt plenty in this tournament, namely that they did not care enough about their team or nation to put personal animus aside. England’s players will also have learnt a lot about themselves this week and, to judge from their reaction yesterday, it is not too late to hope that some good may come of their troubles: to climb high you have to have fallen low. To recognise the peaks, you have to have known the troughs.

John Wooden was not a charismatic figure. He lived a humble life, in a small condo in a suburb of Los Angeles; he took a low salary for much of his coaching days and was married to his childhood sweetheart, to whom he continued to write letters for years after her death.

He abided by strict personal morals that were ‘real easy to follow’, according to an American sportswriter who knew him well, ‘as long as you lived in a convent’. But somehow this oddity got the best out of starry-eyed young athletes.

He was a teacher rather than a basketball coach, and a teacher who clearly inspired a generation. Another of his former players, Gail Goodrich, has this to say: ‘Over the years, I came to realise that he really taught us lessons. All the things he talked about in basketball apply to how you raise your kids and how you live your life. Outside of my parents and my family, he’s t he most important person in my life. He’s been my mentor.’

How many, I wonder, will say that of a coach who is interested only in the minutiae of sport?

Wooden died on 4 June, aged 99, but his teachings live on, through his books. The Football Association could do worse that ship a few to South Africa – it may help the boys to kill a few of those tedious afternoons about which they are so fond of complaining. The Times, 24 June 2010