19 elite-athlete behaviours for success

In 2011, a good friend and I coached a varsity boys basketball team at an international school in Myanmar (Burma). Leading into the pre-season, I created a rule book which outlined how the team was expected to conduct themselves during the season.


The rule book was inspired by thoughts and principles that were originally developed and used by legendary basketball player and coach, John Wooden. A former teacher and now member of the basketball hall of fame, John Wooden was an extraordinary basketball player and coach. As a player, he went All-American in college. As a coach, his high school and college teams won an extraordinary 80% of their games with him at the helm. He won 10 NCAA National Championships over 12 years as head coach at UCLA and was named National Coach of the Year 6 times. That’s a hell of a record.

Coach Wooden’s success came from his unique approach to basketball, to coaching and more pertinently to life. He believed that being a great player and a great team required more than just a well-drilled set of technical basketball skills.

He believed that to be a great player and a great team, you also need the right values. Values that, when translated into action embody, promote and facilitate altruism, fairness and humility.

I recently came across the rule book by accident, while trawling through some long forgotten folders on an old hard drive. Reading through it again, I couldn’t help but reminisce about how impressed my fellow coach and I were with the conduct and behaviour of our team that season.

How after winning the Myanmar national tournament, we travelled to Bangkok for the South East Asian Schools Athletics Conference (SEASAC). How at that conference, playing against bigger and more established schools from around South East Asia, we punched well above our weight, coming within 4 points with two minutes to go of beating the eventual division one tournament champions in a group-stage game.

How the boys personified sportsmanship, cheering for other teams during game breaks and being gracious in both victory and defeat, shaking hands and congratulating teams before and after every game. And, how after winning the division two championship, the boys were voted Best and Fairest by the other team’s coaches.

We may not have won it all, but I consider that season to have been a very successful one. When we arrived in Bangkok for SEASAC , it was clear that we were under-dogs. From what I could gather from the snarks and sneers of some of the other teams and even coaches, we were also widely considered a joke and an also-ran.

We were younger, shorter and nowhere near as resourced as the other richer and better connected international schools. While most students from the other schools came from comparatively privileged backgrounds, our boys were from a country widely recognised as third world/developing and that had been locked down by a military regime. A country that had shut out the rest of the world for the previous 20+ years (long before these boys were even born).

A country where until recently, most citizens weren’t allowed out and most foreigners weren’t allowed in. Where foreign journalist were banned and cameras and laptops were confiscated at the airport. A country where some of the world’s longest running civil wars have raged for decades. And, where military personnel with rifles stood posted at every intersection in the former capital, Yangon (Rangoon), the city where the team was from.

Despite these challenges, by the end of the tournament our boys were looked up to by everyone. Why? Because of their respectful conduct, their leadership on and off the court, their heart and courage, and their never give up attitude.

They were honoured as Best and Fairest because they practiced what Coach Wooden had taught them in that rule book. They were honoured because they behaved in a way that embodied, promoted and facilitated altruism, fairness and humility. Because despite not being crowned champions, they behaved like champions.

Today, those boys are following their dreams. Some are just finishing up high school while others are studying in their chosen field at universities around the world. Some are working in their family business back in Myanmar and others are blazing their own trail, making a difference in their community or building companies. Needless to say, I was and still am a super proud coach.

As I was reading through the rule book again, it occurred to me that the principles therein aren’t really about basketball or even sports, at all. They’re about how to conduct yourself in life. They’re a framework for success in any field you wish to apply them. They will never get old, outdated or irrelevant. And the best part — anyone can practice them.

So here it is. This is the exact rule book I gave those boys, with the exception that I’ve added links to some articles, blogs and videos to get you thinking and acting on each one. Work on establishing these behaviours and you can be successful at whatever you put your mind to.

Read right to the end to watch a TED Talk by the man himself Coach John Wooden, in which he talks about the difference between winning and being successful. It’s well worth your time!

1. Act Like a Winner

True winners handle themselves with class, integrity and confidence. People who act like winners will usually become winners, so do the same.

2. Stay Positive

Positive people can take on the world. With a positive outlook, so can you! Trust me, it’s backed by science.

3. Commit Yourself to Hard Work

Hard work is the price you pay for being successful. The harder you work, the less likely you are to give up, the more you will achieve and the more rewarding those achievements will be.

4. Commit Yourself to Doing Things the Right Way

There is a right way and a wrong way of doing things. Practice makes perfect. Do things the right way, even when no one is watching.


“If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” – John Wooden


5. Write Down Your Goals

Review them often. When you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.

6. Focus!

Don’t waste your time with trivial pursuits. Focus all your energy on achieving your goals. Give your complete focus to whatever single task you are doing at any given time – attempting to multi-task kills productivity and is harmful to your health.

7. Thrive on Pressure

Be Prepared. The more you prepare, the better you will be able to handle pressure situations. Pressure often brings out the best in people, but only if they are prepared.

8. Don’t Procrastinate

Don’t put off anything you could do now till tomorrow.  Don’t feel like it? Develop some strategies to help you out. Just stop putting things off.

9. Be Honest

Always tell the truth. If you say you are going to do something, do it! And, be honest with yourself. Be realistic with your goals — but still challenge yourself.

10. Eliminate Negative Words From Your Vocabulary

Negative words will only ever hold you back. Start by replacing ‘can’t’ with ‘can’ and ‘try’ with ‘will’. Work on becoming the most positive person you know.

11. Learn From Your Mistakes

Use this 4 step process: 1. Recognise It 2. Admit It 3. Learn From It 4. Move on. Failure is not the end of your journey — it’s just the beginning.


“If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing anything. I’m certain that a doer makes mistakes.” – John Wooden


12. Admit Your Weaknesses

Play to your strengths and work on your weaknesses. You’ll be better off for it.

13. Always Be On Time

10 minutes early is even better.

14. Sit Up Front

In class. In meetings. In life.

15. Be Nice

Treating others the way you would like to be treated is the key to success in any endeavour.

16. Be Courteous

Please and thank you will take you a long way. Using them is simple. If you need something from someone, say please. If somebody does something for you, say thank you. It’s not difficult.

17. Smile

In every country and in every culture, smiling lets people know that you are a respectful, caring and sharing person. And that’s the type of person you should want to be.

18. Dress Your Best At All Times

A wise man once told me that the quality of your threads matters much less than if they’re clean and pressed. Learn how to iron your shirt/pants/skirt.

19. Stay Humble

Respect and recognition come from personal sacrifice and hard work. Handle it like a gentleman/lady, not a clown.


“A player who makes a team great is more valuable than a great player. Losing yourself in the group, the good of the group, that’s team work.” – John Wooden


If you’ve got a few minutes (17 to be precise), watch this awesome TED talk by the legendary John Wooden about the difference between winning and success. With almost 4 million views, it’s one of the most watched TEDs in history. You’ll learn something, I promise.

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