The late UCLA basketball coach John Wooden is largely considered one of the greatest sports coaches of all time. His legendary first practice of the season — which began with a lesson on “how to tie your shoes” — is often cited as an example of his relentless focus on fundamentals.
The focus on fundamentals was a core part of Wooden’s teachings.
What are the fundamentals?
When we think of fundamentals, we often think about the physical skills that are the building blocks for the results we want to create.
For a basketball player, this includes the mechanics of handling and shooting the ball. Wooden believed in drilling the core skills relentlessly until they became second nature to the players.
Pick any endeavor or job and you can break it down to its fundamental skills.
For a pianist, the fundamentals might include playing the scales and knowing the chords. Any musician who can jam well or improv can do so only because they’ve invested hours in practicing their fundamentals.
As Wooden said,
Drilling creates a foundation on which individual initiative and imagination can flourish.
The physical skills are certainly a part of the fundamentals. And for Wooden, fundamentals went beyond the physical.
There’s another nuance to the “tie your shoes” lesson that often gets lost in the retelling.
The Fundamental of Focus
Teaching players how to tie their shoes was about a specific fundamental: the fundamental of focus.
Wooden did not want his players to be distracted by the pain of a blister or the threat of a shoelace coming undone.
When a player is confident that their laces will stay tied, they can direct 100% of their conscious and unconscious focus to the game. They can implement the physical skills they have trained.
Wooden’s lesson about tying shoes was about being proactive in removing potential distractions upfront, before they have a chance to become distractions.
The ability to avoid distractions — especially at crunch time — was the differentiating factor for Wooden’s teams and for champions across all sports.
It is also the secret to finding the elusive “flow” state. We can’t get into a flow state when we are preoccupied with worry about something that might happen. Flow requires a certain mental space.
Wooden understood something that is so basic, yet has often been overlooked, especially in the realm of work and productivity:
It’s not enough to be a master of your craft. To perform at your full potential, your nervous system must feel safe enough to relax so that all of your focus can be directed toward doing what you know and trained for.
Distractions are inevitable, and many are predictable. In creating the space we need for our best work, a crucial part of our task is to anticipate what distractions will arise so we can prevent or avoid them. This allows us to focus more of our energetic resources on the work that matters.
Proactively prevent them
to find your flow state