Pat Summitt and John Wooden…Comparing and Contrasting Two Coaching Legends


Bridging the gap between coaching research and practice.

By Michael P. Sheridan, Ph.D.

What is this article all about?

The purpose of this article is to provide support for coaches who wish to review, consider, and apply some of the findings from recent research to everyday coaching. This article will review a recent research article and provide insights based on these assumptions:

1. Some coaches are interested in applying recent findings from coaching research to their daily coaching.
2. Many coaches do not have easy access to professional journals that provide scholarly research on coaching science, nor do many coaches have the time to read, understand and digest the results reported in these publications.
3. Most of the scientific articles are written in language which is appropriate for academia but aren’t easily interpreted – or – don’t illustrate how to integrate the findings into everyday coaching practice.

Empirical research on highly regarded and successful coaches

One of the landmark studies in coaching research was performed to investigate the coaching tactics of John Wooden (UCLA’s legendary men’s basketball coach) almost 30 years ago (Tharp & Gallimore, 1976). Almost three decades later, researchers studied the coaching behaviors of one of the great women’s basketball coaches of all time, Pat Summitt (University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach ) (Becker & Wrisberg, 2008). In between those two studies, a variety of coaches have been evaluated to determine if there are tactics or strategies that are common among successful coaches. Many different research methods, coaching populations and variables have been examined in attempts to identity differences between successful and less successful coaches. For example, the following coaches have been observed and empirically evaluated and /or interviewed: college basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian (Bloom, Crumpton, & Anderson, 1999); college football coach Frank Kush (Langsdorf, 1979); and interviews with collegiate swimming coach James “Doc” Counsilman (Kimiecik & Gould, 1987) and Summitt (Wrisberg, 1990). However, few coaching researchers have used comparable research strategies to contrast a highly successful collegiate women’s basketball coach with one of the all-time great men’s college basketball coaches. With recent quantitative, published research detailing Pat Summitt’s coaching behaviors on the court; it seems worthwhile to compare these most recent research results with the outcomes of the 30-year-old study of Wooden. In this way, differences and similarities between these two coaching giants may be identified.

What can be learned from these great models and how might one apply their examples to their own coaching practice? Tharp and Gallimore’s (1976) research on Wooden revealed that more than half of the 2500 items in Wooden’s coded behaviors were instructional, brief, and prescriptive (directed at what the player should do rather than merely describing a player’s action). The study found that Wooden used very few expressions of displeasure or praise in his coaching. Similar systematic research that coded and analyzed Summitt’s coaching behaviors stimulated the questions that guided this article:

1) “Compared to Wooden, does Summitt use similar or different amounts of praise and displeasure in her coaching?”

2) In addition, “Compared to Wooden, does Summitt utilize more instructional feedback?”

Article in Review:
Becker, A. J., & Wrisberg, C. A. (2008). Effective coaching in action: Observations of legendary collegiate basketball coach Pat Summitt. Sport Psychologist, 22(2),

The authors systematically observed the practice behaviors of Coach Pat Summitt, the winningest basketball coach in NCAA Division I history. Six practices were observed and videotaped during the 2004-05 season, and more than 3000 behaviors were coded. More than half (55%) of the behaviors were directed toward the team, whereas 45% of her behaviors were directed toward individuals. Almost half (45%) of the behaviors were instructional in nature, 14% were praise and 10% were “hustles”. Summitt directed “hustle statements toward her team (n = 271) three times more than she did toward individual players. (n = 80). The reverse was true regarding Summitt’s use of “scolds”: She directed scolds twice as often toward individuals (n = 156) compared to directing them toward the team (n = 70). Mostly when Summitt “scolded” a player it was followed by instruction. (This tactic was similar to findings regarding Wooden’s use of scolds followed by instruction).

The authors concluded that the majority of Summitt’s behaviors were instructional, positive, and hustle-oriented, designed to make practices simulate the intensity of game situations.

Compared to the analysis of Wooden’s coaching behaviors, the research results assessing Summitt’s conduct were similar. For example, over the course of 15 practice sessions more than 2000 of Wooden’s behaviors were coded, revealing that he used instruction more than 50% of the time, including “hustles’ (12%), praise (7%) and scolds (6%). The authors found that most of Wooden’s statements were brief (shorter than 20 seconds in duration). “Hustles’ were statements that the coach used to intensify actions during drills and scrimmages” and were used to increase speed but still maintain accuracy. (Gallimore & Tharp, 2004, p. 5).

The following tables illustrate the comparisons between the results of the research studies conducted involving Summitt and Wooden.

Demographic comparison of Wooden and Summit
(at the time of observation)

Coach John Wooden
Age 64
Winning percentage .813 (620-147)
Years of coaching experience 40
NCAA Championships 10

Coach Pat Summitt
Age 52
Winning percentage .836 (852-167)
Years of coaching experience 30
NCAA Championships 8

Comparison of Research Results

Wooden’s (1976) Coaching Behaviors
Total practices observed 15
Total hours of practice observed 30
Total feedback behaviors coded 2,326

Summitt’s (2008) Coaching Behaviors
Total practices observed 6
Total hours of practice observed ~18
Total feedback behaviors coded 3,296

Observation instrument used

Coding scheme developed only for use in this study:

Instruction 50%
Praise 6.9%
Scold 6.6%
Praise /Scold ratio 1 : 1
Hustles 12.7 %

Arizona University Observation Instrument (ASUOI):

Instruction 48%
Praise 14.5%
Scold 7%
Praise /Scold ratio 2 : 1
Hustles 10.7%

Compared to Wooden, Summitt’s researchers coded more 1000 behaviors in less than half the number of practices observed. This suggests that, in the practices observed, Summitt provided more verbal feedback than did Wooden. Wooden and Summitt shared almost equal amounts of instruction in their coaching – each was found to use instruction about half of the time that they were observed. Compared to Wooden’s use of praise, Summitt used about twice the amount of praise. However, each coach was observed using equal amounts of “scolds” or expression of displeasure. The same finding was discovered in the amount of “hustles” that each coach used. Each coach used similar amounts of “hustles” designed to raise the level of intensity in their practices. Another difference that was uncovered was the praise / scold ratio. Summitt used praise about twice as often (2:1) as she used scolds, whereas Wooden’s praise / scold ratio was about 1:1. As Wooden acknowledged, he was less interested in providing praise and believed that his praise came in the form of instructions that he used to direct a players to correct a mistake (Gallimore & Tharp, 2004).

Limitations of the research:

Because the researchers used different instruments, caution must be used in interpreting these results. That is, when different research instruments are used to code the behaviors, the reliability of the results over time is in question. For example, Wooden’s researchers did not utilize a category to chart his use of “questioning” and had to rely on sitting in the gym at half court to try to hear what his was saying. Summitt’s researchers used an instrument which included “questioning” as a category and utilized a wireless microphone to record her behaviors for playback and evaluation at a later time.

Conclusions and implications:

These comparisons suggest that Wooden and Summit were very similar in their coaching feedback despite several differences being found in the amount of behaviors coded and in the praise / scold ratios used by the coaches. Thus, Summitt used more frequent feedback and utilized praise more frequently than did Wooden.

Successful coaches have been found to use more overall feedback in practice than less successful coaches (Markland & Martinek, 1988). Furthermore, higher athlete satisfaction has been found to be associated with higher frequencies of coaches’ instruction, praise, encouragement, social support, and democratic behavior (Allen & Howe, 1998; Chelladurai, 1984; Dwyer & Fisher, 1990; Riemer & Chelladurai, 1995). These coaching behaviors may lead to higher levels of athlete confidence, which in turn, could result in improved performance (Gould, Guinan, Greenleaf, & Chung, 2002; Weinberg, Grove, & Jackson, 1992). Therefore, if successful coaches use more frequencies of positive feedback then increased athlete confidence may result. Athletes with more self-confidence produce better performances; so, how does this apply to coaching practice?

This is not another article designed to only encourage you to be more “positive” with your athletes. In fact, athletes ignore coaches who are “happy talkers” who mostly serve as cheerleaders for good plays (Thompson, 2003). Furthermore, inappropriate praise (admiring talent or ability) given at the wrong time (delayed) can lead to decreased athlete motivation and may lead to the perception that a coach believes the athlete to be incapable of performing a difficult task. For example, if a coach praises a skilled player for successfully completing an easy task (e.g. (“Angela, great job finishing that lay up”), then this may demonstrate reduced confidence in the athletes’ ability: Therefore, consideration should be given to one’s use of praise to avoid deflating an athlete’s self-confidence.

More Effective Coaching Feedback

Set a goal to use praise / scold ratio of about 5:1. Effective praise is directed toward athletes’ effort, not their ability.

Use more questions instead of telling: Many athletes have useful knowledge from their experiences and questioning helps involve them in their own learning.

Use short brief prescriptive phrases to direct athletes to the desired performance. Brief, specific, directed instructions are much more effective than long rants that help the coach blow off steam but lose the attention of his or her athletes.

Less Effective Coaching Feedback

Coaches who are “Happy talkers” use too much praise at the wrong times for completing easy tasks can lead to decreased athlete confidence.

This strategy suggests that the coach knows it all and that he is not interested in involving the player in his or her own learning.

Use long-winded speech lasting more than 20 seconds to emphasize the point. The coach’s message is lost after a few moments of angry lecturing.

Research has found that many coaches are unaware of the conduct that they exhibit in practices (DeMarco, Mancini, & West, 1997; Krane, Eklund, & McDermott, 1991; Wandzilak, Ansorge, & Potter, 1988). Becoming more aware of one’s coaching conduct is the first step in changing coaching behavior. How can coaches become more aware of their own coaching actions?

Tools often used to enhance awareness & improve coaching behaviors

* Use a journal, or videotape a practice to evaluate one’s coaching. Have a peer or knowledgeable (but objective) observer chart desired (and undesired) behaviors during a practice. Just becoming more aware of one’s tendencies (charting of coaching behaviors) can help one emphasize or deemphasize certain actions.

* Set small goals (e.g. “use three more “praises” in practice today”) to increase desired behaviors (e.g. appropriate praise) or decrease unwanted actions (e.g. cussing).

* Ask an observer or assistant coach to use a stopwatch to time one’s coaching “rants’. Then, set some goals to reduce long-winded feedback by practicing briefer, more direct communication – or, better yet, change the rant to a question (“Peter, what might you have done differently in that situation?”).

* Announce one’s behavioral intentions to one’s players and other staff coaches to increase accountability. Publicly announcing personal behavioral objectives can demonstrate one’s interest in improving one’s coaching. This gesture of good faith fosters trust and respect between a coach and his or her athletes.

Pat Summitt and John Wooden provide exceptional examples of what coaches can do to provide effective feedback. The information gained from the empirical evaluations of these two great coaches provides examples of effective coaching tactics used by two extremely successful coaches. Over the course of her coaching career, Summitt admitted that she changed from a “strict disciplinarian” into a coach who used more encouragement and praise to direct her athletes’ behavior (Wrisberg, 1990). From this admission, it is clear that Summitt chose to keep a learner’s mindset to foster her coaching growth.

Coaches’ Call to Action

Keep an open mind, seek opportunities for personal growth, and develop an awareness of one’s coaching behaviors – They are the keys to enjoying the coaches’ journey, maximizing player and team development, and lighting the path toward self-improvement.

Comments and suggestions are welcomed at msheridan (at)


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Becker, A. J., & Wrisberg, C. A. (2008). Effective coaching in action: Observations of legendary collegiate basketball coach Pat Summitt. Sport Psychologist, 22(2), 197-211.
Bloom, G. A., Crumpton, R., & Anderson, J. E. (1999). A systematic observation study of the teaching behaviors of an expert basketball coach. The Sport Psychologist, 13, 157-170.
Chelladurai, P. (1984). Discrepancy between preferences and perceptions of leadership behavior and satisfaction of athletes in varying sports. Journal of Sport Psychology, 6, 27-41.
DeMarco, G. M. P., Mancini, V. H., & West, D. A. (1997). Reflections on change: A qualitative and quantitative analysis of a baseball coach’s behavior. Journal of Sport Behavior, 20(2), 135-163.
Dwyer, J. M., & Fisher, D. G. (1990). Wrestlers’ perceptions of coaches’ leadership as predictors of satisfaction with leadership. Journal of Perceptual Motor Skills, 71, 511-517.
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Markland, R., & Martinek, T. J. (1988). Descriptive analysis of coach augmented feedback given to high school varsity female volleyball players. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 5(1), 22-33.
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Tharp, R. G., & Gallimore, R. (1976). What a coach can teach a teacher. Psychology Today, 9, 74-78.
Thompson, J. (2003). The double-goal coach. New York: Harper-Collins.
Wandzilak, T., Ansorge, C. J., & Potter, G. (1988). Comparison between selected practice and game behaviors of youth sport soccer coaches. Journal of Sport Psychology, 18, 332-346.
Weinberg, R., Grove, R., & Jackson, A. (1992). Strategies for building self-efficacy in tennis players: A comparative analysis of Australian and American coaches. The Sport Psychologist, 6, 3-13.
Wrisberg, C. A. (1990). An interview with Pat Head Summitt. The Sport Psychologist, 4, 180-191.

About the author:

Michael P. Sheridan, Ph.D. has more than 20 years of experience in education as a: college head men’s basketball coach; university professor; high school athletic director; high school golf and cross country coach; high school head boys basketball coach and; high school and elementary physical education teacher. Dr. Sheridan is an adjunct faculty member in coaching education and sport psychology at several universities and is the Chair of Coaching Science for the Sports Science division of Ohio Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (OAHPERD). Sheridan is the author of several published articles on coaching science and youth sports participation. Dr. Sheridan is also a coaching education trainer, certified to instruct coaching courses produced by the National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) Sheridan has presented his coaching research at several conventions including the National Council for Accreditation on Coaching Education (NCACE), National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), and OAHPERD. Sheridan consults with several college and high school golf, basketball and volleyball teams in the areas of team building, motivation and developing mental toughness. Sheridan is an elementary physical education teacher and high school boys’ basketball coach in the Tri-Valley School District. For more information contact Dr. Sheridan at msheridan (at)

7 thoughts on “Pat Summitt and John Wooden…Comparing and Contrasting Two Coaching Legends

  • May 11, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    Surely not everyone would take such actions, but for those who do, the rewards are great. Thanks for your continued excellence.

  • June 1, 2009 at 10:49 pm

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  • December 5, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Very good article. It helped me a lot. I’ m doing a research in Greece with Basketball Coaches in A1 Division. I ‘m standing the coaching behavior. Thanks for the info.


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