Wooden Wednesdays: Condition

Note: this is the tenth of a series of posts investigating the leadership style of John Wooden and its applicability to choral music education.

John Wooden’s first block in the third tier of his Pyramid of Success is CONDITION.

Wooden says, “Ability may get you to the top but character keeps you there – mental, moral, and physical.” He explains that, “All three are components in this block of the Pyramid because you can’t have one without the others. Weak mental or moral Condition precludes top physical Condition.”


The celebrity breakdown, and more particularly the myriad vocal problems we see with touring pop stars, are to me proof of what Wooden is saying. Whether in sports, music, or any other sphere, it’s too easy to rely on ability to get to the top, and then lack the condition to hold on without developing bad habits. Think of how many singers you have heard of in the last decade who cancel tours for vocal problems, or receive vocal cord operation. This is getting to the top without the condition to stay there.

Wooden ties all three spheres of character together succinctly – “you can’t have one without the others” – because with one weak area, your peak will not hold in the others. Laziness (moral) can’t help but undermine physical ability, to give one example. This is as true for singers as it is for athletes. Lacking musical knowledge (mental) might seem a minor problem to young singers, but as musical demands become ever greater, the deficiency soon begins to undermine even the best talents. I recall meeting a fine singer/pianist who achieved national success, but his lack of formal training – inability to read or “speak” music – kept him from holding onto that success.

How do you teach condition? Wooden said this:

I reminded them, the players, of their responsibility to achieve Condition with this little rhyme:

“There is a choice you have to make, In everything you do.
So keep in mind that in the end, The choice you make makes you.”

If you make the right choices you will achieve Condition.

We have a responsibility to drill our students physically – we are conditioning them day to day through their singing. We must drill them mentally – demand both mental focus and musical knowledge from our students. And morally? This is tricky. Our society tends to think that morality is not a part of what is being taught in school.

Of course it is. We must exemplify moral behavior, expect moral behavior, call out immoral behavior, and even, when the occasion permits, talk about morality in the choral classroom.

I have no doubt that John Wooden achieved the success he did in part because he didn’t hesitate to teach mental and moral condition in addition to physical conditioning. To achieve our near-term goals (musical success) and our long-term goals (successful members of society), we must do the same.