Wooden Wednesdays: Self-Control

Note: this is the sixth 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 second tier of his Pyramid of Success is SELF-CONTROL.

Wooden says, “You cannot function responsibly and productively if you lack personal discipline–especially in the area of emotions.” He adds, “Clear thinking is clouded by emotionalism.”

Self-control means staying on task. It means focus on the music you are singing, ignoring your phone buzzing in your pocket. It means attention to posture when you’d rather slouch, it means staying present.

I admit I don’t like the language of some of Wooden’s writing about self-control: he writes about it as if it is the opposite of emotionally present.

Emotional distance is not required for self-control. Indeed, we need emotional presence and honesty from our singers if we wish to achieve the musical experience that are our goal.

Of course, emotional presence requires self-control, too. It takes self-control to not hide our emotions.

Wooden writes, “Self-control creates consistency. Consistency is crucial to getting to the top and staying there.”

Consistency is another one of Wooden’s resultant virtues. Consistency, which we rightly value in outstanding singing groups, is not a skill to seek. It results from self-control: maintain self-control, and consistent performance will flow naturally.

How do you teach self-control? Foremost, by example. Wooden says, “An undisciplined leader is the best evidence of an undisciplined leader.” He earned a reputation as a cool, controlled coach. One story has an announcer saying, “Coach Wooden must be very upset. He just raised an eyebrow!”

Exemplifying self-control means staying on task, having and following a plan, not overreacting when things don’t go your way. Every time you yell at a choir festival judge when the chips don’t fall your way, you are losing your self-control and teaching your students to do the same.

Explain self-control. Bring students back when you see them losing their own self-control, and remind them that their self-control is vital.

Empower self-control by giving students the tools to develop it. I have found that self-control is a muscle to be practiced. We can build capacity for self-control over time, and I think we must. Strategies  as easy as counting to ten in angry situations, enforced (civil) interaction for opposing viewpoints, mindfulness, or gratitude journals might be ways to help students understand their own capacity for self-control.