The sociological eye means looking at things for what they are, as best we can given the blinders of interest and ideology, of cliché and ritualized belief. It is not an individual enterprise. Chaining our efforts together as a long-term network of theorists and researchers improves one’s own sociological vision, provided we make the effort. The sociological eye holds up a periscope above the tides of political and intellectual partisanship, spying out the patterns of social life in every direction.

Monday, January 7, 2019


Miyamoto Musashi was the most famous sword fighter in the history of Japan. His Book of Five Rings has been taken as advice for how to win in business, especially in America during the Japan-obsessed 1980s. Is this kind of extrapolation valid?

Is it sound advice, transposed from war to sports, let alone peaceful everyday life? Musashi himself, a practitioner of Zen, held that the attitudes of a swordsman should  be those of everyday life, and vice versa. Can we learn something from this, even if our aim is not to defeat other people?

My discussion takes the form of comments on Musashi’s writing. I have shortened and rearranged the text under new headings to make the main points easier to follow. Musashi himself wrote: “What is recorded above is what has been constantly on my mind, written down as it came to me. This is the first time I have written about my technique, and the order of things is a bit confused.” And Japanese grammar is much simpler than English translations.


Language does not extend to explaining the Way in detail, but it can be grasped intuitively. 

Absorb the things written in this book. Do not just read, memorize, or imitate. To realise the principle in your heart, train hard to absorb these things into your body. 

With sufficient training you will be able to beat ten men with your body and your spirit. If you attain this strategy you will never lose even to twenty or thirty enemies.

You win battles with timing, and by knowing the enemy’s timing. You will come to win with your eye.   -- Miyamoto Musashi,  1645 A.D.


In all forms of strategy, it is necessary to maintain the combat stance in everyday life and to make your everyday stance your combat stance.

Both in fighting and in everyday life you should be determined though calm. Meet the situation without tenseness but not recklessly. Even when your spirit is calm do not let your body relax.

When your body is relaxed do not let your spirit slacken. Do not be influenced by your body, or your body influenced by your spirit. An elevated spirit is weak and a low spirit is weak.

Do not be misled by the reactions of your own body.

comment:  This last sentence touches on the most fundamental point in the micro-sociology of violent conflict. It applies also to sports and to any contest of wills in everyday life.

Whenever humans are in danger, and especially when they are in face-to-face confrontation that threatens to escalate into open violence, their heart starts to race. Normal resting heart rate is about 60 beats per minute; alert activity is about 80-100 bpm; vigorous physical exercise will raise it to 130 or 140. At this level fine motor coordination is beginning to be lost, and above 150-160 bpm your action will be out of control. You fire or swing wildly and hit the wrong target.

This is your body pumping adrenaline, the fight-or-flight hormone. Your body is primed to attack, or to run away. Musashi says both are to be avoided; neither too elevated spirit, nor too weak. Anger and fear share the same arousal; it is just a matter of which direction it is turned. Similarly in emotional situations of everyday life; any extremely strong emotion-- anger, fear, even elation and laughter, even bliss-- takes over your body so that you lose conscious direction. Hence Musashi’s aim: to stay calm and on course.

Micro-sociology of violence shows several pathways around the barrier of confrontational tension to arrive at effective performance. Several of these coincide with Musashi’s advice: maintain a conscious focus on your own technique rather than on locking horns with the opponent; achieve emotional domination, so that you operate in a zone of calm while pushing your enemy into the out-of-control zone. How is this done? Read on.


With your spirit unconstricted, look at things from a high point of view, where you cannot be deceived by men.

It is important to see distant things as if they were close, and to take a distanced view of close things.

It is important to know the enemy’s sword and not to be distracted by insignificant movements of his sword. The gaze is the same for single combat and for large-scale strategy.

On the battlefield, even when you are hard-pressed, you should ceaselessly seek out the principles of strategy so that you can develop a steady spirit.

comment:   This sounds very Zen to me. A distanced point of view is what you do in zazen meditation.  Zen practice differs from most other forms of yoga or Buddhist meditation in that it is done with your eyes open rather than closed. More exactly, you meditate with your eyelids half-closed, not looking at anything but with your gaze focused somewhere in empty space in front of your face. Not closing your eyes avoids falling into a dream-like state or seeing hynogogic imagery. These are distractions from the pure consciousness of just gazing,  your mind and eyes like a piece of clear glass. In zazen meditation, one can attain the feeling of looking down on your body, as if your point of view were located in the back of your head, and you are sitting back seeing the world at a distance. A distanced point of view is exactly the right way to put it.

Musashi adopts the kind of Zen that is Zen-in-action. You are doing physical things, your body is intensely in action, but you are not being swept along by your body, nor above all by your enemy’s body. You are seeing everything of importance, in a calm detachment that is not hurried even though you may be moving very fast. Even when the battle is at its worst, your path towards winning is not to be caught up, but to look down on it from on high.

Musashi will tell us what this feels like when your hands are holding a razor-sharp sword.


Footballers do not fix their eyes on the ball, but by good play on the field they can perform well. When you become accustomed to something, you are not limited to the use of your eyes. People such as master musicians have the music score in front of their nose, but this does not mean that they fix their eyes on these things specifically. It means that they can see naturally.

When you have fought many times you will easily be able to appreciate the speed and position of the enemy’s sword, and having mastery of the Way you will see the weight of his spirit. Fixing the eyes means gazing at the other man’s heart.

In single combat you must not fix your eyes of details. If you fix your eyes on details and neglect important things, your spirit will become bewildered and victory will escape you.

comment:   This reminds me of learning to play the piano. It’s more difficult if you keep moving your eyes back and forth between where you are in the score and looking at the keyboard. The two tend to get out of synch, and it’s hard to keep the rhythm. Better to see everything at once, without moving your eyes. You widen your view-- done more with your brain than with your eyeballs.

Use of feet: In my strategy, the footwork does not change. I always walk as I usually do in the street. You must never lose control of your feet. According to the enemy’s rhythm, move fast or slowly, adjusting your body not too much and not too little.

With the tips of your toes somewhat floating, tread firmly with your heels. Whether you move fast or slow, with large or small steps, your feet must always move as in normal walking. You should not move one foot preferentially.

When you close with the enemy, strive with him for superior height without cringing. Stretch your legs, stretch your hips, and stretch your neck face to face with him. When you think you have won, and you are higher, thrust in strongly.

comment:  Stretching is always good for you. You can do it almost all the time when you are standing up, and even sitting. Always be as tall as you can. It’s good for everything.


When you take up a sword, you must feel intent on cutting the enemy. As you cut the enemy, you must not change your grip, and your hands must not cower.  When you dash the enemy’s sword aside, or ward it off, or force it down, above all you must be intent on cutting the enemy in the way you grip the sword.

The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement.

comment:  This is like playing music when you play the piece, not the particular notes.

“Continuous Cut”: When you attack and the enemy also attacks, and your swords spring together, in one action hit his head, hands, and legs. You must practice this cut.

It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him. More than anything, you must be thinking of carrying your movement through to cutting him.

When you have closed with the enemy, hit him as quickly and directly as possible, without moving your body or settling your spirit, while you see that he is still undecided.

comment:  Obviously some of your body must move. But it should feel like pivoting from an unmoving center.

You must train to achieve this timing, to be able to hit in the timing of an instant.

comment:  In Musashi’s famous duels, he always disrupted the enemy’s timing. His first duel was when he was 13 years old, and answered a challenge that a wandering samurai had posted on a placard. His uncle arrived at the dueling spot and tried to apologize for a boy challenging a grown man. But Musashi jumped in with his weapon-- a wooden staff-- and beat the samurai to the ground. When a duel was arranged  with the head of a famous fighting school, he made his insulted opponent wait until he arrived late. He attacked immediately and crippled the samurai’s arm. For the revenge match, Musashi again outraged his rival by arriving late, and won a humiliating victory. For the third match, Musashi played on his reputation for arriving late, instead arriving early and hiding himself. His opponent showed up with a band of armed supporters, whereupon Musashi jumped out of hiding, killed his principal opponent, drove the others back, and escaped.

A similar pattern occurred in Bobby Fischer’s world championship chess match in Iceland in 1973 against the Russian champion, Boris Spassky. Fischer lost the first game on a strange move when he could have had a draw, and forfeited the second game before it started, leaving Spassky ahead 2-0. Fischer then proceeded to win 7 of the next 8 decisions over his rattled opponent.

Musashi fought 60 duels and was never defeated.


If we watch men of other schools discussing theory, and concentrating on techniques with the hands, even though they seem skilful to watch, they have no true spirit. The true Way of sword fencing is the craft of defeating the enemy in a fight, and nothing else.

comment:  Musashi goes straight to the jugular, like chess champion Bobby Fischer, rated by many the greatest of all time. His book on how to play chess is the opposite of any other chess book I’ve read. Other chess writers start with the openings. Fischer starts with the end game. Checkmating your opponent’s king is the purpose of every move you make. You reverse the gestalt, seeing your way from the checkmate back to where you are now.

To cut and to slash are two different things. Cutting, whatever form of cutting it is, is decisive with a resolute spirit. Slashing is nothing more than touching the enemy. Even if you slash strongly, and even if the enemy dies instantly, it is slashing. When you cut, your spirit is resolved.

Avoid preconceived narrow spirit.


Whatever attitude or stance you are in (Upper, Middle, Lower, Right Side, Left Side), do not be conscious of making the attitude, think only of cutting. The one purpose of all of them is to cut the enemy.

Middle attitude: Confront the enemy with the point of your sword against his face. When he attacks, dash his sword to the right and ‘ride’ it. Or, when the enemy attacks, deflect the point of his sword by hitting downwards, keep your long sword where it is, and as the enemy renews his attack cut his arms from below.

comment:  “riding” the enemy’s sword is discussed below under “Ways to Overcome Stalemate”. The feeling is like riding a horse.

Upper attitude: cut the enemy just as he attacks. If the enemy evades the cut, keep your sword where it is and, sweeping up from below, cut him as he renews the attack.

Lower attitude: you are anticipating scooping up. When the enemy attacks, hit his hands from below. As you do so, he may try to hit your sword down. If so, hit his upper arm horizontally with a feeling of ‘crossing’. From the Lower attitude, you hit the enemy at the instant he attacks.

Left Side attitude: as the enemy attacks, hit his hands from below. If he attempts to dash down your sword, parry the path of his long sword and, with the feeling of hitting his hands, cult across from above your shoulder. Through this method you win by parrying the line of the enemy’s attack.

Sword in the Right Side attitude:  According to the enemy’s attack, cross your long sword from below at the side to the Upper attitude. Then cut straight from above. If you use this method, you can freely wield a heavy long sword.

I cannot describe in detail how to use these five approaches. You must learn large-scale timing, and become used to the five methods, with various timing considerations discerning the enemy’s spirit.

You will always win by using these five methods. You must train repetitively. 

comment:  Like seriously working out at the gym. The life of a samurai after Musashi’s youth was largely training in the dojo. The civil war battles and deadly duels of the first half of his life gave way to the enforced peace of the Tokugawa shogunate, when samurai spent most of their time practicing in sword-fighting schools. Musashi popularized kendo, fighting with a wooden sword. Training continues to be getting the spirit into your body-- or is it the spirit you are training?


The ‘Red Leaves Cut’ (like falling leaves) means knocking down the enemy’s long sword. The spirit should be, getting control of his sword. When the enemy is in a sword attitude in front of you and intent on cutting, hitting and parrying, you strongly hit the enemy’s sword. When the enemy’s long sword and your long sword clash together, you cut as strongly as possible without raising the sword even a little. This means cutting quickly with the hands, body, and legs-- all three cutting strongly.

comment:  Musashi gets the whole body into it.

If you then beat down the point of his sword with a sticky feeling, he will necessarily drop his sword. You must train repetitively.

When the enemy attacks and you also attack with the long sword, you should go in with a sticky feeling and fix your sword against the enemy’s as you receive his cut. The spirit of stickiness is not hitting very strongly, but hitting so that the swords do not separate easily. It is best to approach as calmly as possible when hitting the enemy’s sword with stickiness. The difference between “Stickiness” and “Entanglement” is that stickiness is firm and entanglement is weak.

When you have come to grips and are striving with the enemy, and you realise that you cannot advance, you “soak in” and become one with the enemy. You can win by applying a suitable technique while you are mutually entangled.

comment:  You can’t always defeat the enemy in the first clash. Some enemies are too skilled for that. Here Musashi recommends breaking the deadlock by deliberately getting tangled up with the enemy. Ordinarily this is a bad thing, but here you do it so that your opponent will become tangled up, while you anticipate the moment when you can seize the offensive.


By “smacking parry” is meant that when you clash swords with the enemy, you meet his attacking cut on your long sword with a tee-dum, tee-dum rhythm, smacking his sword and cutting him. The spirit of the smacking parry is not parrying, or smacking strongly, but smacking the enemy’s long sword in accordance with his attacking cut, primarily intent on quickly cutting him. If you understand the timing of smacking, however hard your long swords clash together, your swordpoint will not be knocked back even a little.

comment:  tee-dum” has the accent on the second beat-- tee-dum-- presumably “tee-”  is the sound of the opponent’s sword, and dumis the immediate reply of yours.

To tread down the sword: In single combat, at times we cannot get a decisive victory by cutting, with a “tee-dum tee-dum” feeling, in the wake of the enemy’s attacking with the long sword. We must defeat him at the start of his attack, in the spirit of treading him down with the feet, so that he cannot rise again to the attack.

When you have grasped this principle, whatever the enemy tries to bring about in the fight you will see in advance and suppress it. The spirit is to check his attack at the syllable “at...”; when he jumps check his jump at the syllable “ju...”; and check his cut at “cu...”. 

“Treading” does not simply mean treading with the feet. Tread with the body, tread with the spirit, and of course, tread and cut with the long sword. You must achieve the spirit of not allowing the enemy to attack a second time. Once at the enemy, you should not aspire just to strike him, but to cling after the attack.


Speed is not part of the true Way of strategy. Speed implies that things seem fast or slow, according to whether or not they are in rhythm. Whatever the Way, the master of strategy does not appear fast.

comment:  Similarly, the winningest of basketball coaches, John Wooden, used to tell his UCLA team in practice: “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”

In the Way of dance, accomplished performers can sing while dancing, but when beginners try this they slow down and their spirit becomes busy. Very skilful people can manage a fast rhythm, but it is bad to beat hurriedly (on a drum). If you try to beat too quickly you will get out of time. Of course, slowness is bad. Really skilful people never get out of time, and are always deliberate, and never appear busy. 

In large-scale strategy, a fast busy spirit is undesirable. The spirit must be that of holding down a pillow, then you will not be even a little late.

When your opponent is hurrying recklessly, you must act contrarily and keep calm. You must not be influenced by the opponent.

“Flowing Water Cut”: when you are struggling blade-to-blade with the enemy, and he breaks and quickly withdraws trying to spring with his long sword, expand your body and spirit and cut him as slowly as possible with your long sword, following your body like stagnant water.

comment:  Cut him as slowly as possible.  How do you do this, in the middle of life-or-death combat? Bill Walton is quoted in John Wooden’s book as saying that team practices at UCLA were so fast that when they were actually playing a game, it seemed slow. It should feel slow to yourself.  


Many things are said to be passed on (by contagion). Sleepiness can be passed on, and yawning can be passed on. Time can be passed on also.

In large-scale battles, when the enemy is agitated and shows an inclination to rush, do not mind in the least. Make a show of complete calmness, and the enemy will be taken by this and will become relaxed. When you see that this spirit has been passed on, you can bring about the enemy’s defeat by attacking strongly with a Void spirit.

In single combat, you can win by relaxing your body and spirit and then, catching onto the moment when the enemy relaxes, attack strongly and quickly, forestalling him.

What is known as “getting someone drunk” is similar to this. You can also affect the enemy with a bored, careless, or weak spirit.

comment:  Contagious moods and rhythms are at the center of human social interaction. There is a strong tendency for persons who mutually focus attention on each other to fall into the same rhythm and to become entrained in the same emotion. This is what creates solidarity feelings: in a meandering chat about nothing in particular, in a serious religious ceremony or a politicized crowd. Musashi warns against getting caught up in an enemy’s moods, by keeping your attitude detached, and recommends turning the tables by sucking him into a faked weak mood of your own contrivance.


When you and the enemy are contending with the same spirit, and the issue cannot be decided: abandon this spirit and win through an alternative.

To renew: when we are fighting with the enemy, and an entangled spirit arises where there is no possible resolution: we must abandon our efforts, think of the situation in a fresh spirit, then win with a new rhythm.

When we are fighting with the enemy and both he and we have become occupied with small points in an entangled spirit, we must suddenly change into a large spirit, interchanging large with small.

This is one of the essences of strategy. It is necessary that the warrior think in this spirit in everyday life.


The body strike: approach the enemy through a gap in his guard. The spirit is to strike him with your body. Turn your face a little aside and strike the enemy’s breast with your left shoulder thrust out. Approach with the spirit of bouncing the enemy away, striking as strongly as possible in time with your breathing.  If you achieve this method of closing with the enemy, you will be able to knock him ten or twenty feet away. It is possible to strike the enemy until he is dead.

comment:  The weapons on both sides are stalemated, so Musashi changes up and hits him with his shoulder (like a football lineman). This isn’t a polite fencing match.

The stab at the face: when you are in confrontation with the enemy, that your spirit is intent on stabbing at his face, following the line of the blade with the point of your long sword. If you are intent on stabbing at his face, his face and body will become rideable. When the enemy becomes rideable, there are various opportunities for winning.

comment:  “Rideable” is a good word for emotional domination, EDOM, but more specific, giving more of the physical sense of bodies in conflict.


“There are many enemies” applies when you are fighting one against many. Draw both long sword and short sword and assume a wide-stretched left and right attitude. The spirit is to chase the enemies around from side to side, even though they come from all four directions. Observe their attacking order, and go to meet first those who attack first. Sweep your eyes around broadly, carefully examining the attacking order, and cut left and right alternately with your swords. Waiting is bad.

Always quickly re-assume your attitudes to both sides, cut the enemies down as they advance, crushing them in the direction from which they attack. Whatever you do, you must drive the enemy together, as if tying a line of fishes, and when they are seen to be piled up, cut them down strongly without giving them room to move.

Think of the enemy as your own troops. When you think in this way, you can move him at will and be able to chase him around.

To mingle:  In battles, when the armies are in confrontation, attack the enemy’s strong points and, when you see they are beaten back, quickly separate and attack yet another strong point on the periphery of his force. The spirit of this is like a winding mountain path.

“Mingling” is the spirit of advancing and becoming engaged with the enemy, and not withdrawing even one step.

This is an important fighting method for one man against many. Strike down the enemies in one quarter, or drive them back, then grasp the timing and attack further strong points to right and left, as if on a winding mountain path. When you know the enemies’ level, attack strongly with no trace of retreating spirit.

comment:  Individual heroics in combat, such as Congressional Medal of Honor winners, typically involve a lone soldier who takes the initiative when the rest of the troops are stymied by a strong enemy. Sgt. Alvin York, in WWI in 1918, was in a platoon pinned down by German machine-gun fire; he shot a series of machine-gunners, and all 6 Germans who charged him with fixed bayonets. A German officer then surrendered the position to York, who had killed 25 soldiers, captured 130 and 35 machine guns. Anthony King (2013: 117-19) in his comparative research on infantry combat, notes that individual heroic performances do not contradict the tendency of most soldiers to hold back from aggressively firing or advancing under confrontational tension/fear. The one is the background for the other: pervasive ct/f  is what creates an opportunity for a lone individual to seize the initiative (such as by using the weapons his companions aren’t firing) and by attacking multiple enemies who themselves are slowed down by ct/f.


In duels of strategy you must know the opponent’s attitude. Attack where his spirit is lax, throw him into confusion, irritate and terrify him. Take advantage of the enemy’s rhythm when he is unsettled and you can win.

Do not let the enemy see your spirit.

In contests of strategy, it is bad to be led about by the enemy. You must always be able to lead the enemy about. Obviously the enemy will also be thinking of doing this, but he cannot forestall you if you do not allow him to come out. In strategy, you must stop the enemy as he attempts to cut; you must push down his thrust, and throw off his hold when he tries to grapple. This is the meaning of “to hold down a pillow”-- not allowing the enemy’s head to rise (like lying on a Japanese neck pillow). 

comment: When both sides are wise to the other’s strategy, switch to the physical plane, don’t give him time to swing into action.

When in a duel you must forestall the enemy and attack when you have first recognized his school of strategy, perceived his quality and his strong and weak points. Attack in an unsuspected manner, knowing his metre and modulation and the appropriate timing.

In single combat you must put yourself in the enemy’s position. But if you think, “Here is a master of the Way, who knows the principles of strategy”, you will surely lose.

comment: “Do not let the enemy see your spirit.”  Combine this principle with Dan Chambliss [1989] “the mundanity of excellence.”


Everything can collapse. Houses, bodies, and enemies collapse when their rhythm becomes deranged.

In single combat, the enemy sometimes loses timing and collapses. If you let this opportunity pass, he may recover and not be so negligent thereafter. Fix your eye on the enemy’s collapse, and chase him, attacking so that you do not let him recover. You must utterly cut the enemy down so that he does not recover his position.

If the enemy is less skilful than oneself, if his rhythm is disorganized, or if he has fallen into evasive or retreating attitudes, we must crush him straightaway, with no concern for his presence and without allowing him space for breath. It is essential to crush him all at once. The primary thing is not to let him recover his position even a little.


Whenever you cross swords with an enemy, you must not think of cutting him either strongly or weakly; just think of cutting and killing him. Do not try to cut strongly, and do not think of cutting weakly. You should only be concerned with killing the enemy.

If you rely on strength, when you hit the enemy’s sword, you will inevitably hit too hard. If you do this, your sword will be carried along as a result.

In large-scale strategy, if you have a strong army and are relying on strength to win, but the enemy also has a strong army, the battle will be fierce. This is the same for both sides.

comment:  This is a stalemate or war of attrition, with high casualties on both sides, for little gain. The Battle of Verdun.

The sure Way to win is to chase the enemy around in a confusing manner, causing him to jump aside, with your body held strongly and straight. You must chase the enemy around and make him obey your spirit.

In order to cut the enemy you must not make twisting or bending cuts. In my strategy, I bear my spirit and body straight, and cause the enemy to twist and bend. The necessary spirit is to win by attacking the enemy when his spirit is warped.

You must force the enemy into inconvenient situations.


There are three shouts: before, during, and after. Shout according to the situation. The voice is a thing of life. The voice shows energy.

In large-scale strategy, at the start of battle we shout as loudly as possible. During the fight, the voice is low-pitched, shouting as we attack. After the contest, we shout in the wake of victory.

In single combat, we make as if to cut and shout “Ei!” at the same time to disturb the enemy, then in the wake of our shout we cut with the long sword.

We do not shout simultaneously with flourishing the long sword. We shout during the fight to get into rhythm.

We shout after we have cut down the enemy-- this is to announce victory.

comment:  Shouting is a connection between mind and body. My karate instructor said you shout from deep in your torso to tense your stomach muscles, so that you won’t feel getting hit.  The low-pitched shout that Musashi describes above is probably this kind of sound.


It is bad to repeat the same thing several times when fighting the enemy. There may be no help but to do something twice, but do not try it a third time.


When we are fighting with the enemy, even when it can be seen that we can win on the surface, if his spirit is not extinguished, he may be beaten superficially yet undefeated in spirit deep inside. By “penetrating the depths” we can destroy the enemy’s spirit in the depths, demoralizing him by quickly changing our spirit.

comment:  Bobby Fischer trained for his match with Boris Spassky, not by reviewing chess scenarios with a staff of assistants, but by training hard at tennis, swimming, and boxing.

Penetrating the depths means penetrating with the long sword, penetrating with the body, and penetrating with the spirit. This cannot be understood in a generalization.

Study strategy over the years and achieve the spirit of the warrior. Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men.

Next, in order to beat more skilful men, train according to this book, not allowing your heart to be swayed along a side-track.  Even if you kill an enemy, it if is not based on what you have learned, it is not the true Way.  

[end of Book of Five Rings excerpts]

How applicable are Musashi’s techniques to modern life?

In business or politics you are not trying to kill your competitors except in a figurative sense (at least in the civilized part of the world). Musashi says, “You must discern your enemy’s grade”, meaning that techniques that work with an over-excited, unperceptive, or inexperienced swordfighter will not work against an expert. In business, politics, and sports, the aim is still to disrupt the opponent’s timing and seize the initiative. This requires careful observation of competitors’ practices, and above all, their frame of mind.

Purposeful observation of what goes on around you is always valuable, even when we are not concerned with being competitive.


No word is more central in Musashi’s text than “spirit.” It has a similar range of meanings as in English, but is much more important, both as the key to victory in combat and for samurai life.

The Japanese word for “spirit” (‘kokoro’) is a Chinese-based ideograph that also means “heart”. But it is not simply the jock cliché “you gotta have heart.” Never-give-up can be part of it, but when Musashi writes about spirit he is telling you how to achieve that attitude, and giving you techniques that make it easier rather than sheer all-out effort.

Spirit is not a quantity, that either you have it or your don’t,  a lot of it or a little. Being too spirited (in the conventional sense) is undesirable, just as is having a low spirit.

Spirit is contrasted with body, in expressions like “defeat the enemy with your spirit and your body”. But body is not merely a passive instrument, and it does not invoke the philosophical mind/body dualism. “Do not let your body affect your spirit” implies they are distinct ‘things’, each having its own dynamism, while they flow together in various ways.  Which ways are best is what Musashi writes about.

Spirit is inside, metaphorically deep, as when Musashi warns about defeating an enemy superficially but not in spirit.

Spirit is not mind per se, but it is part of mind-- it infuses your mind. Spirit can refer to your intention or goal that pervades what you are doing. (E.g. not just trying to touch swords or touch the enemy’s body, but the intention to cut him the from the moment you grip your sword.) If this is a state of mind, it goes right into your body-in-action. It is not a real intention in the sense Musashi means if it is only a mental plan.

The are many varieties of spirit. Musashi mentions:
a calm spirit;
a steady spirit;
a resolved spirit;
a spirit of attacking unrelentingly;
driving multiple enemies in the spirit of a winding mountain path;

and negative kinds of spirit:
a bewildered spirit;
a retreating spirit;
a fast busy spirit, hurrying recklessly;
a weak spirit, a low spirit (with rhythm unsettled-- in contrast to the settled spirit of the zen samurai)

Musashi says you must discern your enemy’s spirit, and act accordingly. You discern not just from physical manifestations-- “trivial movements of the enemy’s sword” are distractions-- but his bodily movements are a clue to what is inside. Thus especially with high-quality opponents, one must hide one’s spirit.

Spirit is intention in the sense of a plan of action, except it is more fluid-- flowing through your body and the situation created by contact-in-motion with your enemy. Musashi’s techniques include the spirit of getting control of your enemy’s sword; the spirit of stickiness; the spirit of breaking an impasse by hitting your opponent with your shoulder in the spirit of bouncing him backwards.

Musashi wrote: “When you are at a standstill with both sides having the same spirit, you must break off that spirit and launch a fresh spirit-- a new approach with a new rhythm. If you are muddled together scrapping over small things, flip from the small spirit to the large spirit.” Above all, the samurai’s all-pervasive aim is to make the enemy obey your spirit-- whatever your spirit is at that time. 

And what if there is no enemy? Can a samurai live at peace?

The most pervasive samurai spirit should be lived in everyday life: calm but determined.


Miyamoto Musaki, 1645 (1974). A Book of Five Rings.

“Miyamoto Musaki.” An unusually high-quality Wikipedia article.

Eiko Ikegami. 1995. The Taming of the Samurai. Harvard Univ. Press.

Randall Collins. 2008. Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory.

Anthony King. 2013.  The Combat Soldier.  Oxford Univ. Press.

Bobby Fischer. 1966. Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.

Daniel Chambliss. 1989. “The Mundanity of Excellence.” Sociological Theory.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018


John Wooden was probably the greatest coach in any sport. How did he do it? Better said, what conditions formed a person like him, and what made the record-setting teams he coached?  Are his methods a formula for success in any realm, or any sport?

Wooden said winning is a byproduct of something else. That is probably true, but records of winning in competition give an easy and objective way to measure greatness as a coach. Wooden’s records in basketball at UCLA are at the best in any team sport: 10 NCAA national championships (in a peak period of 12 years); an 88 game winning streak covering almost 3 years; a 38 game winning streak in NCAA tournaments against the highest competition. Comparisons with other coaches and other sports are complicated:  winning streaks, frequency of championships, winning percentages, all need to be combined, taking into account differences in level of competition. Top coaches are those who win consistently, against whoever, and are at their best in big games against the strongest opponents. (See Appendix for Wooden’s record compared to other big winners.)

Wooden’s coaching methods

Bill Walton described team practices at UCLA as “non-stop action and absolutely electric, super-charged, on edge, crisp, and incredibly demanding, with Coach Wooden pacing up and down the sideline like a caged tiger, barking out instructions, positive reinforcement and appropriate maxims: ‘Be quick, but don’t hurry’... ‘Discipline yourself and others won’t need to.’

“He constantly moved us into and out of minutely drilled details, scrimmages, and patterns while exhorting us to ‘Move... quickly... hurry up!’ ... In fact, games seemed like they happened in a lower gear because of the pace at which we practiced. We’d run a play perfectly in scrimmage and Coach would say, ‘OK, fine. Now re-set. Do it again, faster.’ We’d do it again. Faster. And again. Faster. And again. “I’d often think during UCLA games, ‘Why is this taking so long? because we had done everything that happened during a game thousands of times at a faster pace in practice.’

“When four guys touched the ball in two seconds and the fifth guy hit a lay-up, man, what a feeling! When things really clicked, the joy of playing was reflected by the joy on (Wooden’s) face. He created an environment where you expected to be your best and outscore the opponent; where capturing a championship and going undefeated was part of the normal course of events.” [Wooden and Jamison, viii-ix]

Practice was more central than the game. After Wooden retired, when people would ask him what he missed, he said “I miss the practices.” [108]

Wooden’s formula was: don’t think about winning; strive for the best performance you can produce by maximal effort in practice.

This meant focusing on the tiniest details that would give you an advantage. When players first arrived at UCLA, weeks before practice began, Wooden would assemble them and demonstrate how to put on your socks so as to avoid wrinkles-- the aim being to prevent blisters. It was a group ritual: Wooden would demonstrate putting on his socks, then have every player demonstrate it to him. Same with how to tie the laces and measuring to get exactly the right size basketball shoes. [60] Wooden’s writing rarely goes into the details of more substantive skills and team drills, probably thinking there was no need to give this away, and anyway it had to be done physically at the proper rhythm. *

* Wacquant [2004] makes a similar point about practicing in a boxing gym: everything could be done alone at home except sparring, but doing stomach-building sit-ups, skipping rope, punching the light and heavy bags was more motivating when it was done together in the gym in 3-minute rounds punctuated by the trainer ringing a bell.

Team above star.  Not only does team play come first. Stars who show off or “get too fancy” are distractions from team coordination and maximal effort on everyone’s part. Wooden comments that Lew Alcindor [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] could have set college scoring records (as he did in the pros), but he understood that it would have reduced team play. Disciplining newly arriving stars was crucial, and Wooden said that the coach’s best ally in this respect was the bench: benching a star during practice or even a game is the best way to get the point across, and the other players see it and play harder. [128]

Wooden’s team-above-star method ran directly against the main pathway by which young basketball players first make their reputation. Scott Brooks [2009] has shown in analyzing teen basketball leagues in Philadelphia-- the breeding grounds for players recruited by colleges all over the country-- a young player could only make a reputation by scoring a lot of points, and this meant getting the ball as often as possible. It was a cumulative spiral, both up and down: if a player scored a lot, he could demand the ball more; if he couldn’t get the spiral going, he wouldn’t have the opportunity to show his skills. Wooden thus had to break the prevailing style of play, especially as basketball became desegregated in the 1960s and the sport jumped in popularity. Probably he had an advantage in that his earlier teams did not emphasize shooters, big men, or fancy dribblers, but speed and passing. His signature player, Bill Walton, was described (when he won a championship in the pro ranks) as the greatest passing quarterback in the history of the NBA. 

Mistakes happen. This is inevitable. Wooden’s point is not to blame yourself, or blame others, but to analyze the situation, locate the mistake that is under your own control, and fix it. This means not getting emotional when bad things happen.

Controlling emotions was a key to Wooden’s methods. He did not believe is giving pep-talks, speeches to stir up emotion before big games. “If you need emotionalism to make you perform better, sooner or later you’ll be vulnerable, an emotional wreck, and unable to function to your level of ability.” Hatred and anger motivate only briefly. They aren’t lasting and won’t get you through the ups and downs of a game. “Mistakes occur when your thinking is tainted by excessive emotion... To perform near your level of competency your mind must be clear and free of excessive emotion.” [124-5] Top performance is being cool and professional. Micro-sociologically, this is high EE -- emotional energy as confidence and enthusiasm, the very words that Wooden uses. Not that it is emotionless-- Bill Walton speaks of the joyful feeling when a high-speed coordinated play involving the entire team clicks. This is a non-disruptive emotion, in the rhythm, not breaking it.

The coach’s job includes criticism, pointing out mistakes not as punishment by to correct them and get better results. “The only goal of criticism or discipline is improvement.” Above all, hard criticism in public is to be avoided, since it embarrasses and antagonizes players. Wooden’s strongest punishment was to take away the privilege of participating in a UCLA team practice. “If they weren’t working hard in practice I would say, ‘Well, fellows, let’s call it off for today. We’re just not with it.’ The vast majority of the time the players would immediately say, ‘Coach, give us another chance. We’ll get going.’” [118-19]

Playing under pressure against top competition, obviously, is the mark of a championship team. For Wooden, this was a by-product of long experience in his methods of practice. He also believed the most difficult experience would promote even higher effort--- not just as individuals or in bodily endurance but in the team rhythm. The apex was perhaps in the 1973 championship game when UCLA stretched its undefeated streak to 75 games and won the NCAA for the 7th year in a  row; Bill Walton made 21 of 22 field goal attempts.

Adversity of all kinds are to be taken as opportunities. After the 1966-67 season, the NCAA banned the dunk shot, in part because of 7 ft. 2 inch Lew Alcindor. Wooden encouraged him to get a new shot; it became his trademark skyhook, an unstoppable shot by a big man.

Wooden said that he scouted opponents less than other coaches. He wanted the focus to be on his own team, not on the other. What if they changed unexpectedly? He aimed at preparing for any eventuality, and believed that his team’s high-speed style was capable of attacking any defense. Tricks of psychological warfare weren’t worthwhile. Nevertheless Wooden had one that he always used: don’t be the first team to call a time-out. Let the other team admit they’re tired. His high-speed practices ensured his players would be in superior condition.

Wooden rated himself an average coach tactically; he said his advantage was in analyzing his players, and the fact that he enjoyed hard work. I would add: his hard work was producing intensely focused, high-speed, rhythmically entraining team practices: the definition of a successful Interaction Ritual. The hard work of an intense IR pays off in high EE.  Wooden certainly had it; and his players got it too.

Why Wooden?

Sociologically, our aim is not to make a hero or a genius out of Wooden, but to analyze how someone like this would appear when and where he did. John Wooden was born in 1910 in a small town in Indiana. He grew up in the 1920s in a basketball-crazed state, where high school games would attract more spectators than the entire local population. As a boy, Wooden idolized the famed state champion team, and became a star basketball player in high school and college. He was not tall or muscular (5 ft. 10 inches), but quick and fast, and he worked hard conditioning himself to become even better in the areas where he had an advantage. His coach at Purdue, where he was a three-year All American, said he was the best-conditioned athlete he had seen in any sport. He became famous for diving for loose balls on hardwood floors, hustling all the time and jumping back up like a rubber ball whenever he was knocked down by bigger players. In his final year at Purdue, he was named Player of the Year in a national poll.

Wooden’s technique as a coach was to make players as much like himself as possible.

He early became accustomed to team success. His high school team won the Indiana championship in 1927 and lost the final game in 1928 by a last minute shot at the buzzer. At Purdue, his 1932 team was voted national champion (NCAA tournaments did not exist until 1941).

Nevertheless, top success as a coach took considerable time. When Wooden won his first NCAA championship at UCLA in 1964, he was 54 years old; his last came in 1975, when he was 65. After graduating from college in 1932, he played in a local professional league for 6 years, simultaneously teaching high school English and coaching the basketball team. Not counting 3 years in the army in WWII, Wooden coached high school for 11 years, winning state championships and compiling a record of 218-42 (winning 84%). At age 36, he became the basketball coach at Indiana State Teachers College (now Indiana State University), as well as Athletic Director, where he won the state championship both years he was there. In 1948 (now age 38) he was hired to coach UCLA, at the time a mediocre team. He turned the team around immediately and began a string of winning seasons, but it was 16 years before UCLA’s first NCAA championship. By 1961-2 and 62-3, his teams were winning the Pacific Coast Conference, and finished 4th nationally both years. Apparently they were on the brink of dominance.

Why did it take so long? Wooden taught the same methods throughout his years at UCLA, and declared that he put out the same amount of effort. The spiral of success and reputation was moving in his favor; Wooden was attracting better players nationally.  A second factor was the opening at just this time of the era of black basketball players. In the 1964 championship game, UCLA beat Duke, even though they had two players near 7 ft. and Wooden had no-one taller than 6 ft. 5. But Duke was still in the era of segregation, and UCLA’s integrated team of fast ball-handlers beat the big slow white guys. Soon after, Lew Alcindor arrived from the Bronx. (Freshmen were not allowed to play varsity, so Alcindor did not join the mix until the 1966-67 season.) Wooden had been a pioneer of supporting black players since his coaching days at Indiana State, where he refused a post-season invitation in 1947 because the then-ruling National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball maintained segregation to mollify its southern members. Next year, when Wooden’s team again won the Indiana championship, the NAIB reversed its ban on black players, and Wooden’s player Clarence Walker became the first black to play in a post-season tournament. Wooden’s team reached the final but lost-- the only championship game he would ever lose.

After 1965, everything was rolling in the positive spiral of feedback and social momentum, setting the stage for the unmatched championship streak.

Wooden says he decided to retire, suddenly after a Final Four victory in 1975, putting UCLA in the championship game for the 10th time. He recalled walking from the floor, thinking of the crowd of reporters he would have to face with the same, boring questions. He was 65; he had been playing and coaching at high intensity for 50 years. He had broken every record and then broken them repeatedly. Is there a turning-point from the peak of EE? His team had been on a plateau for the last several years. Or was it that Wooden finally decided that the victory-crazed fans and reporters never would understand what he was about? 

He did not disappear from the public eye, but turned to publicizing his methods of success, as universally applicable, not just to sports but to business, professions, life in general.

Do the same methods succeed elsewhere?

Wooden’s methods (team not star, attention to details, high-energy practices, professionalism not emotion, maximal speed in rhythm) worked extremely well in basketball. But not all great basketball teams use them; in other sports, some champions do, some don’t. Further afield, do these principles succeed in other career fields, in business and politics, art and intellectual life?

Basketball and other team sports have a similar range of coaching styles. Some successful coaches were dictatorial, including Vince Lombardi in the NFL and Bobby Knight in college basketball, known for win-at-any-cost (and the latter) for angry tirades against players and referees. The best winning record among college football coaches (88%) was Knute Rockne at Notre Dame in the 1920s, and he was famed for his inspirational oratory at halftime. This was probably a carryover from the public oratory ubiquitous throughout the 19th century, at a time when college football became the big public entertainment. As time went on, the analytical approach promoted by Wooden tended to supplant or at least complement emotional oratory. But we lack good comparative study on different coaching methods vis-à-vis their results in winning records.

Wooden’s unconcern with scouting opponents has certainly not carried the day. His rationale of concentrating on what we do well and not making the enemy the prime focus was a way of living inside the ritual zone-- better yet the center of a whirlwind-- that he created in intense practices. But scouting became a major part of team organization, above all once football coaches (led by pro coach Sid Gilman in the 1960s) began using newsreel film to analyze opponents. This has expanded into a huge industry with TV broadcast tapes and every team’s own digital cameras and a large staff to break out the patterns. Devising strategies has tended to supplant spontaneous application of well-drilled skills; the use of statistical analysis in baseball strategy in the 2010s is blamed for making games duller. Does Wooden’s caveat still apply? -- getting caught up in focusing on your enemy can backfire. Probably.

Focus on crucial details that make up athletic skill is unquestionably a key to success. Was Wooden overcontrolling in this respect? Not only did he have his players concentrate on details, he was obsessed with them. Wooden and his assistants spent more time each morning planning the afternoon practice than the 2 hours or less actually spent on the court. They made detailed lists, down to the minute for time to be spent on each drill, even specifying how many basketballs should be placed where for what drill. Wooden also kept detailed records after practice of how it went, so he could chart individual players' progress and focus on individualized drills as needed. [133] The value of all of this detail-compiling would have to be settled by comparisons; probably it was Wooden’s way of keeping himself running at full bore at all times, when he wasn’t in the buzz of directing practices.

In individual sports, the role of the coach declines or at least becomes less prominent. The most successful athletes in areas like tennis and swimming are famed for their own self-discipline. Bill Tilden, who dominated men’s tennis during the 1920s (ranked number one player in the US 11 years in a row, 8 years as world champion), wrote about his own methods: the keys were to observe carefully, to anticipate the opponent’s moves and the flight of the ball, and to establish emotional domination. He would watch an opponent warming up, looking for his favorite and least-favorite shots; then he would attack his weaknesses; occasionally when playing an especially strong opponent, he would attack his strengths to deflate his confidence. Tilden carefully observed the angle of the racket so that he could tell which way the ball was going even before it was hit; and he moved immediately to the spot, not where the ball would bounce, but where he could hit it with his own body in prepared position. The focus on detail fits Wooden’s methods, although Tilden was more focused on the opponent -- probably inevitably in the back-and-forth rhythm of tennis. Tilden commented that luck plays less role in tennis than in any other sport, so skill wins out consistently. But it was skill, not brute force: he disparaged the hard-hitting serves of the younger players that he called “the California game,” and was consistently able to beat them. All this resembles Wooden. So was his central maxim, concentrating one’s attention during play: “The man who keeps his mind fixed on his match at all times puts a tremendous pressure on his opponent.” [Tilden, 13] Winning against equally concentrated opponents is a battle of wills-- a battle of self-discipline as Wooden would describe it.

Dan Chambliss [1989] developed a theory of winning and losing based on studying swimmers at different levels of competition, from local club up to the Olympic team. Winners are those who perfected the details that go into swimming faster (exact hand angles, timing of turns on the wall) an ensemble of techniques that add up little advantages into superior speed. Chambliss noted that winning swimmers do not practice longer hours or put in more effort than their also-ran competitors. It is not that they practice more; they practice better. And they enjoy their practice, since it gives them a sense of being in rhythm with oneself, a zone where effort is eclipsed by smoothness and purpose. Wooden would agree: feel yourself performing your best skills, and winning comes as a by-product.

Chambliss denied that the winning difference is just innate bodily strength or muscle quickness; the same swimmer could make a quantitative leap in competitive level, once he or she acquired the ensemble of skills and the mind-set to use them. *  Opponents think the habitual winner has something special, which they can’t define in physical terms; hence they tend to put the winner into a higher realm of existence. They think that the top rank must be something alien to their own experience, and thereby put themselves in an inferiority zone of lesser confidence. But there is nothing mysterious about winning-- in sports or anything else, Chambliss argues; writer’s block is a version of psyching oneself out by comparing oneself with the company of unreachable great writers. Excellence is the ability to maintain a normal, habituated attitude to being in the inner circle, just performing one’s detailed techniques. Thus Chambliss’s title: “The Mundanity of Excellence.”

* This happened to Tilden. He was interested in tennis since age 6, but for a long time was a klutzy player despite hanging out at a tennis club near his home. By the time he was 26 -- following 20 years of sharpening his observations of what makes good tennis -- he became unbeatable.

With team sports, we can make comparison between the success of a coach like Wooden and his successors. After Wooden retired, UCLA remained a good team but no longer a dominant one. And this was so even though UCLA was coached by Wooden’s former assistants and players. Presumably they followed the same methods of practice and so forth. This would appear to undercut the importance of the methods per se; Wooden himself must have added an extra something to them-- just more calm? more professional balance, combined with the right amount of detached intensity? But there are other reasons why a coach’s winning methods do not guarantee unending success. For one thing, his assistants become coaches elsewhere, propagating the techniques and raising the level of competition. This happens to all successful coaches, in all sports. Bill Walsh at the San Francisco 49ers taught a dozen assistants who spread the West Coast Offense throughout the NFL; eventually assistants of former assistants made up a network of almost the entire league. When a field of competitive method becomes saturated in this way, there are moves to break the mold by starting some new style of coaching.

Wooden’s methods outside sports

The closest analogy to team sports is war. William James said that we needed “a moral equivalent of war” -- i.e. a way to get the teamwork and group solidarity of wartime, without the casualties. When he wrote this, football was just beginning to become a popular college sport, and it created for its fans the tribal enthusiasm of war, with a better chance of joys and less devastating sorrows.

But the military art, for professionals, has many varieties of leadership. Taking the battlefield commander as the coach, do Wooden’s methods and maxims apply? One can find examples to fit, but we have no systematic comparisons. Some generals were famed for their oratory (Napoleon, Caesar); many made themselves deliberately into hero-figures with their own totemic emblems (Montgomery’s beret, Patton’s pearl-handled pistols, MacArthur’s corncob pipe, Eisenhower's jacket). Some led from the front, both as point man in the charge (Alexander the Great), or probing a high-speed blitzkrieg front (Rommel). Some were stern and dictatorial (Patton, Stonewall Jackson); some beloved by their troops (Robert E. Lee); some were just methodical and unflappable (Grant). There is no clear record of which styles did best; the question is confounded by historical changes in the size of armies and the technologies of war. Focusing on anticipating the enemy’s plans sometimes brings success, but also can lead to conservatism and loss of momentum, as Wooden warned (France at the Maginot Line). The tendency throughout the 20th century was to emphasize planning and logistics -- crucial for moving huge armies with many kinds of equipment; and in the 21st century huge staffs surround generals mapping out the sequence of projected choice points as a battle unfolds. The less resource-rich side reacts by avoiding settled battle lines and relying on tactics of guerrilla warfare -- a style which tends to promote charismatic leaders, whose personal reputation is a key to recruiting followers. On the whole, Wooden’s attention to detail holds true; but the other elements of his leadership style have no clear precedence.

The weakness of the war/sports analogy is that games are fundamentally different from real life.  Games are scheduled: we know in advance when and where they will take place. They have time limits; and referees to enforce rules and assess penalties. (In real war, the referees materialize after one side has decisively won, whereby they hold war crimes trials for the losers.) Above all, real life calls no time-outs; when military momentum flows and the more coherent war-organization has the other scattered and demoralized, wars are won by not letting the other side catch their breath. Schedules and time limits are exactly what are missing in war; it is sudden switches in time and place that are the art of military maneuver. War may resemble a scheduled game if there are fixed fronts, but this is the formula for unheroic carnage, war by attrition won by the side with the bigger battalions and industrial capacity to wear the other down. Evenly matched opponents in war resemble finalists in a championship tournament, but the result is not a good game but a disgusting one.

At the core of Wooden’s methods is the importance of  practices. And this fits sports in general, where there is far more practice time than game time. But this is another key feature of sports that does not fit most of real life. Yes, peace-time militaries spend much of their time drilling: marching around (a ritual irrelevant to modern battle), practicing firing weapons, war-games. But soldiers have found no substitute for the emotional atmosphere of war; and trained troops only acquire battle skills after a period in combat (if they do at all). It is true that set-piece battles are planned, in the Iraq wars as in past centuries; but this is generally a luxury of the resource-powerful side, who can wait until they are ready to launch an attack. On the macro-strategic level, planning is mostly table-top models (or today, computer simulations), since moving the full number of troops and weapons around a modern battlefield is far too large to be practical, and the experience is mainly worthwhile for the higher officers. Nevertheless they may find something left out of the plan-- the occupation of Iraq in 2003 was waylaid by unexpected mass looting of government installations, and by the fading away, not the surrender, of the defeated army with their weapons. Wooden would consider this an instance of over-relying on plans.

Business also lacks practices. Techniques exist for how to manage, and workers sometimes undergo training for a job; but it lacks the rhythm of sports-- intense practices with the coach pacing the sidelines, leading up to a short period of the game itself. Job-training programs are mostly failures; too remote from the cutting edge of work, too flat an atmosphere to have the skill-honing and motivational effects Wooden prized. Contemporary business corporations like to flaunt morale-building spaces and amenities for their workers; but these are chiefly a vacation from work, not the intense preparation of UCLA basketball.  In politics-- another area for which sports analogies are sometime touted-- a certain type of practicing for “the event” is now popular. Chiefly this takes the form of privately coaching a political candidate how to make speeches (complete with hand gestures and facial expressions) before the public and the press. But as the 2016 presidential campaign illustrates, politicians who need coaching tend to come across as artificial, and this hurts their impressiveness vis-à-vis candidates who seem more natural. Aside from this frontstage manipulation, one does not hear of practicing for the main work of politicians in office, which consists above all in negotiating coalitions. Despite superficial analogies (“Just win, baby!”) politics is not at all like sports.

Business is another area where analogies to winning in sports and in war are popular. Business schools and journalism are full of advice and theory of leadership. The preferred leadership styles change. In the era of the high-tech giants, charismatic leaders are in demand. Their charisma is orchestrated in product launches and other appeals to consumers-- a style set by Steve Jobs and emulated by Bezos, Ballmer, Musk, and others. The hope is that their charisma carries over to their cutting-edge products, or vice versa. But out-front charisma is not the only successful style. French sociologist Michel Villette shows that most of the great entrepreneurial fortunes made since the 1950s were created by ruthless competitors, stealing techniques and turf from oblivious or momentarily troubled rivals, and brazening out hardball lawsuits. Another style, far from supporting and uplifting one’s employees, is to set them against each other and cut the work force whenever their jobs can be absorbed by others, or by computers. A good deal of the rhetoric today about effectively managed corporations emphasizes good human relations, but this may be temporary in a time of expansion and relative labor shortage. One can only conclude that Wooden’s principles are not generally followed in the business realm, except for some of his more platitudinous maxims.

Bottom line

How does Wooden’s list hold up?

High energy practices, building up maximal speed and coordinated rhythm.  This is chiefly specific to sports.

Team not star.  On the other side is the popularity of charismatic leaders, in war, business, and politics. If they are too charismatic, they easily slide over into authoritarian despots. Team not star is good advice, but deviating from it is hard to avoid.  Outsiders (fans, investors, customers) tend to simplify everything down to an emblem. Audiences create the star.

Focus on perfecting your own action skills, not on scouting out the enemy. Even in sports, the shift has been entirely in the other direction. This is equally the case in business and the military.

Attention to the details that make up skill.  It is this “mundanity of excellence,” as well as “total concentration on the match” that divides insiders from outsiders.  Even charismatic leadership is a skill, and it involves learning not only oratory (although not necessarily) but being a careful observer of one’s audiences.  Emotional domination in conflictual situations is based especially upon careful observation of one’s opponent. This does not mean, scouting out the opposition in advance so that you follow a planned strategy, but quick, on-the-spot observation of emotional cues, finding the openings when domination can be achieved by setting the rhythm for the other to follow.

Cool professionalism rather than emotionalism. This is probably always valuable. How does it measure up in success compared with charismatic or cut-throat styles? A good sociologist could find this out.

Appendix: Highest-winning coaches and teams

The highest winning percentage for NFL coaches is .759 (John Madden with the Oakland Raiders 1969-78). But Madden won only 1 championship in 9 years (11%).  Best for both winning rate and  championships was .730 for Vince Lombardi (Green Bay Packers, 1959-69), with 5 championships in 10 years (50%).

Highest for college football coaches were .888 for Knute Rockne (Notre Dame, 1918-30); and Frank Leahy .864 (Notre Dame 1939-53). No national championship existed at that time.

Highest for NBA coaches is .705 for Phil Jackson, winning 11 championships (Chicago Bulls  1991-3, 1996-8, L.A. Lakers 2000-2, 2009-10).  Billy Cunningham is next at .698 (Philadelphia 76ers), but won only 1 championship. Red Auerbach had a .662 winning rate, and won 9 championships with the Boston Celtics, including 8 in a row 1959-66. No one else has more than 4 NBA championships.

For college coaches, John Wooden’s lifetime winning ratio (.804) is 5th on the list. Of those above him, the top is .833; these were coaches in minor programs except Adolf Rupp (Kentucky) at .822 with 4 NCAA championships. Wooden won the most championships (10), followed by Mike Krzyzewski  (Duke) at 5 (winning percentage .765).

Top coaches in women’s college basketball exceed the men’s coaches. Geno Auriemma has a .884 lifetime winning average at University of Connecticut, where he won 11 national championships between 1995 and 2016, including 4 in a row. Pat Summitt at University of Tennessee won .841 of her games, and 8 championships between 1987 and 2008, including 3 in a row. Summitt’s style differed strongly from Wooden’s, yelling at players, giving them icy stares for poor play, and generally considered one of the toughest coaches anywhere.

In Major League Baseball, top lifetime winning average was .615 by Joe McCarthy (Chicago Cubs 1926-30, New York Yankees 1931-46, Boston Red Sox 1948-50). He won 7 World Series, all with the Yankees, including 4 in a  row. Tied for World Series was Casey Stengel with 7 (all with the Yankees during 1949-60, including a 5-year victory string 1949-53; he previously coached the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Braves, and subsequently the New York Mets). Stengel’s lifetime percentage was far down the list at .508 -- showing that quality of players makes a difference too. McCarthy was regarded as a passive, hands-off manager, letting his stars do their thing. (No John Woodens here.)

Winning streaks differ considerably by sport. Tops are 111 straight games won by Auriemma at UConn 2014-17 in women’s basketball; and 88 by Wooden at UCLA in men’s basketball. In the NBA, the longest streak was 33 games by the Lakers in 1971-2.

Longest winning streak in college football was 47 games, by Oklahoma in 1953-57, coached by Bud Wilkinson (winning percentage of .826, from 1947-63). In the NFL, the longest streak was 22 games, by the New England Patriots 2003-4. This seems around a natural ceiling; 8 NFL teams have had streaks of 18 or 19 games. The quality of the league is inversely related to the longest winning streak: longest in high school football (151 games by De La Salle H.S. in Concord, CA), 47 in college, 22 in the NFL.

In baseball, the longest winning streak is 22 games (2017 Cleveland Indians). In the National Hockey League, the longest streak is 17.

Putting together team streaks with lifetime coaching winning percentage and number of championships per years coached, these coaches stand out:

Geno Auriemma, UConn women’s basketball, .884, 111 game streak (top), 11 championships in 23 years (48%)
John Wooden .804, 88 game streak (top), 10 championships in 29 years (33%)
Phil Jackson, Bulls and Lakers, .705 (top for NBA), 33 game streak (top), 11 championships in 20 years (55%).
Red Auerbach, Celtics,  .662, 9 championships in 17 years (53%)
Pat Summitt, UTenn women, .841, 8 championships in 38 years (21%).
Vince Lombardi, Green Bay Packers,  .730, 5 championships in 10 years (50%)
Bud Wilkinson, Oklahoma football, .826, 47 game streak (top)
Bill Belichek, Patriots .681, 22 game streak (top), won 5 Superbowls in 28 years (18%)
Paul Brown, Cleveland Browns 1946-75, .672, won 7 championships in 29 years (24%)
Joe McCarthy, Cubs/Yankees/Red Sox, .615 (top for baseball), 7 championships in 23 years (30%)

There are others who were high in one area but not in others:
George Halas, Chicago Bears 1920-67, .667; won 6 championships over 47 years, for an average of 13%.
George Allen 1966-77, .712 (3rd highest in NFL history), but zero championships in 11 years.

There is no valid way of mechanically combining winning percentage, championships per year, and unbeaten streaks, to arrive at a mathematically ideal ranking of the most successful coaches. It could easily be devised, but the weights are subjective and arbitrary (as in college rankings, or corporate rating systems). Some coaches are better at one thing or another. It is what it is.

What should be done now is classify coaches at all levels of success by their coaching styles, the only valid test of whether any particular method makes a difference.


John Wooden and Steve Jamison. 1997. Wooden. A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections on and off the Court.

Scott N. Brooks. 2009.  Black Men Can't Shoot.  Univ. of Chicago Press.

Loic Wacquant.  2004.  Body and Soul.  Notes of an Apprentice Boxer.  Oxford Univ. Press.

Daniel F. Chambliss, 1989. "The Mundanity of Excellence." Sociological Theory 7: 70-86

Randall Collins and Maren McConnell. 2016.   Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Social Energy. Published as an E-book by Maren Ink.

William T. Tilden.  1950.  How to Play Better Tennis. A Complete Guide to Technique and Tactics.

Allen M. Hornblum.  2017.  American Colossus. Big Bill Tilden and the Creation of Modern Tennis.

Michel Villette and Catherine Vuillermot. 2009. From Predators to Icons: Exposing the Myth of the Business Hero. Cornell University Press.

Wikipedia articles: John Wooden; other coaches.

On-line records of coach and team winning percentages, championships, and streaks in basketball, football, and baseball.