Dan Nevans: I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?

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I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?

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The highland pipe and mid-20th century American collegiate basketball

Please follow this link to Spotify to enjoy the playlist I have put together for you to enjoy while reading this article. (You will obviously need to have a Spotify account).

I don’t know about you but over my lifetime, piping has driven me to heights of stress and anxiety like nothing else. It has also given me a career, a home, great stability … I was a World Pipe Band Champion and I’m getting to compete for the Silver Medal/B grade light music at Oban and Inverness. 

I’m dedicated to my art. I work hard and try my best to improve daily. I share my experience as openly as I can. I try to help. 

So why do I feel like such a loser all the time? 

The truth is, it’s because I’m a small, broken little boy who needs to grow up.

But how? 

My motto is, “Bagpipes are for everyone”. My mantra is, “Just as good as anyone but no better”. My piping hero is Captain John A. MacLellan MBE and my pedagogy hero is John Robert Wooden. 

John Wooden.

John R. Wooden (1910-2010) is the most successful sports coach of all time. He took the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) mens’ basketball team to ten national championships (seven were concurrent) and a streak of 88 games undefeated in his 27 year tenure as head coach. The UCLA Bruins were regular finalists in the NCAA basketball championship. 

That is not as many titles as Dr. Richard Parkes MBE has attained over his career as a Pipe Major. But we’re not talking about pipe bands. We’re currently talking about mid-20th century mens’ collegiate basketball in the United States of America. 

John R. Wooden was born in Indiana in October of 1910 to a farming family. Like most US farmers of that period, the Woodens were not rich and did not have many luxuries but what they did have was a familial love and respect for each other. This background, as well as a strong religious faith, would be the foundations of the man John Bob (A nickname John’s wife, Nellie gave him when they courted in their teens) would become. 

Hugh Wooden, John’s father, had four sons and two daughters. He read to them everyday, mostly from the family Bible but also from his favourite poets. All four sons went on to have careers in education (with a connection to English tuition). 

When John was still a boy, the family lost the farm and moved to the town of Martinsville, Indiana. John was an excellent student and athlete. His 1927 High School basketball team won the Indiana state tournament and in 1928 John went to Purdue University to study English on a basketball scholarship. At university, John was a member of the fraternity Beta Theta Pi where he worked as a busboy in the fraternity cafeteria to help fund his tuition (John’s scholarship was not a full ride scholarship). Also in his four years at Purdue, John was named a three-time All-American and All-Mid Western player as well as being part of the ‘Big Ten’ class when he graduated – a special award for students who demonstrated outstanding academic and athletic ability. 

World War II stepped in and put a halt to John’s professional career. He joined the US Navy in 1943 as a fitness instructor. John had been teaching English in South Bend, Indiana in the preceding years and coaching a successful basketball team there. After leaving military service, he moved to Indiana State University and took up the role of Head Basketball Coach. Wooden completed a Masters in education while a member of the faculty at Indiana State. 

Wooden’s team won the Indiana intercollegiate conference in 1947 receiving an invitation to compete in the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball’s (NAIB) national championship. He turned down the invitation as the NAIB refused to allow him to bring Clarence Walker, an African American student athlete, as part of the team. Wooden’s stance was that Walker was part of the team and no one in the team gets left out. 

The following year Indiana won its conference again. The NAIB relented and Walker was accepted as part of the team with certain caveats having to be fulfilled. Indiana lost out the NAIB’s national championship by only a handful of points to Duke University of North Carolina. The call from UCLA came at the end of that season and Wooden signed on for a three-year contract, becoming the fourth ever basketball coach at UCLA. 

UCLA held basketball practice on the third floor of a gymnasium affectionately known as The B.O. Barn by the players. The gym was shared with gymnasts and thus was coated in a fine layer of chalk dust most of the time. John began a routine of mopping and drying the court before and after every practice. This would be a ritual done by the coaching staff at every practice for 17 years. 

Wooden’s Bruins were an instant success. The Midwest had dominated basketball since the league’s inception and this sun-kissed coast had never produced a team of any great worth. In 1948 the Bruins presented a record of 12 wins and 13 losses. In 1948 the team claimed 22 wins and seven losses. This winning trend continued year-on-year to produce the lauded efforts listed above. 

John Wooden’s success as a coach was not brought about by an iron hand or needless authoritarianism. Yes, he was strict about discipline in his teams. Of that there can be no doubt but here’s the man’s secret: 

John Wooden didn’t care about winning basketball games. 

John Wooden cared about what kind of person you were.

Basketball was a facsimile for the philosophy of human existence that Wooden strived for. In his 30+ years teaching and coaching he often reminded his players that they were at the school/university to receive an education. Not to play basketball. To Wooden, the players were students first and athletes second. 

In 1937, Wooden gave us his definition of success: 

Success is peace of mind, which is the direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming”. 

It remains his greatest gift to coaching. It’s simple and it’s relatively succinct. It’s inclusive and it’s something I wish someone had told me as a child. 

All John Wooden wanted was for the young men under his tuition to excel to the best of their individual ability. Or, at least, to try. Throughout his career he would come back to this definition as a tool for coaching which fell in line with the seven-point creed given to him as a child by his father upon his graduation from grammar school:

  1. Be true to yourself.
  2. Make each day your masterpiece.
  3. Help others.
  4. Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible.
  5. Make friendship a fine art.
  6. Build a shelter against a rainy day.
  7. Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.

Okay, let’s take the religious bit out for those that aren’t into it. That’s cool, it’s not my bag either but I respect the ideas. These seven points all have an intrinsic value which can allow us to achieve the success Wooden defined in 1937 in whatever field that might be. Wooden kept a copy of these seven points in his wallet his whole life, although the original had to be replaced many times. 

Being honest with yourself about your goals and actions, hard work and industriousness, care and friendliness, training the mind as well as the body, prepare for the bad times as much as you enjoy the good times, reflect on your choices and be grateful for the gifts you have been given. Who could argue against any of these concepts? Since discovering Wooden a couple of years ago I have tried earnestly to adopt these ideals in my own way. I can’t say I’ve always been successful but I am trying. 

The next gift we receive from the teachings of Wooden is the image below, the pyramid of success. 

At the start of every pre-season, Wooden gave his players a copy of the pyramid to keep in their dorms. He believed that the ideas within every strata of the pyramid would help make his players better academics, better athletes and hopefully, better men. 

I keep a copy of the pyramid Blu-tacked to the wall behind my desk. It’s in a position where I can see it when I’m teaching or when I’m practicing. It’s in the space where I look when I’m thinking about what to write in my practice journal. I find its earnestness and simplicity calming, clarifying even. I like to think it is there as a totem, keeping me honest or at least making me accountable to myself. 

Wooden pictured in 1960. His pyramid of success can be seen in shot.

John Wooden believed in the fundamentals of his sport and the fundamentals of his personal philosophy. If a player does not have the qualities described in the pyramid nor the personal goals of the seven points then regardless of their ability, they cannot be a part of the team. 

Fundamentals and clear thinking were cornerstones of Wooden’s coaching style. Each training season began with Wooden explaining how to put on your athletic socks, lace up and tie your shoes. Wooden did this to drive home that even the simplest things can have a huge impact: If your socks and shoes aren’t on right then you’ll get a blister, if you get a blister you can’t play. If you can’t play you lose your scholarship. 

Imagine in October, when you can return to a band practice, if the first thing the Pipe Major did was give everyone a roll of hemp and wax and showed you all how to hemp an airtight joint? If your pipes aren’t airtight they won’t be comfortable to play. If they are uncomfortable to play you won’t practice as much. If you don’t practice the required amount to improve then you become a liability to the corps and will be removed from the band. 

I’m sure some of you would be delighted to go through this process. Some of you would be very upset. Try to remember that if you do find yourself in this position it is not to shame or belittle anyone. It is being done to establish a fundamental standard that all players understand. 

The last lessons we get from John Wooden, again passed to us from his father Hugh, are the three sets of threes:

  • Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal.
  • Don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses.
  • No tardiness, no profanity, no criticising your teammates (that’s the coaches’ job).

Hard rules to live by. Certainly, in my time as a player and member of a Grade 1 band’s management team I have been tardy, I have been spectacularly profane, I have made excuses for results and, God in heaven help me, have I whined. They invented new categorisations for whining to describe the lengths I have gone to in my Olympian whining sessions.

I have criticised teammates in person and at a distance. I’ve probably told the odd porker to keep myself out of bother here and there. At least seven out of nine of these rules I have broken at some point in my 26 years of playing pipes. 

I guess by Wooden’s standards I have often been a loser: When I have presented myself at less than my ability, I have been a loser. 

When I have allowed fear or laziness to stand in the way of my own development, I have been a loser. 

When I have been inconsiderate of my friends, family and teammates’ feelings because of my own ego, I have been a loser. 

When I have been ungrateful for the blessings that I have received in my life, I have been a loser. 

Wooden has schools and athletic facilities named after him including John Wooden Recreation Center on the campus of UCA.

If this year+ of the pandemic has brought anything into my life it has been clarity. I started the pandemic off thinking about all the things that were behind me. The failures and triumphs, both professionally and personally. I framed a lot of these efforts by what placing the band got or what trophy I picked up at the end of the day. 

A metric defined by others. 

I cannot control the actions of other people. When I worry or waste energy thinking about what someone might or might not do it diminishes my control over my own actions. This might manifest in a mistake in the band because I was waiting on another player’s consistent phrasing or technical inaccuracy. It could be trying to “out smart” adjudicators at a solo piping contest. Trying to adjust my performance in a manner they will be more willing to give a prize to and failing to perform to a standard I would enjoy or be proud of. 

Whatever the situation, it always results in a loss of peace of mind. A lack of self-satisfaction. 

I find myself at the end of this article thinking about the two concepts that form the point of Wooden’s pyramid: Faith and Patience. John Wooden was a very religious man and that is probably to his credit. When he says faith here I don’t think he wholly means faith in religion. I think Wooden asks us to have faith in ourselves. To think about all the effort we have put in to be at whatever level we are at on that day, in that place, at that time. To give us credit for the effort already given and faith in the effort to come. 

We could all do with being a little more patient. The amount of energy I have wasted growing frustrated at the development of myself and others is incredible. I can only apologise for being short with teammates or anytime I have made anyone feel less than they deserve. I can only hope that the ratio of positivity to negativity that I have put into the world is weighed heavily in the former, not the latter. 

I cannot speak for you or for your experience but I hope that sharing these thoughts about John Wooden will get the gears turning in your head. John Bob penned plenty of books about life, philosophy and basketball. The books I recommend are Wooden: A lifetime of observations and reflections on and off the court and They Called Him Coach. There are hours of interviews with Wooden on YouTube. You could try this one to begin with:

Today was a day in the life of just another person. Tomorrow might just be a masterpiece. 

* Dan Nevans is a full-time Piping Teacher at The National Piping Centre. He is a music graduate from the BA Applied Music at the University of Strathclyde. As well as being a familiar face around Scotland’s solo piping circuit, Dan plays with Glasgow Police, having played previously with Shotts & Dykehead Caledonia and Vale of Atholl.