What is Mastery? Let’s learn from a poet and a basketball coach




What can we learn about mastery from John Wooden, the best coach ever in any sport, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., one of Boston’s most venerated poets. These two amazing men each influenced their contemporaries in their own unique ways. Because of their legacy, I was able to understand what mastery is, its importance, and finally, how to achieve it.

As you will understand, mastery is paramount to help us navigate the chaos of life.

The first clue that helped me understand the importance of mastery was a quote from O.W. Holmes, while the second clue came from a story on John Wooden. The quote provides an excellent metaphor to help us understand what mastery is while the story explains how to reach it and why.

So what is mastery?

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809 – 1894) was an American physician, poet, professor, lecturer, and author based in Boston. He wrote:

I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity; but I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.


I am a big believer that quotes can make a big difference in your life and this one had a profound impact on me. It took me a long time to understand this quote, but once I understood it, it gave me a new perspective on what mastery is. This quote simply means that when you have mastered complexity you can deal with it very simply.

Whenever we are in the presence of someone who is dealing very efficiently with very complex situations or environments, we are in the presence of a master. The main characteristic that we notice from such an individual is the simplicity by which they deal with difficult situations.  Hence, mastery is on the far side of complexity.

Why and How to achieve mastery?

John Wooden (1910 – 2010) is recognized as the best coach ever in the history of all sports. While he won 10 NCAA national championships as head coach, he strangely never spoke about winning. When he was asked what he liked the most as a coach, he didn’t say it was the games or victories. He said it was the practices.


Bill Walton, a basketball hall-of-famer during the 1970s, told the compelling story of his first encounter with John Wooden.  Bill was 17 years old when he was drafted by the UCLA Bruins in 1971.  Already a big star when he arrived in UCLA, Walton had a grand ambition to show the world how great he was.  On his first encounter with coach Wooden, the coach took him and 5 other freshmen in the locker room and he showed them around.  Then he asked them to sit down and the first thing he showed them was how to put their socks and shoes on and tie them well.  The six freshmen were in shock.  And then, Walton said, for the next four years he showed us everything he knew about basketball so that anything under our control would never fail us.  Walton was so impressed that he brought his sons to go through the same ritual many years later.

The big lesson to learn from this story is that to be successful you have to make sure that everything under your control never fails you.  That’s the reason why mastery is so important.

The second lesson is that we don’t master the basics skills until we practice them to the level of mastery.

Bill Walton was already a superstar when he arrived in UCLA but his coach took him back to the basics to make sure he would master them. Basically, what coach Wooden taught these young players was mastery and it can only be acquired through a lot of practice. 

 Why is it important to understand mastery

Life is extremely complex, and when you have reached the level of mastery in one area, it enables you to deal with the situations and circumstances of this area very efficiently. Therefore, mastery will enable you to navigate the chaos of life.

As a Coach, the highest certified level I can reach is Master. Whether in chess, martial arts, or in any other field, being a master means that you have mastered complexity, therefore it should be the same for our own life.

What are some of the very basic life skills under our control that we should master so they will never fail us?

  • Our leadership
  • Our communication skills
  • The management of our emotions
  • The decisions we make
  • The management of our time
  • The management of our finances

Oliver Wendell Holmes helped us understand that when you have mastery it enables you to deal with complexity easily. John Wooden showed that if you want to have a great record in life, you need to master the basics by practicing hard until you reach that mastery.