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The Infinite Game of Basketball

Updated: Mar 20, 2021

Basketball is Psychology LIV

“Mr. Vince Lombardi is supposed to have said, ‘Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.’ Well, if he said that, I disagree. I believe making total effort is everything.”

- John Wooden

John Wooden Never Mentioned Winning

To this day, no College Men’s Basketball Coach has won as many National Championships as John Wooden. But if you ask his former players, they’ll tell you: he never mentioned winning.

You hear coaches and players today saying that winning is everything. Coach Wooden disagreed. He thought that giving your best effort was everything. He thought that character was everything.

Winning Isn’t The Point

Pat Summitt won 8 National Championships and 1,089 games, but she said, “Winning is fun, but winning is not the point.”

Why is it that today you hear about all of these coaches who are obsessed with winning and think that winning is everything? Why did the winningest coaches not make it about winning?

While everyone else was playing a finite game, Coach Summitt and Coach Wooden were playing an infinite game.

According to James Carse, author of Finite and Infinite Games explains the difference between finite and infinite games:

In a finite game: the purpose is winning, there are losers, there are known players, fixed rules, the game has an end, and the focus is on stats.

In an infinite game: the game never ends, there is no such thing as winning, and the focus is on growth, character, and legacy.

For example, friendship is an infinite game. You don’t “win” at friendship and there is no definite end. The point is to become better people and grow and keep the friendship going for as long as possible.

Too many people treat basketball like a finite game. To some extent it is; there are known rules and players, the game ends at a set time, and there are clear winners and losers.

But the greatest coaches treated basketball like an infinite game because they made it about character, and they made it about excellence. Character is an infinite game. Excellence is an infinite game. You don’t “win” at character or excellence. There is no definite end to character, you simply try to get closer to the best version of yourself every single day. Basketball games end, but character lasts forever.

The Infinite Mentality is a Winning Mentality

The leaders who have an infinite mindset build winning teams. Players are more inspired, setbacks are seen as opportunities for growth, and the joy is found in getting better, not in the results.

Who You Become is The Point


“Winning is fun, sure. But winning is not the point. Not giving up is the point. Never letting up is the point. Never being satisfied with what you’ve done is the point. The game is never over. No matter what the scoreboard reads, or what the referee says, it doesn’t end when you come off the court. The secret of the game is in doing your best. To persist and endure. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

- Pat Summitt


John Wooden once said, “Who you are as a person is far more important than what you are as a basketball player.” John Wooden believed there was a big difference between winning and succeeding. He defined success as the peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction and knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you’re capable.

He felt you could win even when you got outscored and you could lose even when you outscored your opponent. He told his players, “When the game is over and you see someone who didn’t know the outcome, I hope they couldn’t tell by your actions whether you outscored an opponent or they outscored you.”

Coach Wooden believed the results shouldn’t define you, your character should. He knew that if you make the effort to do the best you can, the results will be what they should be. Only you know whether or not you gave your best. The score of the game is merely a byproduct of your effort.

Don’t focus on your record, don’t focus on how many points you score, don’t focus on the results, focus on the process. Focus on being the best teammate, focus on being the hardest worker, focus on putting your best foot forward and getting better every single day.

We get discouraged when we tie our identity to the result. The problem is we can’t directly control the results, but we can control the process. We can control our character, we can control how we treat people, and we control our effort.

I want you to think about who your favorite teacher was growing up.

Do you remember what grade you got in the class?


Do you remember why that teacher was your favorite?

Most people remember their favorite teacher not because they got a certain grade in the class, but because they made learning fun, they cared, and they believed in their students.

People forget numbers but they remember who you are. Don’t focus on the numbers, focus on how you want to be remembered. You’ll be remembered for your character.

We can’t always control the outcome of games or how many points we are able to score, but we can always control our reactions.

When we know we have given our best, the numbers will take care of themselves. Like John Wooden said, “Who you are as a person is far more important than what you are as a basketball player.” Treat basketball like an infinite game. Focus on who you’re becoming. Chase excellence. Better your character. The ball eventually stops bouncing, but character lasts.

If you use the game to make you a better person, you can’t lose. Play the infinite game of basketball. Winning isn’t the point. Who you become is the point.

While everyone else was obsessed with winning temporary games, Pat Summitt and John Wooden were facilitating the growth of their players. They were more concerned with being winners than winning games.


Written by Julie Fournier

Founder & CEO Basketball is Psychology

March 19, 2021


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