John Kessel's Top 25 Books to Learn From

By John Kessel | Sept. 15, 2013, 11 a.m. (ET)

I found it impossible to keep my list to ten, and I am focusing on sport and business areas of our dewy decimal system, to keep the list just to twenty-five….yeah I read a lot.  In my clinics I am often asked which books have I learned the most from, so in response here is my list and observations on what I learned, in no particular order.

  1. The Man Watching  (2009) by  Tim Cruthers -  The biography of Anson Dorrance, University of North Carolina soccer coach and USA national team head coach.  This book teaches the evolution of the competitive cauldron tool and other insights into the coaching tools used by the most winning coach in NCAA history.
  2. Training Soccer Champions  (1990) by Anson Dorrance – It’s out of print currently, but you can still find it online. Reading it over 20 years ago was when I first learned of the value of the “Competitive Cauldron” which makes up much of the book. I also love the title of two other chapters – In the off season, all we do it play” and “Conditioning is Homework” which helps a traditional coach see the value in getting in shape by playing, and not by running lines or doing things which take up valuable practice time.
  3. Motor Learning and Performance  (2010) by Richard Schmidt – Any edition, it is now in its 5th edition, as its subtitle “Principles and Practice” gives any  coach without a motor learning science degree the most important information about how we learn any skill, not just volleyball. Here are two of the more important sentences from the book. “It is fruitless – and “Drills and lead up activities “My bet is you missed those two when you took your USAV IMPACT clinic, so I am making sure you see them now!
  4. Mindsets (2009) by Carol Dweck – The idea of a growth over a fixed mindset gave me some science and research facts that matched up to how I play
  5. The Talent Code (2009) by Daniel Coyle – I am proud to call Dan a friend, and I know he is a great father too. If you don’t have this book, get it. If you don’t follow his blog, follow it. Coyle breaks down many of the ineffective traditions and beliefs in our sport in the way only an award winning Sports Illustrated writer can.
  6. The Art of Learning (2005) by Josh Waitzkin  - One of the best parenting and teaching films of all time is the movie “Searching for Bobby Fisher.”  This book is by the chess champion who was the focus of the film, as an older adult, Josh shares his insights into the art of learning – including how to do less to accomplish more.
  7. The Manager (2013) by Mike Carson – This book asks key questions in detailed conversations with some of the most successful football (soccer) managers in recent history, examining the critical issues they encountered in their career. They explain their methods and give examples of lessons learned along the way.
  8. The Little Book of Talent (2010) by Daniel Coyle - After the success of the Talent Code, Daniel Coyle heard from thousands of readers about the need to make things simple for parents to help guide their children in good ways to personal success, and thus this book. Look for a Volleyball specific version in 2014, with the help of Brian Swetney.
  9. A Man’s Search for Meaning  (1952) by Victor Frankel – A memoir about his experiences in the holocaust. This quote is a sample of what can be learned from an experience that puts just playing games in their place – “We who live in concentration camps can remember the men who walked throughout the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

10.  Vision of a Champion  (2002) by Anson Dorrance – Leaving the office one evening, Anson saw someone training alone and from a distance, saw Mia Hamm training. He wrote her a handwritten note that nite which said “The vision of a champion is someone who is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion when no one else is watching.  This book is primarily for a team player in any sport, on how to be the best you can be.

  1. Developing Sport Expertise –2nd Edition (2013) – Edited by Damian Farrow, Baker and MacMahon – The latest book on the science of motor learning, from down under, with excellent new research since the first edition.
  2. Freakonomics (2006)  by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner  – The revised and expanded edition. Like Moneyball, this was the first book to get employ statistical tools into new areas human thinking, skills and the riddles of everyday life. 
  3. They Call Me Coach (1972)  by John Wooden – The first book on coaching I read when I first started coaching in 1972 and still timeless, including Wooden’s famous “Pyramid of Success”  You won’t go wrong  reading ANY book written by Wooden, especially his You Haven’t Taught them if They Haven’t Learned.  
  4. The John Wooden Pyramid of Success (2003) by Neville Johnson – The authorized biography, oral history, philosophy and ultimate guide to life, leadership, friendship and love of the greatest coach in the history of sports. Revised second edition.
  5. Thinking Fast and Slow (2011) by Daniel Kahnemann – Those who have taken a clinic from me likely have heard about how I discovered the research of Kahnemann in 1985 in a life changing way in the article on regression to the mean “Decisions, Decisions.”  This book is the latest in this Nobel Prize winning mathematician/psychologist’s insights into how humans think.
  6. The Drunkards Walk (2010) by Leonard Mlodinow - While Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness  gets Forbes magazine’s nod as “one of the smartest books of all time” – Mlodinow’s thoughts on the randomness in life I found to be the better read. If you are into Econ, get Taleb’s book but if into sport/teaching get Mlodinow’s book.
  7. A Nation of Wimps (2004) – by Hara Estroff Marano – An article in Psychology Today by the same name started this website and book – with great insights into how parents are doing far too much for their kids, and how to avoid the pitfalls therein.
  8. David and Goliath (2013) – by Malcom Gladwell – or Blink, or Outliers  Gladwell’s work in any of these books is worth reading and understanding. D&G is about how to overcome against a superior foe and the research around being an underdog.
  9. Drive  (2008) by Daniel Pink, or To Sell is Human – Perhaps the best book out there on the research being done in the science of motivation, something all coaches need to get better at. Check out this great RSA animation summarizing the book HERE:
  10. Sometimes you Win, Sometimes you Lose Learn  (2013) –  by John C Maxwell – most everything by Maxwell is good, and given the realities of volleyball, this one is a great  one, along with his book  Talent is not Enough.
  11. The Power of Story (2007) – by James Loeher -  More than actual events, it is people’s perceptions which determine so much in life. Like the classic Jewish proverb – “What is truer than truth? “ – the answer is, like this book teaches so well, “the story.”
  12. Fun is Good (2005) – by Mike Veeck  - A great look at both the broader lessons of creating joy and passion in the gym and work,  while also including dozens of promotional examples from a sports pioneer.
  13. Thinking (2013) - Edited by John Brockman – One of my top favorite web/blog sites on the internet is  which is hosted by Brockman – this book has 16 of the top thinkers sharing unedited conversations on understanding human thought.
  14. Over Time (2012) – Frank Deford – I don’t think there is a better sportswriter in the last 50 years, and this memoir  shares his remarkable insights, whimsy, elegance and skill in sharing his best stories.
  15. Anything by Dave Barry – I will close out my list with humor, and I know, it’s a cop out to not pick one, but so much of what he has written will make you laugh until tears are coming down your face.  Just google for his name and the word colonoscopy to start.

And since they are free – remember you can download four years of this blog as a book - the Coach/Club Director version is here and the Player/Parent Edition is here.

So there you have about 40 books in all to consider learning from – feel free to comment and add to this list of books that are MUST reads for a growth mindset coach of any age or experience. To be the best we can be, we must be lifelong learners, and willing to change. What book did that the best for you and why?  Thanks for your help in growing the game together.