The Will To Win Is Not Worth Much Unless You Have the Will To Prepare To Win

Vince Lombardi? Bobby Knight? Fielding H. Yost? John Cooper? Joe Paterno? Vernon Law? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A popular sports maxim highlights the importance of preparation. Here are three versions:

  1. The will to win is important; the will to prepare to win is vital.
  2. The will to win is not nearly as important as the will to prepare to win.
  3. The will to win is not worth a nickel unless you have the will to prepare.

This saying has been attributed to several prominent coaches including: Bobby Knight who led the Indiana Hoosiers basketball team, Vince Lombardi who led the Green Bay Packers football team, Fielding H. Yost who led the Michigan Wolverines football team, and Joe Paterno who led Penn State Nittany Lions football team. Who should receive credit?

Quote Investigator: Fielding H. Yost was the head football coach at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for 25 seasons at the beginning of the twentieth century. His remarkably successful squads dominated opponents and won several national championships. During the 1929-30 academic year Yost delivered a speech to teachers in the Public Schools Athletic League of New York City. His “Wingate Memorial Lecture” included a prolix version of the athletic adage. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1930, Intimate Talks by Great Coaches: Wingate Memorial Lectures 1929-1930, Edited by E. Dana Caulkins, Lecture Title: Fundamentals of Football Coaching by Fielding H. Yost (University of Michigan), Start Page 3, Quote Page 18, Wingate Memorial Fund Inc., New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

The will to win. We hear a lot about that. The will and the wish to win, but there isn’t a chance for either one of them to be gratified or to have any value unless there has been a will to prepare to win: the will to prepare for service, to do the things that build and develop our capacity, physical, mental, and moral.

Yost reiterated this notion during several speeches, and QI believes he was primarily responsible for its popularization although the phrasing he employed was variable. During the ensuing decades other coaches adopted the saying.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In February 1930 Yost delivered a speech on the “Lasting Values in Athletics” which was later published in a collection called “The Barnwell Addresses”. Yost included the following passage:[ref] 1931, The Barnwell Addresses: Volume 1 – 1922-30, Edited by John Louis Hanley (President, The Central High School of Philadelphia), Speech: Lasting Values in Athletics by Fielding H. Yost (The University of Michigan), Date: February 13, 1930, Start Page 361, Quote Page 369,The Central High School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified with hardcopy)[/ref]

Preparation—that is the big thing. It is all right to talk about this “will to win,” but I tell you it is not of much worth unless you have the will to prepare, whether for the game you are to play or for the business or profession you are to enter. A one horsepower man cannot do much to achieve a great result. He must develop by preparation, so that when the test comes he has something to rely upon and is able to make use of it.

In November 1930 “The Boston Herald” of Massachusetts reported that Yost spoke during Football Night at the University Club of Boston and said this:[ref] 1930 November 7, The Boston Herald, “Hurry Up” Yost Refuses to Comment on Probable Victor in Stadium Game: Very Little Difference in Football Throughout Nation Says Yost at University Club by Burt Whitman, Quote Page 41, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

He said his gospel for clean play, because, among other reasons, clean play was the surest road to successful play. He scoffed at “The will to win” being adequate in itself. He said the boys have the will to prepare to win. His conclusion was to let the better team win and not to expect too much of the boys.

In 1955 Jack Landrum who was the head football coach at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio employed an instance of the saying during a speech delivered to high school students in Hillsboro:[ref] 1955 December 16, The Press-Gazette, Football Dinner Held Monday; Capital University Man Speaks, Start Page 1, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Hillsboro, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Landrum emphasized this point in particular to conclude his talk. “The desire to win isn’t worth a nickel unless you have a tremendous desire to prepare. Exactly the same thing applies to life itself.”

In 1965 “The Pittsburgh Press” of Pennsylvania reported that major league baseball pitcher Vernon Law had filled a notebook with adages and principles he considered helpful. Some examples were reprinted in the newspaper:[ref] 1965 July 30, The Pittsburgh Press, The Scoreboard: Going By The Law Book by Lester J. Biederman, Quote Page 25, Column 2, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

“Sportsmanship, like other virtues, comes by working at it. If you are a poor sport, keep your sportsmanship hidden, never let it come out in public. Never let it dictate or influence your actions and soon it will wither and die.”

“Many have the will to win on the day of the contest but few have the will to prepare to win.”

In 1979 prominent basketball coach Bobby Knight authored a newspaper column that included the saying:[ref] 1979 December 19, Greensboro Daily News, Bobby Knight: He Knows How To Win by Bobby Knight (N.Y. Times News Service), Start Page B3, Quote Page B8, Column 1, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

Winning to me is a very wholesome objective, yet very few people know how to go about it. The will to win has always been grossly overrated as a means of doing so. Everyone wants to win. The will to prepare to win and the ability to prevent losing are of far greater importance.

Celebrated football coach Vince Lombardi died in 1970. In 1996 a newspaper in Odessa, Texas ascribed a version of the saying to him:[ref] 1996 October 17, The Odessa American, Section: Good News, Joseph King navigates for the Navy, Quote Page 2C, Column 4, Odessa, Texas. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Former Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi once said “Everyone has the will to win but very few have the will to prepare to win.”

In 1998 a colleague attributed the saying to well-known football coach Joe Paterno:[ref] 1998 October 8, Herald and Review, Brees taking the Big Ten by storm by Mark Tupper (H & R Executive Sports Editor), Start Page D1, Quote Page D6, Column 3, Decatur, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Ohio State coach John Cooper says his team is proving to be a group that looks after details during practice. “I’ve heard coach Paterno say this over and over again: The will to win is important, the will to prepare to win is vital.”

In conclusion, Fielding H. Yost is the leading candidate for creator of this saying. He employed it in multiple speeches although his expressions were not compact. Other coaches and athletes adopted the saying in subsequent years.

Image Notes: Photograph of Fielding H. Yost circa 1902 from the 1902 Michiganensian accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Illustration of the Girl Scout Motto from “How Girls Can Help Their Country” (1917) by Juliette Low, Agnes Baden-Powell, and Robert Baden-Powell.

(Great thanks to Mike Sullivan whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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