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What Teachers and Sports Coaches Can Learn From Each Other

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When Vicky Tong started coaching seventh- and eighth-grade cross-country in 2012, she took the job because the school where she teaches needed somebody to do it. Tong figured that this additional work would follow naturally from her duties as a middle school science and Chinese teacher and complement her interest in running. She was training for a half-marathon when the offer arrived, and the timing seemed right.

Now, six years later, she looks back on her earlier reasoning with amusement. “If you go into coaching and think it’s like the classroom, you’re wrong—it’s very different,” she said. Further, technical knowledge of the sport—in her case, running—was essential but far less critical for success than other skills, she added. Her experience in the classroom made her a better coach, and what she has learned working alongside athletes has improved her teaching skills.

It’s impossible to know how many teachers are coaches and coaches are teachers, said Dan Schuster, director of coach education at the National Federation of High Schools; the data don’t exist. But he believes that the greater demands on coaches’ time and the shrinking of the off-season mean that fewer teachers coach multiple sports throughout the school year. Pressure from parents and clubs to focus more on “the X’s and O’s” has forced a change. “Years ago, if you were teaching, you’d coach a team,” he said. “It’s not that culture anymore.”

The apparent drop in teacher-coaches marks a decline in the important insights that these two-hatted adults bring to the student-athletes in front of them. Interviews with several experienced teacher-coaches reveal what each could learn from the other.

What teachers could learn from coaches:


Tie learning and teaching to a performance. “We as teachers have a lot to learn from coaches,” said Jeff Gilbert, a former teacher and coach and now principal of Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, California. Most important, student learning would improve if teachers included more public performances in their instruction, he said.

In sports, players practice their skills in order to play the game better, and coaches modify what and how they train based on the athletes’ performance. Students in the classroom would benefit from similar high-stakes public performances, where they demonstrate what they’ve learned. In this way, the learning has a purpose, the same as throwing and catching drills in baseball.

Learning grounded in performance also allows teachers to give students constant feedback, like a coach who tweaks a player’s stance or swing. Though it’s more difficult for teachers to assess how well students are learning—unlike coaches, who can see immediately whether what they’ve taught has stuck—projects that include performances give more opportunities for immediate feedback.

Students at Hillsdale High School are required each year to participate in learning events that include such public pieces. Sophomores, for example, must take part in the “Golding Trial,” where they assume various roles in a libel “trial” of William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies. They read the book, study the law and eventually travel to local courthouses to plead their cases. These kinds of learning performances keep education from being all practice and no games, Gilbert said, and allow teachers to give regular feedback while the kids prepare. It also makes learning more emotional and can change the way a teenager thinks about herself as a student. “If we do it right, you’ll have students talking about these school performances the way they do about the big moments in sports, with the same fondness,” Gilbert said.

Give more feedback. Whether tied to a performance or more day-to-day schoolwork, feedback helps kids learn. “It’s the biggest thing that I’ve taken away from coaching and applied to the classroom,” Tong said. Having observed how athletes benefit from her up-to-the-minute response to their play, she strives to offer more timely feedback to the kids in her classroom. In a class discussion, for example, she will respond to a child’s remark, no matter its accuracy.

“I always say some type of personal feedback before moving forward, like ‘nice analytical skills,' or ‘I like the way you made a connection, but let's focus on X,’ " Tong said. The feedback makes kids feel safe and more willing to speak up next time, even if they’re uncertain about their answers.

Build interdependence. A team thrives when everyone on it feels connected and valuable. Coaches work to build that unity. Such interdependence is often absent from classrooms, however, because each student’s academic success is largely independent of others. Learning that involves group performances, where every student plays a role and relies on others, can stir up similar feelings of connection. “When kids feel that they’re in this together, and they’re co-dependent—it’s really powerful,” Gilbert said.

It’s all about relationships. “My coaches wanted to know me on a personal level,” said Aly Carter, who played multiple sports in high school many years ago. But she barely remembers her teachers, because they never took the time to get to know her. Coaches also let her into their lives, Carter said, so that the relationship felt more authentic and balanced. Of course, coaches spend more time in the season with their players in varied settings than teachers; that “quantity time” makes room for natural give-and-take. But teachers who strive to get to know their pupils more personally will likely have a larger impact.

Look for another side of a child. Teachers who work in the classroom can develop a jaundiced view of certain kids. A child who regularly disrupts, or who seems chronically unprepared, can discourage the most experienced teachers. Working with those same kids in an athletic context allows teachers to see them more fully. “I can’t judge a kid based on a science class, because on the field they’re a different person,” Tong said. “It’s a way to see another side of them, and it’s redeeming,” she added, recalling how a timid student in class behaved like a bulldozer on the soccer field. Teachers who aren’t able to coach might get a different sense of a child if they watch her at a sporting event or dance recital.

What coaches could learn from teachers:

Stay abreast of research in child development. Clark Meyer teaches eighth-grade English and coaches varsity girls’ soccer at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta. He’s done both jobs for 22 years, and believes that operating in two different spheres has widened his perspective on his players and students. What’s he’s picked up in the classroom about brain-based learning—a hot topic in education circles—he’s also applied to his team. “I’m interested in ‘cognitive soccer,’ ” Meyer said, before explaining how he puts his players in just-uncomfortable-enough tactical training situations to compel them to adapt and grow. From his deep understanding of child development, he also realizes that getting the message and culture right on the team is essential to a successful season. Mechanistic coaches without knowledge of how children develop, and who focus solely on tactics and strategy, miss what most teenagers crave: social connection.

Develop discreet skills and draw connections. Teachers often use structured lesson plans to teach specific skills. Trained in pedagogy, they will craft a particular lesson, explain what they’re teaching to the class, review what they went over at the end, and then prompt the students to practice. According to Gilbert, coaches often lack this essential teaching skill. “Coaches don’t connect the dots, about how the drills connect to the scrimmage, which then connects to the game,” he said.

Ask, don’t tell. Coaches have abundant opportunities in practice and games to tell their players what to do—to move here when the opponent goes one way, to bend or turn or maneuver in some particular way in order to achieve a physical goal. But athletes learn more deeply when a coach asks them how they’ll handle different scenarios, inviting them to figure out for themselves what to do rather than wait to be instructed. In his book Positive Coaching, then-Stanford professor Jim Thompson argued that welcoming players to think for themselves, and then helping them learn from the outcome, promotes a longer-term engagement in the sport. Likewise, asking players on the bench or sidelines how they would handle an athletic situation keeps them thinking and involved.

Give up some control. Some of the most creative classroom teachers structure their classes so that students feel in control of their own learning. Coaches can do the same. Thompson offers this example: Rather than merely demonstrate a new skill and offer immediate feedback on a player’s attempt, a coach can demonstrate first and then pair up kids to practice together and critique one another. Similarly, rather than impose team goals from on high, a coach can encourage players to reflect on their own goals and work out a plan to achieve them. The point is to turn the learning, and the responsibility for it, over to the kids.


“The best teachers and coaches are developers of people as lifelong learners,” Thompson wrote. “And a big part of this is being able to surrender control of the process to the player rather than trying to direct everything from a coach’s perch.”

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