The most decorated coach of all time, first was a teacher. Before winning ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period, including a record seven in a row, John Wooden was a high school English teacher. Wooden stepped into his first classroom in 1932, a fresh, young graduate of Purdue University. A lover of poetry and great books, Wooden coached his students and taught his players. In those early years in the classroom, he realized that with lesson planning,“failure to prepare is preparing to fail.” Consequently, Wooden spent the next 50 years keeping detailed records of every lesson (practice), using them to identify what did and didn’t help his players learn.
The Evolution of a Coach
The original sense of the word “coach” is that of a horse-drawn carriage. Students at the University of Oxford in the early nineteenth-century used the slang word to refer to a private tutor who would drive a less able student through his examinations just like horse driving.
Today, we revere coaches like Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, Nick Saban of Alabama, and Mike Krzyzewski of Duke for their preparation, execution, and ability to sustain standards of excellence over time.
The Connection to the Classroom
But, as decorated and acclaimed as these coaches are, their wisdom and methods should not be limited to the sports arena. Wooden, and the coaches above, exemplify the axiom that the best teachers make the best coaches, and the best coaches are those that can best teach. Consider the following skill set that these coaches possessed and notice how transferrable they are to the classroom.
Great coaches know how to:
- Develop skills on a individual and collective level
- Provide immediate, corrective feedback
- Break down complex schemes, like an entire offense, into manageable steps
- Build effective relationships with players and a community of supporters that last long past graduation
- Challenge assumptions about what one is capable of doing
- Communicate expectations with clarity and precision
- Motivate stars as well as the last player on the roster
- Strategically plan for the short term (daily practices) as well as the long term (an entire season)
- Support and encourage those lacking confidence
- Make changes on the fly
What Teachers Can Learn from Coaches
Four teachers in the Talks with Teachers community reflected and shared the biggest lessons they learned from a coach or as a coach.
Mounds High School (Oklahoma)
“My wrestling coach taught me to care. When we care about our students or athletes, we teach or coach with all that we have. We also realize what is truly important.
William A. Hough High School (North Carolina)
“As a middle school boys coach, example is the most important lesson to teach, even when it supersedes winning. It is doubly hard when parents behind the bench aren’t chanting the same message.
Growing up, my own coaches seemed to instill that lesson in me. My Cross Country coach made every challenge a live lesson. The greatest was about not quitting:
‘Are you going to be the kind of man that quits? If you quit now you are saying it is ok to quit when it gets hard. Are you going to quit on your wife and kids?’
I still remember it 20 years later.”
Mission Oak High School (California)
“I learned from Mr. Bright to believe in myself. We did The Wiz (musical) and it was one of the opening songs “if you believe” that Auntie Em sang. We circled up every night and sang a verse from it and then hugged and shook hands. He taught me the art of appreciating others and how that appreciation comes back to you in spades. I still circle up my high school classes for songs and verbal ‘appreciations’ to open up the week.”
Waring School (Massachusetts)
“I am not sure that I had any special formula or advice, but my teams were very successful. I was only an average basketball player myself, but my varsity coach really loved having me on the bench during varsity games because I really did know how to watch and diagnose a game – seeing our strengths, the weaknesses of the other team and the players.
So my message with my players was to teach them to look inward and see what their strengths were (as realistically as possible) and to look outward and see what the other team’s coach and players had to offer. For example, they might learn to let the top scorer on the other team get his points but to “disable” his teammates by forcing them to go to their lesser side, respond to pressure, fall asleep on defense, or even get discouraged. Just as I was able to contribute to the team by the way I observed, each player could identify what he did well to contribute to the group. It’s easier to support the great players on a team if you can celebrate them and know at the same time that they appreciate what you have to offer.
This lesson has paid off for me in dealing with my English Department (when I was chair) and also now on my current faculty (as I am semi-retired and a utility player on a faculty with some very fine teachers).”
Teaching and Coaching
Wooden once said, “In the end, it’s about the teaching, and what I always loved about coaching was the practices. Not the games, not the tournaments, not the alumni stuff. But teaching the players during practice was what coaching was all about to me.”
The beauty of teaching and coaching is that you get to touch lives. It is not the value-added measures or the evaluations that will matter in time. What will matter is that you made a difference in the life of a young person.
Now get out there and practice.