For two decades, I have enjoyed the honor of coaching varsity baseball and teaching high school communication arts courses. As I continue to grow in both roles, I recognize the influence coaching and teaching have had on each other in shaping my craft. Although I provide instruction in both positions, I prefer that students consider me their coach—a lead learner who wears the same uniform and is committed to a common purpose—dedicated to create opportunities, plan practice, support, adjust, guide, and root for every learner’s success. I want my learners to play with the content. Challenge their abilities. Learn to persist. Create meaningful outcomes. Celebrate victories. Enjoy a rewarding experience.
Great teachers possess characteristics of the most effective coaches. They are selfless, compassionate, and dedicated to help learners grow. Unlike most jobs, coaching and teaching become a lifestyle with a special responsibility and commitment to serve others. The distinguishing quality of a coach is through the actions taken to educate—the impact and connotation of its verb form: “to coach.”
Effective coaches combine their passion for the game with a keen sense of knowing their personnel: they learn the strengths and struggles of individuals; they understand how to motivate each player; they make sure everyone understands their role in the team’s success; they design a plan to give individuals paths for improvement and provide the team with its greatest opportunity for success. Coaches offer advice or make suggestions for improvement, then provide (even prioritize) the time for practice—a period of adjustment, reinforcement, support, and celebration. Players need time to learn, to increase mental confidence and work through mechanical flaws. They must experience failure, be challenged beyond personal expectations, and feel success in their growth process. How would a similar approach impact our students in the classroom?
Coaching Wisdom for Educators
Less Talk, More Action
To coach is to understand the balance between time spent talking and time dedicated to playing. Ever watch kids at a youth camp? At the beginning of instruction, campers’ eyes are focused on the coach. But the longer the instruction, the more restless the audience (including assistant coaches). The coach is doing all the work. Players begin to squirm, anxious for their chance to take action. Long-winded coaches may deliver a motivational pregame speech, but the game is not about what a coach says; it’s about how the players perform. The same holds true in the classroom. Teachers can deliver as much content as they want, but the effort is meaningless until learners do something with the information.
Players want action; learners need it. With the exception of a team meeting at the beginning or end of some class periods, I spend little time addressing the whole class. Instead, I move from group to group or conference with individuals to maximize our practice time. If I have established clear expectations, provided specific feedback toward target goals, and co-planned next steps for learning, students (like players) simply need my support for success.
Meet them where they’re at and put them in positions for success
When the season begins, coaches need to determine what they have to work with and plan accordingly. I cannot assume everyone is at the same level of skill and understanding. So, I take the time to get to know every player. I assess their fundamental skills, observe them in action, and formulate instructional plans from there. With the vision of team success in mind, coaches understand the importance of providing multiple pathways toward individual development. We don’t label our instructional strategy as “differentiation,” but everyone has something specific to work on—an individual focus. While the entire team may be fielding ground balls, one player knows he has to work on getting his body into a better position to throw, so his concentration is focused on his feet and shoulders, even if we are not making throws.
Be a flexible planner and be willing to make adjustments
Coaches cannot script every practice for the entire season. Nor can they script a week in advance. They may have a general idea about the basic progression of building toward more advanced skills or strategies, but planning comes one day at a time. Sadly, I hear many teachers frustrated about having to adjust their daily planner weeks in advance due to an unforeseen schedule change—an assembly or a fire drill has created imbalance in the universe. Despite teaching the same concepts every year, every group has different needs that may shift daily. Education requires flexibility and willingness to adapt.
Make everyone feel important
In order to earn trust and establish purpose, we must be genuine and intentional. Every player needs to feel important—even necessary—to the team’s success. Once we establish each player’s role on the team, we communicate with greater ease. Coaches eliminate guessing games. Players know what they have to do for the team to succeed. While the expectations of an entire season may feel overwhelming, understanding one’s responsibility from game to game allows players to relax and narrow their focus. That’s when we hit the targets for success. We commit to each other to fight for a greater cause.
Focus on fundamentals and simplify strategies
Baseball is a difficult game. For many learners, so is school. Like teachers, some coaches take considerable time to develop complicated game strategies and complex sets of signs. This is inefficient, unnecessary, and confusing. Rather, coaches should develop a simple philosophy (Respect the Game: be on time, wear your hat right, and run hard to first) and reduce the intricacies of the sport to their simplest form, allowing everyone to understand the task. Emphasize the fundamentals (everyday) to provide a stable foundation to build more complex skills. Isn’t it funny how the game seems to slow down and make more sense with experience?
Be an expert communicator of what, why, and how
To coach means to communicate at all times: to an individual at the batting cage prior to a game, to a group of reserves in the dugout during the game, to the whole team in the post-game huddle. If I have effectively coached, players know what we want to do, why we are doing it, and how to execute the plan for any game situation. Through transparency and preparation, we possess an attitude of confidence: “Test us. I dare you. Bring it on!” I love moments when we communicate without words or signals. I know I’ve prepared the team when the winning run gets on base in the final inning and without hesitation, a faster player emerges from the dugout with his helmet on, ready to pinch run. We know what must be done to achieve our desired outcome. By second semester of the school year, the classroom should run itself and I should blend in as one of the learners. The key in both scenarios is not only explaining what needs to be done and determining how to do it; everyone can verbalize why they are taking action.
Share ownership in making decisions
As a young coach and teacher, I thought I had to establish MY WAY with a list of rules and procedures. I quickly learned to share the responsibility of planning and making decisions with assistant coaches and players. In the classroom, this is known as the gradual release of responsibility. Although I’m as intense and focused as ever, I’m now considered a “laid back” teacher and a player’s coach. I am accountable for final outcomes (and reporting to the media), but we make decisions as a team. I will defer to my coaches, captains, seniors, groups of players by position, and even winners of team competitions. Likewise, students help determine reasonable due dates, where to sit, whether to work individually or in a group, and how to best express evidence of their learning. Respecting the impact of voice and choice on ownership is one of my most significant shifts in the classroom and on the field.
Success is not determined by the scoreboard
As a coach, I certainly do not want to be defined by or evaluated based on my team’s number of wins. Too many factors are beyond my control. But I can influence our attitude based on how I treat players, how I respond to adversity, and the energy I bring every day. The same is true for the classroom.
In school, online grade books, standardized test score data, and ranking systems communicate a common perception of success. Teachers and their students face similar scrutiny as coaches and their players when success is judged by the scoreboard. The most costly error in youth sports is placing too great an emphasis on the final score. “Did you win? What’s your record? Who’s at fault?” Responses become excuses, accusations, and blame. When success is measured in wins and losses, adults unintentionally assign players to a category. Thus, everyone receives a label as a winner or a loser. Rarely, do they ask: “What did you learn? How did you support your teammates or contribute to the team? What do you need to work on in practice? What did you enjoy most about the game? What were the highlights?”
Language influences attitude. Attitude impacts behaviors. Behaviors become accepted habits. We can only shift the culture when everyone understands the purpose for change and commits to a mindset dedicated to improvement.
Tomorrow is another opportunity
No matter how we performed yesterday, we learn from our experiences and move on. There is always something to build toward, improve upon, and look forward to. We greet tomorrow with a smile and return with genuine enthusiasm. Whether on the playing field or in the classroom, we have another opportunity to leave our legacy.