Good teachers and good coaches are usually the same people. However, there has been an increasing trend in high school sports utilizing more community coaches than teachers/coaches because it is difficult for educators to find the time or space on their overflowing plates. Please do not misunderstand that there are plenty of awesome high school coaches who teach at a high level every day. Still, this disturbing trend has offered very passionate community members opportunities to lead and build programs at local high schools. In some cases, a school might even get an alumnus to take over a program they participated in during high school.
The lessons teachers have learned over countless decades about student motivation and psychology in the classroom. These lessons could help community coaches make better connections with their student-athletes and build a stronger, more sustainable program. Let us explore five key concepts that translate from those classrooms onto the field or court.
5 Lessons Coaches Can Learn From Teachers
#1 Mindset Matters
How students feel about their ability or skill set is a strong predictor of how they will perform. If a student feels like they can be successful in math, even after a setback, there is a strong possibility, they will be successful soon. The student will not feel defeated and continue to do the work because they believe they can do it, just not yet. Athletes are no different, and if they feel they can hit that jump serve or improve their max lift, they are more likely to do so consistently in the future. Coaches and teachers who foster the Growth Mindset in students and athletes, as explained by Carol Dweck in her book Mindset, The New Psychology of Success, are more likely to see success than those who do not. Helping students and athletes develop a Growth Mindset over a Fixed or Rigid Mindset can make all the difference. Mindset can also be affected by teacher expectations. Students who are given high expectations work harder to reach those than students who are given low or no expectations to succeed. Teachers and coaches who set high standards while helping students or athletes reach those goals will witness increased and consistent effort.
#2 Development Varies
Children mature at different rates and develop according to their plan instead of an age group range. Early developers and “late bloomers” are just as common on the court as in the classroom. Coaches who embrace the philosophy that their athletes are not always on the same physical, and emotional level stand a better chance of fostering a positive athletic experience for the athletes and will develop better overall team performance. For instance, not all twelve-year-old recreational league soccer players will handle the pressure an important game can produce,
nor be ready for multi-step and fluid game plans. In another year, they might be just fine, but not yet. Good teachers and coaches recognize these variations and use this understanding to maximize the group’s strengths by creating environments that foster the student/athlete’s developmental and physical maturity of the student/athletes. Like how a teacher differentiates a lesson for each student’s needs, a coach will do the same. If the practice drills, game plans, or locker room pep talks are not tailored to each athlete’s developmental levels, success as a team will be limited regardless of a coach’s talent, effort, or desire to win.
#3 Timely feedback Matters
Teachers will tell you that if you want a student to learn something, you must give them feedback on their attempts sooner rather than later. Practicing skills for competitions require the same timely feedback if coaches want to see the skill be improved. Waiting for days between practices or competition may be too late for corrections to be meaningful. When teachers delay posting the scores or written feedback on assessments, it is a safe assumption the students have mentally moved on and the impact of the feedback, or even the effectiveness of their studying technique, may be lost to the teenage brain. I have known football coaches that do not go to bed after a Friday night game because they want to have the grades/assessments ready for their players the next day. The feedback speed ensures the lessons of the game are reinforced before the prep of the next game begins. It is also worth noting that how you assess your athletes matters. Is there some kind of feedback system beyond winning and losing? In team sports, like group projects, it can help all the members know how they did. Making individual assessments or feedback can help the athletes better understand their role and influence on the team. Additionally, when students/athletes have an awareness of their weaknesses and set goals to overcome them, they are more likely to improve.
#4 Be Prepared
Teachers everywhere have a set of curriculum standards usually handed down from the state. These standards outline the material and skills expected to be taught and hopefully mastered during the academic year. Similarly, coaches should have a well-designed plan for the season and break down the skills they believe will be needed for the team and players to be successful. Like Math teachers that need to introduce skills at the ground level before they move on to the next step of a process, coaches need to plan to understand the skills and introduce them in an appropriate order. In the classroom, teachers know plans can get ahead or fall a day or two behind but having a plan to modify beats no plan at all. Comparably, coaches who have logical but flexible, plans can keep their team moving forward towards improvement. Student assessments in the classroom help guide a teacher’s instruction to move on, enrich, or reteach if necessary. Coaches who reflect on their team’s performance and use that information to guide their practices and plans instead of simply moving on to the next skill will find their athletes gain a stronger foundation in the long run. This reteaching can be worked into the next practice or take a more advanced skill if the basic ones are still a struggle. Ultimately, coaches need to start the season with a strong framework and come to each practice with a plan based upon constant assessment and reflection. As they say, nothing is impossible with a plan.
#5 Emotional Well-being Affects Performance
The truth is whatever emotional baggage they bring with them into the classroom or the practice field will affect how well they can focus, learn, or perform. Everyone has bad days. Students arrive with a host of experiences and emotions in the classroom, many of which teachers and coaches are unaware because they are not always outwardly visible. Some arrive being chastised or coddled by helicopter parents or have witnessed a traumatic incident such as domestic violence the night before. Other students come to school without having eaten a meal since yesterday’s lunch, or their family is going through a difficult time financially or emotionally. Maybe they just broke up with their girlfriend/boyfriend or bullied by a classmate. Students that struggle with emotional regulation, which is common in teens, will need time to refocus or calm down.
Teachers and coaches should know that it is worth their time to provide a safe emotional environment and make connections with their students and athletes to better understand their needs. Good teachers understand the importance of making a connection with their students to facilitate learning. Coaches need to do the same type of relationship-building to effectively build a strong team. Incorporating team-building activities into practice, having quick, individual check-in conversations with athletes, and positive praise are a few ways to accomplish this productive culture. Students and athletes alike will give more effort for a teacher/coach they know cares about them, respects their needs, and holds their trust. If you know your athletes on this emotional level, you can respond with appropriate support and make informed modifications to the practice or game plan as needed.
Whether you are a teacher or a coach, some common approaches can help you educate the students or athletes in your charge. It does not matter if we are talking about learning a series of defensive calls or a vocabulary list. The concepts discussed above are effective practices on or off the field. If your students or athletes are not learning what you are trying to teach, you must be willing to change your approach.
Teachers spend a lot of time in Professional Development about instructional practices and ways to reach their students emotionally and academically. Coaches can only benefit from understanding the same effective, research-based teaching and learning principles that show up in these classrooms. If you are unsure about these principles or willing to expand your expertise, I highly recommend observing effective teachers in action. Listen to their language, watch how they facilitate learning for all types of students, and build your understanding of how similar teaching and coaching truly are when working with children.