The intersection of progressive education and athletic coaching

I had an odd moment this morning while I was running around in the cold moving the car.  I was walking back from having parked too far away from my building.  As I am prone to doing, I started kind of talking to myself.  The topic this morning was thinking about what I’ll say at the end of the year athletics banquet when I have to get up and give the remarks about this year’s season with my girl’s soccer team.  I started thinking (talking about) the challenges I faced, the girls I have on the team, and how we made it through another season by accomplishing things together.  But my area of focus the longer I talked (it was a long walk) was the challenge I faced trying to mesh my ideals as a progressive educator and my ideas of what it means to be a soccer coach.

When it comes to soccer I come from, but am not necessarily married to, a bit of the old school.  When coach speaks, you act.  Practice is priority one, and is not to be missed.  Being a part of the team takes precedence in all the best ways.  There is no question about effort level: always the max.  Teammates are like family.

This list, and more, are what drove me in competitive sports growing up, and to some degree still do.  I believe that competitive sports offer something that few other things can, and in a way are a microcosm of real life cause-and-effect that few other settings can replicate as accurately.  The ball will do what the ball’s going to do.

And this is increasingly true as we struggle to figure out what it means to educate and develop a human being.  I feel like people used to see education as a more black and white issue.  Students were buckets, and teachers filled them.  And discipline and conformity were job one for the student.  As we have learned that those things might not be as true as we thought, especially for the changing world, the world of “school” is trying to adapt and change.  Students now are growing up in a very different world than the one their grandparents and even parents did.  I’m sure this is true of most generations to some degree, but the ideals I mentioned for sports are some that aren’t being gotten in the same ways as they were when I was in school.  Of course, this may all just be one aging man’s perspective, but I don’t see as much overlap as I did when I was in high school and college and at the peak of my school/sports crossover.  The attitudes of students/players aren’t the same as the ones I encountered then.  Both school and sports seem to be more of an afterthought to them.  I’m not saying this is all bad, mind you.  I think my players are more well-rounded as human beings and much more independent thinkers than we were as student athletes.  It’s just different.

But I think that emphasizes the importance of each arena separately now.  School offers something different than the sports team, and vice versa.  There are differences that I, even as someone who has experience in both arenas, am just now learning.  Here are a few that I  have noted:

1) The concept of team – In the classroom we use cooperative learning, but the focus us still on individual outcomes.  Sport is one of the few areas where individual outcome is truly secondary.  Your role in a play lasts split seconds.  Your sum total role in a game will most likely be a tiny fraction of the minutes played.  Outcomes are judged almost solely on team achievements.

2) The physical nature – A physical action is different from a mental exercise.  There are many different ways to achieve the thought process behind many mathematical operations and still achieve the same outcome.  The perfect shot or pass has a narrow range of kinesthetic forgiveness to be correct.  Repetition and observation are vital to getting that right.  It’s not really a “do it whatever way makes sense” kind of thing.

3) The power to poison the well – Players are like apples: one truly bad one can destroy everything.  A player’s attitude and approach are everything, and they all have to be in synch to make a team hum.  In a classroom this is true to some degree, but you can remove a student from the environment and get back to work.  Individual outcomes are key after all.  But even a few weeks into practice, a team dynamic comes to rely on all the talents and personalities in it.  Even bench players have a massively important role in dynamic.  If you remove one player it sends waves of messages and losses that can affect the team, and it takes time to reestablish identity even if the move was for the best.

And so it is with these things in mind that I am trying to bring consistency to my approaches.  It wouldn’t make sense for me to do everything the same, no, especially not after having said what I did about the differences.  But at least a consistency of belief.  If I see them as independent thinkers and individuals in the whole sense, rather than just buckets to be filled, I can’t treat them that way in the classroom and then expect them to just be good little soldiers on the field.  “Do what your told” goes against my beliefs as a teacher, so it would be hypocritical of me to use that approach as their coach.  I’m still figuring it all out, but it was a big focus for me this season.  I’ve still got a lot more improvement to make, and a long way to go both as a teacher and a coach, but here’s a few things I’ve come up with.  These are a mix of similarities and differences that I think are all notable in making me the best, and most consistant, teacher/coach combo I can be:

1) High expectations in the class and on the field – Expectations do not determine pedagogy.  Just expecting a lot out of my students and my players doesn’t determine if I take a traditional approach or a progressive approach… authoritative or authoritarian.  The actual methodology can be many things, but expectation comes first, and must be clear.  I want my players to be giving maximum effort and taking maximum pride and benefit, the same way I want my students to.  I cannot and should not back off on expectation just because I’m afraid of drifting too far into an authoritarian approach.  Conversely, I cannot allow myself to be convinced that having high expectations is a sign of a traditional or authoritarian approach by outside sources.  That’s just good coaching…and good teaching.

2) When you have to achieve together, sometimes you have to fall in line – As I’ve pointed out, in the classroom the emphasis is on individual outcomes.  If a student’s group is sabotaging that individual’s ability to achieve, or if the group is poisonous to achievement over all, sometimes one student can either take that group on their back and do the lion’s share of the work, or they can withdraw and complete something that shows that they’re still achieving.  While the group won’t have been as successful, that one student will still succeed and learn.  An athletic team has to grow together, or not at all.  I can’t make the right run or the right pass, have everyone else do the wrong thing, and still wind up with a positive outcome.  Sometimes there are moments of individual brilliance that benefit the team: a great individual shot or dribble ending in a goal, a beautiful individual defensive play that saves an otherwise dragging squad, a heroic goalkeeping effort that turns a game on it’s head, but a team can’t achieve on the back of those kinds of moments alone.  Sometimes the MVP is what’s crippling the team.  In order to make any kind of growth and achievement as a team sometimes the individual needs or wants have to go by the wayside.  You may not feel like practicing today, but if you aren’t there then the dynamic for your team will be completely different then what you’ll see on game day.  The team can’t practice the right scenarios to grow.  In a classroom it’s individuals working at max capacity that makes a group strong, but you walk away with different individual levels of success.   Teams live and die by the team.  Individuals work at max capacity to make the team strong, but you walk away with the same outcomes.  The team has a right to ask your individuality to take a bit of a back seat where it doesn’t step on you as a person.

3) The experience factor – In both classroom and on pitch we who are in charge of the education of these young people are trying to develop them in the best way possible to be competent in what they do.  But we are coming at it from a perspective of vast experience in these fields.  I’m currently 32.  I’ve been playing soccer since I was 12.  That’s 20 years of experience and knowledge about this game.  When I’m dealing with a 15 year old player, or even an 18 year old player, it can be hard for me to realize that the concept I’m trying to teach them has developed in me over a long period of time.  They’re not going to get it to the same depth I have in that 2 hour training session, and probably not over the 8-10 week season either.  Possibly not even in the 4 seasons I’ll have most of them.  But it’s easy to get over zealous in trying to convey information.  It’s also easy to mistake mimicry for mastery.  i.e. – If they can make the good pass that splits the defense in practice those few times when I yelled at them to see it, they can now read the game and see it on their own, they’re looking for it and understand when to attempt it or not.   The same holds true in the classroom, but I think teachers tend to be way more patient than coaches.  I will give a student multiple classes, multiple weeks, sometimes even months, to demonstrate that they are starting to master a concept, and then it’s much easier (I feel) to keep in mind that they will continue to build on this their whole lives.  We’re trying to recreate for them, in both settings, our vast experience and expertise.  But you cannot create experience without patience.  Experience by it’s definition, by it’s very nature, takes time.  They go hand in hand.  And not surprisingly, it seems to go hand in hand with failure as well, and I mean that in the best possible way.  Failure is an important part of experience, which is the best teacher.  In the classroom this is easy to set up and understand.  On the field less so because we are waiting for things to click.  When they don’t it can be frustrating because it means more repetition, and that’s hard on our attention spans.

Good coaching, I think, balances repetition and focus.  And doing that, while respecting your individuals but getting them to fall in with the team’s objectives, and holding everyone to a high standard, is the essence and beginning, I believe, of being both a progressive educator and an athletic coach.

If you stumble across this and happen to have read this far, please please feel free to comment and give me your thoughts on this subject that I’m immensely interested in and yet still seeking my own thoughts and best practice on.  I am open and interested in all view points on both education and coaching.