5 Reasons Good Teaching is Like Coaching Football

I'm not a football fan, but I like the game. I'll watch football with certain people, and I will certainly enjoy watching my home team, the New England Patriots. But I don't seek information on players or other teams, even though I enjoy hearing football fans talk about it. I respect the hard work and strategy involved.

Teachers can learn a lot from successful team sports coaches or performing arts directors – the way they break the whole game or production into manageable chunks to master. More importantly, effective coaches focus on helping players understand and access their "inner game" (see Inner Game of Tennis).

I've been thinking about these ideas for many years, but it was the following Tweet from Brad Currie and the recent MassCUE16 conference at Gillette stadium that inspired this post.

Here's what I came up with to develop this idea.

1. Target the Practice
Football coaches study film to identify tendencies and tricks that worked. They use this information to make drills and prepare for games.

My band directors did a very similar thing during each performance. They would make notes and discuss the rehearsal agendas for the coming week. When issues persisted, they implemented rewrites to the music or adjusted the regular warmups to isolate the issue and dedicate time to specific improvement.

Teachers call this formative assessment. It comes in different shapes and sizes and can be the work that makes the difference.

2. Run Drills
Whether its to increase speed, agility, or learn the playbook, football teams don't play the whole game in practice. 
It's not necessary to write a five-paragraph essay for every assignment if the goal is to write five-paragraph essays. The skills have been targeted, so it's time to run drills.

One-sentence summaries are powerful ways to check for understanding before students walk out the door. It allows them to focus on one sentence, not taking a single word or phrase for granted. Like a football game becomes a series of plays that win the game, essays are a series of sentences that convey an argument.

3. Constant Encouragement
Coaches are constantly yelling at players. Okay, they're yelling because of the crowd noise, but they are giving them encouragement to keep giving it their all. 
Great coaches give players specific praise about what they are doing in the moment and how the team needs more of it. In these moments, the expectations are often clear. This establishes the conditions in which people can thrive.

The conversation over praise vs. encouragement takes me back to Carol Dweck's work from before she wrote Mindset (2006). Dweck cautioned praising students without being specific. She said the labels, such as "smart" or "gifted," are damaging if they are not connected to specific moments and achievements (1999).

In other words, good teachers don't hand out gold stars. They provide actionable feedback pointing to the strengths and weaknesses of the work. Most importantly, they provide support, not answers. Good teachers are the "guide on the side," not the "sage on the stage," as Alison King puts it (1993).

4. Freedom to Make Mistakes
Players need to have the confidence to make decisions. This cannot happen if they are always worried about what the coach will think. The feedback or correction from the coach is important, but it should be a positive impact on the player and the game. 
I can still here my music teacher say, "If you're going to make a mistake, make it big." The logic behind this expectation was to ensure that we are always confident. Plus, it's easier to make a correction when it's obvious.

Teaching should be the same way. I don't want my students hiding behind anxiety-laden smiles. I want them to fall hard (not literally) and get up so we can talk about what happened before trying again. That's learning. It's messy. It's playful. It's natural. It's not supposed to be about grades and worry of failure.

5. Discourage Giving Up
Great teams persist and improve regardless of the score, and it takes a strong coach to ensure that persistence and effort are a part of the culture.
The best lessons are often not learned from our successes. This is all contingent upon how we reflect on the losing performance and what we do with it moving forward.

Are the reflections honest? Are they specific? Do they inform our agendas? Can we prioritize the issues? These are all questions that successful people use to set goals (see SMART goals).

Thanks for reading.