Game On!

The Six Lessons Teachers Can Learn from Great Coaches

September 13, 2016
young kids on a field running after soccer ball

Watching the Olympics this summer, we found ourselves mesmerized by the almost unimaginable levels of athletic skill — and we couldn’t help wondering about the road that led these athletes to that pinnacle. The discipline, focus, and sheer physical effort that carried them to the world’s biggest stage is worthy of a closer look.

We know that behind most of these athletes is a highly effective coach. While the athlete is the one who ultimately performs, the coach was undoubtedly there to help facilitate the journey.

There’s a nice analogy here to education, since at a fundamental level, coaches and teachers are trying to do the same thing: help young people realize their full potential. So as we start a new school year, what can we learn from the practices of highly effective coaches?

Six Lessons from the Playing Field

1. Effective coaches develop themselves as well as their athletes. Effective coaches are quick to analyze how their coaching influences their athletes’ success. They constantly make adjustments to their training programs based on what their athletes need at that particular moment in time.

As a teacher, are you regularly assessing your own practice and making adjustments as needed?

What would it look like to define success as growth and progress, rather than as the attainment of an ultimate goal? 

2. A coach’s work is on public display. In fact, parents and community members are actively encouraged to come and see them work. It’s impossible for a coach to hide her performance from others. Effectiveness matters; not improving is not an option.

Many teachers, on the other hand, see their practice as highly personal and private. This perspective can keep them from reaching out for help or opening their classrooms to observation and feedback. What if teachers saw their work as a public exercise and were willing to open up their classrooms in service of their own learning and development?

3. Coaches know the importance of developing every athlete in every way. Due to the interdependence of team athletics, the performance of the least-skilled athlete can be the limiting factor for the performance of the team. Every team member relies on every other team member for collective success. As a result, coaches can't be satisfied with high levels of performance among a few of their athletes. Instead, they must ensure that everyone develops to the best of his or her ability.

What if a school’s collective success relied on each individual student’s success?

4. Coaches celebrate achievements and progress. Success in athletics involves a great deal of hard work. This work is not always fun; it requires sacrifices and sustained focus over long periods of time. Effective coaches find ways to help athletes monitor their own progress, track the link between their work and their success, and celebrate key milestones on the journey toward their goals.

Teams that experience sporadic success often rely on a few star players or lucky breaks. Teams that experience sustained excellence rely heavily on culture. 

What would it look like to define success as growth and progress, rather than as the attainment of an ultimate goal? What can teachers do to help students make connections between their effort and their performance?

5. Effective coaches differentiate training. Successful coaches have a nuanced understanding of each athlete’s strengths and weaknesses. And coaches know how each of their athletes will respond to different types of training. This helps them customize training in a way that meets the needs of each athlete, constantly striving for the optimal level of challenge and support for each individual.

What would it mean for a teacher to have a nuanced understanding of the interventions that are most effective for her students? What if teachers were responsive to the unique needs of each student, rather than providing the same set of supports for everyone?

6. Coaches know how to use culture as a powerful tool. Teams that experience sporadic success often rely on a few star players or lucky breaks. Teams that experience sustained excellence rely heavily on culture. Beyond detailed training plans and specific workouts, culture acts as an enabling force for improvement and excellence. How team members interact with one another, how they experience failure and success, and the clarity and focus of their collective mission are cultural factors that play a significant role in a team’s success.

How can teachers build a culture? How can they be intentional in planning how students will interact with one another or how individuals and the class as a whole will experience success and failure? How clear and collectively owned are the goals of the class?

Performance on the playing field may look different than performance in the classroom, but we believe that the journey toward success has similar elements. As facilitators of that journey, effective teachers and effective coaches share — or should share — similar mindsets. As we watch our favorite athletes, let’s learn from the coaches who fueled their aspirations, and let’s embark on a similar journey with each of our students.

This piece is dedicated to Donald E. Herrmann (1932 - 2016), the authors’ grandfather, who was an inspirational leader, public educator, and an award-winning coach who dedicated his career to high school athletics.

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About the Author

Zachary Herrmann
Zachary Herrmann is a program director and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. A former math teacher, he received his doctor of education leadership from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2017. Follow him on Twitter at @zachherrmann.
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Jessica Herrmann
Jessica Herrmann is a systems of support coordinator at Mundelein High School District 120 in Illinois. Follow her on Twitter at @jaherrma.
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K-12 Learning and Teaching School Leadership

Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.