Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Coaching and Teaching One and the Same

In the "official" biography of John Wooden by Steven Jamison, Coach Wooden was quoted as saying that he never referred to himself as a coach, but rather as a teacher. When a man of such stature makes a statement such as this, it is worth taking a few moments to digest his view.

I wholeheartedly agree with Coach Wooden's view, which has important ramifications for job athe position of coach and how we treat those who place themselves in this role.

I was a teacher for 21 years, and have coached for about the same amount of time. I went into teaching with absolutely no preparation or training, and likewise for coaching. I became what is called an "alternate route" teacher. What that meant is that I went straight from college to the classroom, where I was provided with a mentor, a clinical supervisor, and was entered into a college program designed for me and similarly situated teachers from other schools. If not for those human resources I would have completely floundered, despite my best intentions. There is just no way to go into a new job and succeed without this support.

The same could be said for my experience as a coach. Now I had spent many years as an athlete, and so I had some experience with coaches in that perspective. But experience as an athlete does not prepare you for the demands of running a sports program as a varsity coach. Sad to say the school itself provided nothing of consequence to me as a coach other than a mandatory workshop all coaches had to attend. There was no supervisor (the AD had too much to do), no mentor, and no coursework. Thankfully for me our high school was only 2 miles from Princeton University, home of Coach Bill Tierney and the PU Men's Lacrosse Team. I took the initiative to approach Coach Tierney, who was kind enough to allow me access to his practices so I could learn both the sport- I had never even played lacrosse- and his approach to dealing with his players. I can never Coach Tierney enough for what he did for me, if not for him I would have certainly floundered and possibly failed.

I also had help from the Princeton High team, whose coach was willing to actually run a couple of joint practices with my team so that both me and my players could more quickly get acclimated to the sport.

The problem a lot of coaches in my position have is that they really don't have a "baseline" or reference point to use as a way of gauging whether or not they are doing a good job, and it is the natural inclination of most people to believe that they are.

What I quickly found is that my experiences as a teacher and as a coach were almost identical: the preparing of lesson plans, the need to evaluate performance, the need for organization, the need to discipline and reward performance, the duty to communicate with parents, the teaching of skills and concepts. Teachers are coaches, coaches are teachers, it is that simple.

Those first several years were a struggle in both arenas, but I can't imagine what my experience would have been like if not for the help, support, and resources at my disposal. I guess my point is that it is my contention we do a poor job preparing parents for the demands of running a team. Now of course sports run training programs, mostly on-line, and may provide videos or buy a book from one of those companies promoting their "solution" to the question of how to coach. But a lot of these programs are not evidence based but merely reflect their "approach."

But what I learned in those first few years on the job, and from my experience with Coach Tierney, is that every coach or teacher has their own personality, and that trying to "put aside" that persona to fit a "system" is unfair to the coach and to the players. Similarly, much of what one learns in coaching and teaching is learned "in the trenches," through trial and error. That is why it is incumbent to provide youth coaches with support that is tangible such as with a mentor and/or supervisor. Coaches need someone they can work with, someone they can "reflect" with, someone who provides another set of eyes to assess what is happening at practice and on the field. Remember, if we assume that a coach is no different than a teacher, than we need to provide the same kind of experience as those like me received when they began their career in the classroom, and then received continuously over the years for continued support to make sure that I was continually trying to improve my craft. No teacher, nor any coach, will ever "know it all" and have no more left to learn.

A final point: the kind of commitment a youth program makes to preparing its parents says a lot about how much it really cares about its children in its program. I remember when I volunteered to coach a 2nd grade soccer team in our town, one of about 16 teams. I was given a bag of balls and a handout with a few drills. Now at that young age the most important thing is having fun, but even at that age a properly trained coach can make sure the kids have fun AND correctly learn some basic skills. Since I was a teacher I felt more comfortable in my situation, but it is wrong to assume that being a parent is sufficient preparation for coaching kids.

So in conclusion, my point with today's post is that it is incumbent on all youth programs to see their parent coaches as teachers and actually begin to enter that expression into their vernacular. By redefining coaches as teachers it is my hope that programs will take more seriously their responsibility to properly prepare and train their parents for the demands of their position. We would never just throw a teacher into a classroom without providing the kind of support I detailed earlier, and there is no way we should just throw our coaches out there with nothing more than maybe a book, a video, a website, and a pat on the back.

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