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Teachers, students, classrooms, and exams

Everyone has a set of values that are non-negotiable. My beliefs around the relationship between coaches and players are part of my non-negotiable values.

The model that I work from is that we, as coaches, are “teachers.” Our players are “students.” Our “classroom” is the field. And the games are our “exams.”

As teachers, we have a responsibility to be educated in our subject and organized in our presentation to our students. We need to define the rules of our classroom and be consistent in our application. Our students have responsibilities to work within our social boundaries, ask questions at appropriate times and in a proper manner, and to put forth their best effort. As teachers, we need to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of every student and work with each one to help them be the best version of themselves.

The field is our classroom – an environment in which our players can face challenges, reach beyond their limits, explore and solve problems, and gain confidence in themselves. Games are “exams” – an opportunity for our players, as individuals and as a team, to test themselves against an opponent and apply the lessons learned in our classroom. At the end of each exam, we can reflect with our students on the successes and failures and take these ideas back into the classroom.

If we consider our practices and games using the teacher/student/classroom/exam model, there are certain behaviors which are not acceptable. At the top of the list is the use of yelling or calling out players as a means of “helping” them improve or correcting problems.

Consider the situation when your child is in math class (my wife and oldest daughter are both math teachers). The teacher calls on her in front of the class to answer a question. Your child has the wrong answer. You would likely be upset or angry if you found out that the teacher then yelled at your child for not paying attention or being lazy, questioning her motivation and commitment to math, noting other students who were doing better, and telling her she will have to work a lot harder to pass the class. Your child would be humiliated, unlikely to take risks, would want to avoid math in the future, and might even believe that she will never be good at math. Her classmates might look down on her and treat her differently.

Now imagine a situation in which your boss follows you around your job for an entire day. Each time you make a mistake, your boss calls you out in front of your co-workers, telling you what you did wrong and what you should have done instead. That would be a long day.

As coaches, we have a responsibility to help our players identify mistakes, determine corrections, and help them solve problems. Imagine if our daughter’s math teacher didn’t tell her students whether their answers are correct or incorrect. Or imagine that she simply tells the students that the answers are wrong without providing the tools for the children to make corrections. We are not being responsible if we ignore mistakes.

The magic is in creating an environment where errors are allowed, players have the freedom to self-correct, and the teacher/coach helps the student/player to a deeper understanding of the what and why rather than the how. In many situations, allowing mistakes to “play themselves out” and then working back to a reflection with the player afterward creates a better long-term result versus noting every error in real-time. If we stop the player immediately after a mistake, we are not giving her the chance to recognize the situation and solve the problem on her own.

Each player has their own story, preferred learning methods, level of self-esteem and confidence, and social skills. As coaches, we need to be aware of these when we work with players, particularly when we are providing guidance, and especially when we are making corrections. I have worked with 17-year-old elite athletes who have tears in their eyes at the slightest hint of criticism. And, I have worked with 9-year-old grassroots players who can take direct instruction with a smile and immediately make adjustments. It is essential to recognize that our students are operating in a social environment with their classmates. How we deal with one student will be observed by the others.

As coaches, we are teachers, and our players are learners. Using best practices from the broader field of education provides some useful guidelines in managing our teams.