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Pub Book Review 2014-9-11 What Teachers Can Learn from Coaches
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{HeadLines} September 2014, Vol. 1 
What Teachers Can Learn from Coaches by Nathan Barber


Published: August 2014
Reviewed By: Jay Watts, Assistant Director of Athletics, The Westminster Schools

Conflict between academics and athletics seems to be a popular topic in the media today. The goals and missions of teachers in the classroom and coaches on the athletic field are often viewed as mutually exclusive. Because the classroom and the athletic field appear to be so diametrically opposed, it is assumed that teachers and coaches must use markedly different methods of instruction. The term “student-athlete” lends itself to the idea that these two terms, “student” and “athlete,” are independent ideas that must be forced together. Therefore, the concept of the “teacher-coach” gets the same treatment. How can one be a great teacher and also be a great coach? How can one be true to the calling of coaching and still have the qualifications of a good teacher?  

In the latest publication from Nathan Barber, What Teachers Can Learn from Sport Coaches: A Playbook of Instructional Strategies, the use of a compound word like "teacher-coach" is seen as unnecessarily repetitive. Barber goes to great lengths to show that the qualities of a good coach can be adapted to the classroom so that coaching and teaching are not two different skills but rather two ways of describing the same effective instructional behavior. Barber points out throughout the book that teaching in a traditional classroom and coaching on the playing fields actually have quite a bit in common. Principles of good coaching can be adapted rather easily to the classroom to improve communication, increase student motivation, build stronger communities, and enhance teaching effectiveness.

Barber, currently an upper school head in Houston, TX, has been an educator for 20 years and authored more than a dozen educational publications. Before taking on his current administrative role, he was a social studies teacher and a high school basketball coach. He taught in the classroom at both the middle school and high school levels. As a writer, Barber has produced several classroom guides for teachers as well as online content for test-prep companies. 

In his most recent work, What Teachers Can Learn from Sport Coaches, Barber has included quotes from successful coaches all around the country. The book is filled with thoughts and ideas from coaches at all levels of sports, from football to volleyball to water polo. He begins with a famous quote from John Wooden, the former head men’s basketball coach for The University of California, Los Angeles, “The coach is first of all a teacher.” The following quote from Anson Dorrance, long-time women’s soccer coach at the University of North Carolina, further illustrates the same point:

“Coaching obviously is synonymous with teaching because I think great coaching is effective teaching. What you’re trying to do is accelerate someone’s growth in the game that you’re an expert in, and you’re trying to give them the benefit of your experience by sharing with them what they can do to get to their potential.”

Even when the subject matters are as different as soccer and AP English Literature, Barber asserts that great coaches and great teachers share similar traits. Both are effective communicators, offer meaningful instruction to their students, and embrace technology. They also strive to teach life lessons and make continuous improvements. 

The book is written in seven sections that are mostly non-cumulative and can be read in any order. Teachers who have an interest in one particular topic can skip ahead, although all the chapters have valuable tools that teachers can use to improve their craft. 

Section I – Communicate Effectively

Great coaches are almost always known as standout communicators, but the tricks of the trade that they use to be effective are not limited to the athletic fields. Barber points out that coaches are often quicker than some teachers to understand the power of student-centered models of communication. Information cannot just flow in one direction for a team to be successful on the wrestling mat, and teachers should not expect great success in the classroom if they are the only source of information. Teachers, like coaches, must constantly analyze not just the content of their message, but the method in which it is delivered. Coaches often connect with their athletes on a personal level, a connection that many students feel is missing from their classrooms.

Of particular note in the opening section of the book, Barber points out that good coaches are often quite adept at their use of praise with athletes. He details the discoveries of Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD., who recently stated that praise by itself is not always beneficial to students. In fact, the wrong kind of praise can actually harm young people, discouraging risk-taking and devaluing effort. Imagine a golf coach that gives the athlete praise after a tee shot. Phrases like “you’re a good athlete” or “you’re so talented,” instead of specifics on the mechanics of their swing would not only lack any content needed for improvement, but could also deter future effort and growth. Instead of telling students how smart they are, a good math teacher would use a phrase like “your extra study time really paid off on those geometric proofs.” Barber says, “When the goal of both coaching and teaching is the empowerment of young people to change and improve their own lives, praising anything other than efforts to improve sends entirely the wrong message.” While many coaches may be hard-pressed to identify the specifics of Dweck’s studies on praise, most would understand the results of her research quite well.

Barber finishes this section with an appreciation for how good coaches are able to teach and then reteach skills required for mastery for their athletes. The following quote shows Barber’s thoughts on proper teaching progression:

“If a coach’s responsibility is to take players where they cannot go on their own through solid teaching and reteaching, a coach has shirked his (or her) responsibility if he moves on to a new concept before a player or players have mastered the concept or skill at hand. After all, in sports as in the classroom, learning and skill mastery builds or scaffolds in progression. Skills and concepts taught early on will be necessary for mastery of new skills down the road.” 

Section II – Harness the Power of Teamwork

Teamwork is a concept that perhaps is more often associated with basketball or softball teams than with science or foreign language classes. However, Barber says many of the same tools and techniques that coaches use to build team comradery and a sense of community among their players can be put to use in the classroom. To quote legendary NFL Coach Vince Lombardi, “People who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defenses, or the problems of modern society.”

How can teachers incorporate teamwork in their classrooms? One method involves thoughtful and deliberate preparation for collaborative learning. When assigning group projects, Barber says, “Teachers should consider the goals of each collaborative session before groups and teams are assigned.” The formation of any group should be done with the end product in mind. The key for effective group work is balance – balance of abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Teachers must then work to help group members understand their individual roles within the groups.

Even if group projects are infrequent in a classroom, teachers can still foster a sense of team and individual responsibility by stating their expectations for each student, and developing a sense of shared values for their course. Collaboration can be accomplished in many different ways beyond projects or longer assignments. Teachers, like coaches, have the power to instill a sense of honor in their classrooms, as well as an understanding for the importance of skills like organization, integrity, and effort. Collaboration in the athletic field as well as in the classroom can help prepare students for the increasingly difficult demands of modern-day professional environments. 

Section III – Make Work Meaningful

This section begins with two simple premises from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.

“Coaches should avoid too much talking or lecturing.”

“Practices should be dynamic and full of action to maximize limited time and keep the interest of the players.”

These ideas can easily be adapted to the classroom. The best teachers keep their subjects engaged in a lesson with dynamic instruction and hands-on learning opportunities. Teachers must teach both the “why” and “how” of a lesson to keep students engaged. Teachers would also benefit by incorporating a level of competition in their classrooms. The competitions do not have to yield glorified winners (or shamed losers) with prizes and medals. Rather, competitions involving math facts or famous historical figures can add a social component to learning.

Barber says great coaches understand that work, for the sake of work, has almost no value. The idea that activity will lead to achievement in sports is misdirected. Novice coaches often fall in the trap of thinking that additional practice will make their teams better. If one hour of practice and sprints gets a football team ready for a big game, then two hours will get them twice as ready. “Practice makes perfect” is the old saying that is used to support this practice. Good coaches, however, follow the axiom that “practice makes permanent,” and good teachers understand that as well. Busy work does not help students and may actually turn them off from a subject altogether. Effective teachers provide meaningful instruction and practice for their students. They use formative assessments to shape their instruction so their students are best prepared for summative assessments. And when those summative assessments – tests and exams – yield poor results, they look for ways to help students improve, rather than blindly increase their workload. 

Section IV – Embrace Technology

Can teachers learn about technology from coaches? Barber thinks so and lists multiple online tools and digital apps that have been adapted for almost every sport. Technology allows coaches and teachers to engage their students in an environment where the student already feels a great deal of comfort. Visual learners may respond best to video when learning basketball defenses or out-of-bounds plays, and programs like Hudl, an online video management program, reaches those players faster than the chalkboard of 25 years ago ever did. Great coaches are also adept at using flipped classroom techniques to train their athletes, a process that has yielded dramatic results. Coaches also use video technology for monitoring practice, not just competitions.

Many teachers have resisted new technologies in their classrooms. They are unsure of the time it will take to learn the new tools or the lack of measurable improvements that can be achieved through their use. However, effective coaches will tell you that technology has dramatically improved the way they instruct. Video and statistical apps for cell phones provide new avenues for instruction, and allow coaches to give their players more timely, if not instant, feedback.

Section V – Build a Winning Tradition

The concept and power of "winning" is natural for athletics, but can also benefit the classroom. Sports give athletes victories that are reflected on the scoreboard, but they can also find personal victories by achieving personal bests in the pool or on the pitching mound. How teachers are able to build a tradition of winning depends on how well a teacher is able to define wins and losses within the context of the classroom. Barber differentiates between “Wins” and “wins” for teachers. Wins may be scores on standardized tests or final exams, but wins are just as important. The smaller victories or building blocks required for Wins in the future are crucial for teachers. Furthermore, teachers should be deliberate in how they allow their students to achieve those smaller wins early on to build confidence and achieve success.

Teachers can create a culture of success in their classrooms in a number of ways. They can display motivational quotes to reinforce positive thinking. They can publicly recognize valued behaviors such as hard work, perseverance, and positive attitudes. Coaches understand that a confident, positive mindset can be fostered on the practice field through positive reinforcement and verbal praise. Athletes also are inspired by their coaches’ enthusiasm for their sport. The same can be true in the classroom. Students work harder when they witness their teacher’s passion for their subject matter and dedication to their work. Students stay engaged when their projects and assignments are returned quickly. Inclusiveness, encouragement, and dedication can go just as far in building credibility for a teacher as it does for a coach.

Section VI – Teach Life Lessons

Coaches often pride themselves on teaching life lessons through sport. Supporters of athletic programs often say that this outcome is what makes school athletics so valuable. Life lessons like determination, work ethic, honor, and resiliency should not only be taught in the pool, on the football field, and on the track. Teachers can offer life lessons in the classroom that students will remember long after historical dates and elements on the periodic table have been forgotten. Barber illustrates: Duke University’s men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski asks his team what is the worst thing that can happen in a class, and invariably they answer with the idea of failing. Krzyzewski responds that actually failing is acceptable in the face of great effort, but cheating or being dishonest is the worst thing that can happen. He then teaches his players about issues like time management and the importance of asking teammates and others for help.

Barber also outlines a way teachers can help students handle stress in the classroom, borrowing from how coaches teach athletes to manage stress on the field. A great coach will provide meaningful, game-like situations in practice, where players can sharpen their skills and build confidence. The more these practices mirror game situations, the more effective they are. Likewise, a teacher can teach life lessons by allowing students to grapple with real-life problems. Students need to learn how to ask the right questions and to innovate in order in succeed in an ever-changing world. 

Section VII – Seek Continuous Improvement

Barber concludes with examples of how great coaches maintain a growth mindset, always looking for ways to improve through their own professional development. While they may not use the terminology, coaches are notorious for collaborating with their peers through Professional Learning Networks, or PLN’s. They read books on coaching philosophy and motivation. They attend, and often present, at professional coaching conferences to share ideas with other coaches and receive feedback on their ideas. Great coaches are not afraid to ask questions and challenge assumptions, so they can better serve their athletes and represent their sport.

What Teachers Can Learn from Sports Coaches will resonate with teachers who are looking for new perspectives in the classroom, or perhaps with those that look for affirmation for new ideas already in practice. The book could also be an eye-opener for coaches who have yet to see the connection between their coaching techniques and their classroom teaching. However, this book’s greatest value may be that it reinforces the value of athletics as part of a school’s total curriculum and the need for more recognition for coaches as innovators in education and, in many cases, masters of 21st century teaching pedagogy.

Continue this conversation at the SAIS Annual Conference, October 18-20, in Atlanta and check out the session on sports rebranding that will take place at 11:00 AM on Monday, October 20.  Schedule and registration at



Jay Watts is the Assistant Director of Athletics at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA. He also publishes a blog Gameday Everday. He can be reached via Twitter at @GamedayEveryday or email at



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