Teaching Like a Coach: What We Can Learn from Our Whistle-Wearing Colleagues

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As a former athlete and coach, I follow a lot of coaches and athletes on Twitter and other outlets. Scrolling through my phone a few nights ago, I had one of those A-HA! moments that made me stop and think. There were two posts in particular from two different coaches I follow that sparked this thought:

What if teachers approached teaching the way coaches approached coaching?

Coaches Use Film to Better Themselves and Their Team

If you know any high school football or basketball coaches, you probably know they spend HOURS watching film in order to get better. They watch practice film, game film, and even study film of their competition. Many coaches spend time dissecting videos of teams at the next level of play (high school, college, or professional) in order to learn and grow. I’ve even seen coaches in professional development meetings secretly watching film on their phones or laptops instead of participating in the PD. (No judgment!)

While I’m not here to call anyone out for doing that, I am interested in how we might use this same approach in the classroom to help our students as much as we help our teams and athletes. Using video in the classroom isn’t a novel idea, but it’s definitely not as widespread as it could be. There is a lot of research showing that video has the potential to enhance and accelerate teacher development.

When teachers review video of their teaching, instead of reflecting on vague recollections of classroom activities, they are able to embrace a more critical and evidence-based analysis of their lessons and interactions. And just like those coaches who spend time watching film of college and professional teams, video also provides the ability to watch seasoned professionals and exemplary teachers at work in the classroom.

The summer before I started teaching, I watched dozens of videos of teachers’ classrooms, some from The Teaching Channel, and some from Teach for America teachers. I was a little nervous to have my own classroom with my own set of students, and I wanted to see how the “experts” did it. I watched those videos, studied them intently, and took notes to review later. I truly feel that I was better prepared for my first year of teaching because of my experience watching other teachers on film.

Feedback, Feedback, Feedback

Coaches are constantly giving players feedback, and they don’t wait until the end of practice or after a game to do it either. They are constantly communicating throughout the practice, correcting mechanics and mistakes. I remember as a young softball player with my dad as my coach, if I was pulling my head when I swung or wasn’t driving through the ball when I hit, he would set me up on the tee and make me hit wiffle balls over and over and over, correcting my grip, my posture, my stance, my timing, and whatever else I was doing wrong until I was hitting successfully.

Positive, specific feedback goes a long way as well, especially with classroom behavior. The rules of positive reinforcement work in both sports and education. What we notice, point out, and praise, we get more of. In coaching, the comment “good play” doesn’t have quite the same effect as “you made a great play by keeping low to the ground, getting under the ball, and using both hands to make the stop.” In the same way, telling a student explicitly what they did right, whether behavioral or in academics, will reinforce the behavior and produce more of it in the future. “Jacob, I noticed you came in and got started right away on your warm-up today. I appreciate that and hope to see you do that again tomorrow” has a bigger impact than “Jacob, you were good today.”

Small, Specialized Groups

While the number of coaches for a team largely depends on the sport, the size, and the level of play, many sports have multiple coaches with different specialties. In football, they often have a head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, special teams coach, and at the college and pro levels, even position-specific coaches (quarterback coaches, running back coaches, etc.) If you’ve ever watched a football team practice, they spend much of their time separated into offense and defense or even into position groups.

Now I know it isn’t realistic and feasible to mimic exactly what coaches do by separating players into smaller groups to focus on skills. However, is it so far-fetched to consider having students spend time with different teachers of the same subject, depending on their need to practice certain skills? For example, last semester, we looked at our English I and English II students’ STAAR data, divided them into groups depending on the six reporting categories they needed work in and placed them with the English teacher who specialized in that specific skill during Landfall (our RTI period.) Students were able to get focused instruction on the skills they needed the most work in, from the teachers who truly shined in that area.

Something to Consider

Sometimes coaches make amazing teachers because they apply those same concepts that make them successful on the field to the classroom. Other times, coaches walk through the classroom doors and forget that they have an extensive toolkit of strategies that would make them just as successful with students as they are with athletes.

Coaches, what aspects of your coaching can you bring to the classroom to improve student performance?

While we can learn a lot about teaching from thinking like a coach, the opposite can be true as well. Most teachers are highly knowledgeable about the science of learning, designing thorough and engaging learning experiences, and using choice and inquiry to guide students’ learning.

Teachers, what aspects of teaching could you share with coaches to make them better on the field or court?

I would love to hear your thoughts. Shoot me an email, or give me a shout on Twitter @CaitlinCloyd.

Yes, that’s me at about 10 & 13 years old!

For more information on using video as a reflection tool in the classroom, see this toolkit from the Harvard University Center for Education Policy Research titled Leveraging Video for Learning and their Best Foot Forward Video Observation Toolkit.

Software/Apps for Video Observation/Reflection in the Classroom: Edthena, Swivl, Torsh, Sibme.

For more on providing effective feedback, check out To Improve Student Performance, Start Thinking Like a Coach by John Orlando and Thinking Like a Coach by Frank Ward.