George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

What Educators Can Learn from Athletic Coaches

June 17, 2016 Updated June 16, 2016

Anybody interested in education should also consider how successful athletic coaches inspire and motivate greatness in young people.

Consider the legendary Joe Newton, the most successful high school cross country coach in American history. In over 50 years of coaching, he has led York Community High School in Elmhurst, Illinois, to 28 state titles. That’s one title more than the number of World Series championships won by the New York Yankees.

Newton has written several books about coaching and running, and a feature-length documentary chronicles his 2005 state championship team. But beyond all of his trophies and successes, I’m curious to learn from Newton how he inspires such love, dedication and devotion.

Newton doesn't have a special secret. “If you’re a fraud, they’ll see through you and they won’t do squat for you,” he told me, after we spoke in the fall of 2013. “But if they know you love them because your personality tells them that, that’s the secret of coaching. They know I care about them and, as a result, when I ask them to do something special, they do it. That’s the secret to coaching.”

That’s also the secret to effective teaching. The best teachers make obvious how much they care—not just about their students’ academic success, but also about their happiness and wellbeing. When I was a student at Brimmer and May in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, teachers cheered me on from the sidelines, attended shows, volunteered to chaperone overnight trips, and even visited me in the hospital. I wanted to repay their kindness and sacrifice by studying that much harder and smarter to succeed.

I too coach cross-country, and I tell Newton that runners whom I also teach almost always give similar effort inside my classroom. He’s not surprised to learn this, or that my most dedicated runners also tend to be the most successful students. As I talk with Newton, I think of one of my former student-athletes, an eighth grader. He not only ran a 19:01 5K, a gigantic feat for such a young person, but he also consistently earned high academic honors.

Newton says that his squad also has the highest grade point average of any team at York. “You would think not, because of all the work: They’re running in the morning. They’re running in the afternoon,” he says. “This is a very academic high school. Yet, our guys are absolutely good students and, above all, good human beings. I’m talking about that constantly. Every day, I’ve got one or two thoughts for the day. It’s nice to be great. It’s greater to be nice. That’s one of my all‑time favorites. I tell our guys that you only get respect when you give it. And if you don’t give respect, you’re not going to get it back. So you better be learning how to give it. That’s good for life.”

Newton cares about winning, but he cares just as much about his teams’ academic successes—and he enforces his expectations. “I tell them all the first day of practice, ‘If you’re ineligible two weeks in a row, you’re not helping our team. You’re done. You’re going back into the classroom and start paying the price,’” he says.

Newton says that his team is full of scholars, willing and able to provide academic support. There’s something to be said for knowing how and when to ask for help, and I applaud Newton for fostering this ideal in his runners. Even at 32, I find that at times friends and coworkers have correctly pointed out that I need to ask for help more often. But asking for help is far from the only life skill that Newton imparts to his runners.

“If you’re in school, you’ve got to come to practice,” Newton says. “If you duck out twice, you’re done. . . . That’s training for life. If you go out in life and you’re tardy three days a week, and three other days you don’t come to work, you’re going to be fired. I’ve got two jobs when I’m coaching. First is physical welfare for all the guys. And second is train them to be a good person, a good human being—the value of hard work and punctuality.”

I’m also impressed with how Newton tells his runners they shouldn’t be afraid to fail.

Too often, well-meaning teachers do too much to ensure that students never fail. But if kids never encounter adversity in the classroom, it’s doubtful they will be successfully manage it in real life. Teachers should encourage students to try daring new things, and rethink how failure can turn into even greater, more meaningful success.

After each practice, Newton leaves his students with a thought of the day. He shares with me one of his all-time favorites: “The greatest thing in life is not in never having fallen, but in rising up again.”

Teachers can learn a lot from Coach Joe Newton, who, through showing student-athletes just how much he cares—and he cares a whole lot—empowers them to recover from adversity and failure that much stronger. Here are some of key takeaways...

Encourage Failure

The best coaches encourage failure, and they don’t harshly penalize students for making mistakes. Instead, they review with an athlete what he or she did wrong and move on with the next play. In the classroom, the permanent nature of grades and high-stakes testing damages moral and reinforces futility and despair. Too often, well-meaning teachers do too much to ensure that students never fail. But if kids never encounter adversity in the classroom, it’s doubtful they will successfully manage it in real life. Like coaches, teachers should encourage students to try daring new things, and rethink how failure can turn into even greater, more meaningful success.

Acknowledge Individual Progress

On the field, coaches praise athletes for reaching their fullest potential—whatever that may be. “I’ve got three guys on my team that are like 250 pounds,” Newton says. “They’re out there in front of the whole team at the team meeting. I said to two guys, I said, ‘Look at their bodies. They’re not made for running and they’re out here every day busting their butt.’ I said, ‘I just love guys like that. That’s what our program is all about.’ Then I gave them the old shot: ‘You choose to be average. You choose to be good. You choose to be great.’ Those guys don’t ever score a point for us, but in my eyes they’re great because they come out and they give me what they’ve got.’” How many teachers would say as much of a math or history student, trying equally hard, but only managing to earn a D?

Affirm the Power of Hard Work

Great coaches help players see real improvement. I coach varsity cross-country, and at the start of the season, I discuss fitness goals with my athletes. It’s not long before many of them are sporting six-pack abs, along with impressive race times. Even my slowest runners revel in achieving new personal records, in turn motivating them to continue working just as hard—or harder. In the classroom, teachers should provide students with analogous goals and measurements for progress to encourage (rather than discourage) continued growth.

Affirm the Power of Teamwork

On the playing field, no matter how talented an athlete, victory is impossible without teamwork. The best coaches cultivate productive relationships, and their athletes revel in accomplishing something they couldn’t do alone. More still, the entire team is only as strong as its weakest player, and it’s the job of that team to help that individual improve. In the classroom as well, pursuing individual academic competence must remain paramount, but teachers should encourage students to support each other. Too often, students compete against each other for high grades and standardized test scores. Just think of what happens when all of the players on the same team compete against each other for possession of the ball—they all suffer.

Teach the Value of Struggle

During training, my varsity cross-country runners follow a strict diet. They aren’t allowed to have sweets or soda, except on special occasions. If they show repeated signs of struggle or a lack of progress, I know they haven’t kept to my workout plan and nutritional regimen. To ensure future compliance, I work them even harder. Eventually, those that stick with it quickly show signs of improvement, not just in their race times, but also in their overall health and appearance. With academic dishonesty reaching ever-greater heights, in the classroom we need to do a much better job of showing students the value of learning through struggle. Just as on the field, by taking shortcuts, they only cheat themselves.

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. 

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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