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October 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 2

One to Grow On / Every Teacher a Coach

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I had a moment of insight about great coaching as I watched Olympic high diving a few years ago. The camera showed the climb to the platform from which divers propelled themselves into a pool that looked distant and small from the high perch. Because diving coaches know the potential for significant physical and emotional trauma if a diver lands at the wrong angle in the water, the event narrator explained, they developed a way to cushion a potentially wrenching water entry. They watch the young diver's trajectory and, when necessary, step on a button embedded in the floor. The button releases a pillar of bubbles in the pool that significantly softens the diver's landing.
This image is powerful. Great coaches ask young athletes to go to "great heights" to challenge themselves. They take care to prepare the athlete for each stage of development, but they cannot eradicate risk because it's inseparable from growth. They can, however, intervene to ensure that the risk isn't so great that it outweighs the reward of accomplishment.
Understanding the attributes of effective athletic coaches provides insight into the nature of good teachers and good teaching. The best coaches encourage young people to work hard, keep going when it would be easier to stop, risk making potentially painful errors, try again when they stumble, and learn to love the sport. Not a bad analogy for a dynamic classroom.
Outstanding coaches vary in their personality and approach, but four traits distinguish great coaches of young athletes. In each instance, parallels to high-quality teaching are evident.

Great Coaches Know Their Sport

Strong coaches are passionate about their sport and understand it deeply. They wake up thinking about their sport. They read about it, observe it, and study it incessantly. They keep learning.
Noteworthy coaches see their sport as more than a game. It is a vehicle for developing human capacity and learning the skills of life. Excellent coaches are fascinated by the nature and possibilities of the game—for themselves and for those they coach. Said one young athlete of a coach who was significant in her life, "She breathed the game and drew nourishment from it."

Great Coaches Develop Players' Skills

Fundamental to memorable coaches' success is their capacity to teach others to play the game. They know how to transmit their own knowledge and skill to those not yet proficient. And they have to believe that each athlete can learn to play the game. To build both individual and team skills, they continually attend to the growth patterns of each team member as well as the group. One young athlete reflected, "Really good coaches have their eye on every kid, not just a favored few." They also continually analyze what the athletes do and adjust both training and the game plan as a result of what they see. Great coaches provide precise feedback along with individualized training that enables athletes to use this feedback productively. They know how to provide high-quality practice.
Notable coaches build players' mental and physical skills. "I thought he was teaching me to play basketball," said a college student of his high school coach. "Turns out he was teaching me to be a good citizen, a human being who cares."

Great Coaches Are Great Motivators

Outstanding coaches set clear and demanding performance goals for their players, working relentlessly to help young athletes achieve those goals. They know that high expectations elicit maximum effort from team members and result in maximum growth.
Strong coaches understand and appreciate human variance. Not only do they often tailor practice drills to the individual, but they also know that individuals are motivated in different ways. Excellent coaches, then, study their players to figure out what will encourage each one to persevere.
As a general rule, they realize that sideline drills are less motivating than the game itself, so they ensure that players grasp the link between drills and the game and that everyone gets to play the game to test their developing skills. Further, great coaches always find a way to integrate fun into hard work.
Effective coaches know that a culture of success is more motivating than a culture of winning. Winning is often outside the control of team members and coaches. Coaches share the thrill of wins with team members when they happen, but they invest more heavily in celebrating the more attainable goal of individual growth.

Great Coaches Are Team Builders

In competition, the coach is removed from the real action. The players have to function as a unit on the field. Even in individual sports, the team is often the locus of motivation during competition. Therefore, highly effective coaches orient everyone to a common vision. They teach team members to care for one another and play to one another's strengths. By acting respectfully toward each athlete, they inspire respect among team members. Powerful coaches address interpersonal problems on a team as vigorously as problems with skills execution or a game plan. And they strengthen team members' bonds by learning from loss as much as by celebrating victory.
Consider the four attributes of compelling coaching. They make a good case for coaching teachers to be distinguished coaches!

At the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish, Jr. professor and chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy, teaching post-graduate students, mainly in the areas of curriculum design and differentiated instruction. She is also co-director of the university's Institutes on Academic Diversity, where she strives to help educators understand the principles of differentiated instruction and develop competence and confidence in creating responsive classrooms that meet the diverse learning needs of today's students.

As an educator for more than 21 years, Tomlinson has worked as an elementary and a secondary public school teacher. She was named Outstanding Professor at Curry School of Education in 2004 and received an All-University Teaching Award in 2008. In 2016, she was ranked #16 in the Education Week Edu-Scholar Public Presence Rankings for "university-based academics who are contributing most substantially to public debates about schools and schooling," and as the #3 voice in Educational Psychology. She's written more than 300 books, book chapters, articles, and other materials for educators.

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