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    A blog about education, higher ed, teaching, and trying to re-imagine how we provide education.


Good Coaches Are Good Teachers

And vice-versa.

September 9, 2014

My son has started doing karate. He’s afflicted with my degree of hand-eye coordination, especially when it comes to mimicking something someone is doing, which is to say, neither of us are very good at it. The sensei is facing the group and tells the students to lift their right arms. My son, rather than lifting his right arm, will instead lift his left arm, perfectly mirroring the sensei. Eventually the sensei figures out his challenge and physically puts my son’s right arm up, but this takes a while, and only after being told “Right one! Right one!” repeatedly, much to my son’s frustration.

I had the same problem. I tied my shoes backwards, shuffled cards backwards, and generally frustrated any coach, teacher, or family member who tried to show me how do physically do anything. Heck, I still have this problem; I just started a new exercise class, and I could see the instructor continually look at me askew when I was getting all of the moves exactly backwards. He finally turned around so that I could mimic what he was doing accurately, rather than trying to tell my left from my right (and his left and right).

In the spring, my daughter decided she wanted to try her hand at softball. She had never played before, and neither had I. When she showed up to practice, there was a clear divide: those kids whose parents played and took extra time teaching them throwing and hitting, the kids who were physically precocious and thus just picked up the proper technique from watching, and the rest who were left struggling and wondering what to do. The coaches (largely parent volunteers, I readily acknowledge) would bark out some directives but it was sink or swim for the girls; either they knew it, got it, or they didn’t. 

I felt terrible because I was completely useless to her, having never mastered throwing or hitting myself. In most situations, I would put my money where my mouth is and step up, but this was so far out of my level of expertise, I felt like I would just be making it worse. And so after only a few practices, she quit, and I let her. Say what you will about teaching perseverance (most of the time, the rule is you must see an activity through until the end of the season or pay period), but the instruction was so poor that I felt that sticking with it wouldn’t teach her anything other than to doubt her abilities and hate any sport with a ball.

A good coach can teach the necessary skills in a variety ways, so that everyone can get it, or at least everyone has a chance to get it. Even at the highest levels, coaches are still as much teachers as they are motivators. I’ll always be grateful for my experience as a swimming instructor and coach growing up. But, looking back, I think I am even more thankful that I was completely hopeless at most other sports because it means that I am perhaps more sensitive to those students who don’t “get it” and need it explained or taught a little differently.

Being able to motivate a student is key, but to motivate them and then leave them unable to perform the task that you motivated them to try? Sometimes showing works, sometimes explaining works, and sometimes you have to come up with an analogy or some other way of articulating what it is the student needs to do. I try to remember that with my own kids, with the students I teach, and now with the professionals that I work with. 


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