Saturday, February 26, 2011

“Thanks Coach”

Much of my formation as young man was shaped within the context of sports. I have been teammates with great people and worked with remarkable coaches.   Today I still consider sports an important part of my life - you might still find me trying to keep in shape (no wise cracks please) or enjoying a game of golf every now and then (I never play enough - but don’t ask my wife!) 
Much of who I am, what I value and what I do are a reflection of my involvement in sports.  I dedicate this post to the many coaches, who along the way taught me that: practice matters, to always “be on my toes”, to keep my chin up and it’s important to trust your teammates.

Practice matters
The good coaches taught me the importance of being prepared and the value of practicing.  My very best coaches understood that true learning and improvement was rooted in the idea of trial and error.  Our practices were always a safe place to make mistakes.  (Hmmm… I wonder - would more teachers embrace and use better grading practices if they understood this sports analogy?)  To further support this point, Malcom Gladwell, in his book the Outliers, argues that to master something, you need to “practice” it for at least 10,000 hours!  While this may seem like overkill, I think you get the point.   Today, I take this spirit of preparation, practice and risk taking with me wherever I go and whatever I do!

Be on your toes.
Sports have taught me about the importance of being “fleet of foot”.  Circumstances can change quickly.  In my professional life I feel that now, more than ever, I need to be ready for change.  Ironically, although preparation is important in sports, game plans can change quickly.  I was always taught to expect the unexpected.   There were countless times that well prepared and rehearsed game plans changed within a few moments of a game starting.  The good coaches always understood that ‘being on your toes’ rather than ‘digging in your heels’ made you ready for the unexpected!  (I can still remember walking into our school gym, 5 months into my first year as principal, to discover our gym floor flooded!)  On a day to day basis, this “be on my toes” mentality keeps me ready for the exciting demands of my job!  

Trust your teammates
Having teammates that I trusted and, in turn, trusted me made me a complete athlete.  I heard the following mantra constantly by my coaches: “do your job and trust your teammate to do theirs”.   This is something I still value today.  I have come to appreciate that I am at my best when operating within a team or community.  Whether it’s within my family, school community, learning community (PLN), faith community or just with a bunch of buddies on a golf trip – I’m fully alive when in community!  I accept my personal responsibilities, but it makes a difference knowing that others “have my back”.

Keep your chin up
When our team lost a game or when I made a mistake, the good coaches always told to me to “keep your chin up – you gave all you had – learn from it and move on”.  This attitude has really stuck with me to this day.  Recently, I watched a documentary about legendary football coach Vince Lombardi. While watching I discovered something remarkable about this iconic coach - his biggest regret in life was being quoted for that now famous statement:  “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”. 
In the film, a long time friend of Lombardi’s recalls a conversation he had with the coach in which he (Lombardi) says:  
“I wish I never said that… (Winning is the only thing).  What I really believe is that if you leave every fiber of what you have on that field, at the end of the game, then you’ve won…….  I never made that clear”.

Stop the presses everyone!  

It was great to hear that Vince Lombardi wanted a "redo" on his original quote. 

(As an aside, I find it shocking to see and hear coaches present this "winning is the only thing" attitude in amateur/school sports – if Vince Lombardi can figure it out – surely we in amateur sports can!).

Nonetheless, to each of my coaches, I would like to say “thanks coach” for the rich and enduring life lessons that you provided me through my involvement in sports!  

Oh and in case I failed to mention it: Winning isn't everything – “thanks” coach Lombardi -for setting the record straight! 


  1. Nicely said. It is interesting to see how influencial sports have been for many of us. Your post made me think of Herb Childress' article, 17 Reasons Why Football is Better than School - Another good list of what schools could learn from sports.

    Of course, before someone else quickly responds back - there is absolutely a lot in sports we could learn from schools.

    Coaches like Lombardi and Wooden have been great examples for many generations!

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment Chris. I will have to read Childress' article. Lombardi's true sentiments on his famous quote really resonated with with! Thanks again

  3. Great post Johnny! I've always thought that if we taught like we coached that the classroom would be a very different place. Coaches keep it positive, provide immediate descriptive feedback, and allow 'practice' without penalty. I too learned a lot both from my coaches and as a coach myself. What i love about sports is how you face adversity in the moment; how you must adjust and keep pushing, never give up, and leave it all on the field.

    By the way, if Lombardi were in my class he would have been given a do-over and I wouldn't have averaged the two quotes!! :-)

  4. Appreciate the comments Tom. There does seems to be a natural connection between coaching and the classroom. Like how you wouldn't average coach Lombardi's quotes ;)

  5. Well said, Johnny.

    The reason I went in to education was because of a coach that I felt really cared about me and my teammates, and used the court as "the biggest classroom in the school" (as he would say).

    I'll never forget when I was playing volleyball in a zone championship and hit a ball out of bounds on the game-deciding point (and the final point of my high school career). At the time, I was shattered; I felt like I had let the team down and lost the game for us. With the bus idling and waiting to take the team back home, I remember him taking me off the bus and going for a 10 minute walk to talk about all of the highlights and successes of the season, and even that final match. He wanted me to remember all of the great things, not just the last thing.

    I won't forget the idea that he taught me: it's not always about the product, but it IS always about the process.

    Thanks for bringing back some memories.

  6. Thanks for taking the time to post a comment. Your comment touches a nerve for me as well. I am always amazed to see how many school leaders have their roots in athletics.

  7. Thanks to my involvement in athletics when I was young, and thanks to coaches who helped me believe in myself, I got on the right path again. I appreciate your post as it honors the positive difference that can be made by anyone influencing young people.

  8. Johnny, yet another great post. Like yourself and many others, I also can thank all of the coaches who took the time to work with during my formative years. As coaches we tend to connect and influence students in a way that is different than in the classroom. I agree with Tom that there is much from coaching that we could and should take as we approach students in the classroom. Meeting our students where they are, providing descriptive feedback and focussing on the development of skills are just some of the aspects that are easily transferable.

    As a teen, I had the opportunity to be a soccer player and receive coaching, then change to the role of the coach of young children at other points in the same week. The opportunity to coach allowed me to understand the challenges that my coaches had gone and were going through. Being a player reminded me of the way I preferred to be treated by my coaches and how important this was in my own work as a coach.

    I owe a lot of thanks to the group of kids I first coached for inspiring me to go into education. Without the positive experiences of working with them I likely would have missed out on the daily satisfaction I get from working with my present students.


  9. To compare how we coach and how we teach can be an eye-opening experience. About 4 years ago I did an AFL session is SD67 and there were a few resident 'hecklers' (they admit now that they were). This winter I had the pleasure of atttending a session put on by one of these people who recognised that what he had been doing on the basketball court to make his players 'life-long' learners of the game, was in stark contrast to much of what he was doing in his senior English class. He spoke of 'teaching like a coach'. It was refreshing.

  10. Eloquently written. I understand that you have applied these coaching principles as you lead your school. Would your former players add any other principles to this list that they took from you as life lessons?
    I treasured the preparation that came from from good scouting. We tried to build confidence by recognizing the opponents strengths and planning to attack those, not just their weaknesses. And as coaches we had to be on our toes, as you wrote. How could we ever forget being called to the RCMP office hours before a crucial game in a small town. Some of our players had been caught shop lifting. We had always stressed character development and had to do the right thing. The opposing coach could not fathom that we were not playing some of our best. And as always in life a good application of humour helped mollify our intensity.
    Keep up the good work and rich reflections.

  11. The very nature of coaching demands that we practise sound assessment, doesn't it? I mean, let's face it: not every team or single athlete is going to win a provincial banner - as coaches most of us know this. And, if that team or single athlete does bring home "the blue," most good coaches will say that the athlete(s) already had the talent and that very little of that success had to do with the coach as an individual, per se.

    What most good coaches will talk about is the energy it takes motivate and challenge and design workouts in hopes of giving their athletes an opportunity to practise the skills necessary to perform on court, on the pitch, on the field, on the track, on the mat, or wherever else. Shouldn't it follow then that good teachers motivate and challenge and design curriculum, lessons, class activities in hopes of giving students the opportunities to PRACTISE the SKILLS necessary to function as global citizens?

    If playing and coaching volleyball has taught me anything, it's that there are so many life lessons, and teachable moments and personal bests. At the end of any given season, one of my colleagues always says: "Hey, you win, you win; you lose, you win." He says it half jokingly because often the end of the season means coaches get their lives back, but if you think about the statement, it means so much more. Whatever discipline or memory we take away from coaching or being coached endures much longer than a ten or thirteen week high school sports season. So, what would a win look like in my classroom, I wonder? And, perhaps more importantly, what would a loss look like?

    I like that idea of "teaching like a coach" - it means a ton of practise, feedback, flexibility... just enough for me to "stay on my toes".

    Thanks for this, Johnny!