Walk With A View

When a new principal arrived at his school, this author discovered a great way to strengthen the bonds between athletics and education on their campus.

By Dr. David Hoch

David Hoch, EdD, is Director of Athletics at Eastern Technical High School, in Baltimore County, Md. Named the Maryland State Athletic Directors Association’s Athletic Director of the Year in 2000, he is a frequent contributor to Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 15.4, June/July 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1504/gpwalk.htm

Last fall, for the first time in 11 years, I started the school year with a new boss. As we began the business of getting back to school, Eastern Tech High School greeted Patrick McCusker as its new principal.

Pat’s background is in instructional methods and assessment, and as far as I knew, he had never coached nor been an athletic administrator. But, fortunately, he was interested in knowing what the athletic department was up to.

I quickly realized that now, possibly more than at any other point in my career, was the time to gather all my knowledge, insights, and statistics about educational athletics and feed them to the person who would control my budget, my mission, and my job security. So when Pat asked if he could join me for an afternoon while I observed practices, I saw a great opportunity to show him the importance of athletics and its role in our school.

On the scheduled afternoon, we walked from soccer to field hockey to football field, from volleyball to badminton court, and from cheerleading to cross country practice. I explained what I look for as I watch practices, and I was surprised at the depth of our discussions. I was also surprised at what I ended up learning myself. In this article, I want to share where an afternoon walk with your principal can take both of you.

Classroom Parallels
If there was a theme to our walk, it was the parallels between what takes place in the classroom and what occurs on a practice field. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to find these connections.

Our first stop was a soccer practice. We watched the coach directing a drill in which all of the players had a ball and were busy working on a dribbling skill. I explained that, “Keeping the majority of players active and working on improving a skill is an important concept, but with only one coach it is difficult to always watch every player.

“Do you see that the coach is circulating and offering constructive criticism to as many players as he can?” I continued. “This is similar to a teacher helping students during a classroom session.”

While the majority of the soccer players were participating in the dribbling drill, the goalie worked on an individual drill off to the side. This was not unlike a classroom setting in which students work on individual projects, I pointed out.

At the same soccer practice, I explained, “The purpose of a drill is to provide more repetitions than can be found in a game. The increased number of repetitions, provided that they are performed correctly, is necessary to master the skill.”

This explanation intrigued Pat and prompted him to draw his own parallel. “This is one area where the classroom teachers might learn a ‘best practice’ from coaches,” he suggested. “Understandably, coaches don’t want their players to repeat a bad technique, because they will have to teach the correct form and undo the set-in muscle-memory. If classroom teachers allow students to work independently for too long without assessment, incorrect knowledge or skills may become set in stone.”

As in classroom settings, we saw that coaches on the field constantly offer positive encouragement and corrections. Since athletes learn at different rates, this continual support is both important and necessary.

In a classroom, young people occasionally lose focus and it is necessary to recapture it—the same is true in practice sessions. In another drill on the JV end of the field, we saw the coach yelling across the length of the field to get the athletes’ attention. The coach wasn’t angry, but just as happens in a classroom, he had to regain their attention.

In all of the practice sessions, it was obvious that my coaches had done extensive pre-practice planning and were using practice plans—the equivalent of preparing a lesson plan for the classroom. There was no wasted time, since each learning activity was quickly introduced when the previous one was finished.

I also explained that athletes do not usually make intentional mistakes in either drills or games. They really want to do well and please their coach. This is something that is important to remind coaches of, and perhaps classroom teachers as well, because students also don’t often purposely make mistakes in class.

Coaching Insights
While we enjoyed finding so many parallels between the classroom setting and the athletic field, I also took the opportunity to explain how coaching is different than teaching, and how it takes a special person to be a successful coach.

“Coaching is a difficult enterprise,” I explained as we walked between fields. “It requires more than understanding skills and strategy. A good coach also has to have a genuine care and concern for his or her athletes, be organized, possess a high degree of energy and enthusiasm, and generally maintain a positive attitude.”

A field hockey practice provided an ideal example. Due to a JV match being played on its field, the varsity team had to practice on a small parcel of space off to the side. The coach had to use a lot of creativity to figure out a practice plan that would work in the small space, but she obviously had. The team was totally involved in a productive drill and feeding off her enthusiasm.

We also talked about how athletics provides students with a rare opportunity to see some of their teachers in a different light outside of the classroom. In like fashion, teachers get to see their students in a different perspective. This interaction on the fields and in the gyms can strengthen their relationship and their understanding of each other, which can further enhance educational goals.

At another juncture, I touched upon the fact that most coaches undertake professional development activities in order to enhance their effectiveness and stay current in the field. Not only does this help our various programs, but this approach also provides us with excellent ammunition to fend off unwarranted parental complaints.

Thanks to our discussions, Pat was able to realize that coaches work extremely hard. “They are dedicated, caring, and very giving individuals, and we are lucky that they are associated with our school,” I noted. He quickly agreed.

A Public Test
As I expected, the discussion eventually turned to wins and losses. This was the perfect time for me to point out that winning is not the way we measure athletic success in high school. I explained that we look closely at many other factors: Did our athletes learn and improve throughout the season? How did they conduct themselves after a loss? Did the athletes learn to work together as a team? Were leadership skills strengthened?

Pat was very quick to draw a parallel to the classroom, where there is often an absolute assessment based upon grades and not upon how much improvement has been made. This was great food for thought for both of us!

While talking about wins and losses, I was also able to explain the process of installing a game plan. We happened to be watching football practice and the coaches were making adjustments to kick coverages based upon their scouting report and film study.

“The coaches are preparing a detailed plan to provide a guideline for success on Friday, and they will be taking a very public test that reflects upon this preparation,” I said. “In classrooms, good teachers often review and prepare study guides for their students prior to a test. This is what the coaches are doing for their players.

“Unlike the classroom test, however, the results of the football game will be instantly known,” I continued. “All of this places a degree of pressure on many coaches.”

In the academic environment, SAT scores, state proficiency tests, and other measures exist to determine the effectiveness of the school’s instruction. Often these results are published in newspapers for public consumption. However, Pat couldn’t help but ponder, “Can you imagine fans cheering on an algebra teacher during an exam and then scrutinizing the posted class results at the conclusion of the test?” The parallel gave us both a greater appreciation of the public role our coaches fill.

Try It!
Our walk provided a great opportunity to talk about the educational value of sports for our students. Athletic directors who spend an afternoon like this will find that they have strengthened the connection between the athletic department and the school’s educational mission, and there is no better way to earn the support of top administrators.

Consider planning a walk with your principal, superintendent, or school board members. Plan to observe a cross section of activities in various settings and prepare the topics you want to bring up. In light of public criticism of education, budget constraints, and other associated problems which challenge your athletic program, this one afternoon may be the best investment of two hours you’ll ever make.