Meeting Each Athlete Where They Are: The Coaching/Teaching Connection

“Touchdown” by Ryan Ward, 2nd grade year (May 2021)

Sometimes when I leave my office or a classroom and head down to the ARC, I feel like I’m entering an entirely different world. Indeed, in some ways, the workflow of a coach is nearly unrecognizable from a faculty member’s: starting in earnest before school, loosening up during the school day, and then really amping up when the rest of us are starting to go home.  The joke is that at any given time, you can find the coaches dining on Chick Fillet in that gorgeous set of athletics offices, and to be fair, when the coaches asked to chat with me a few weeks ago, there were indeed myriad hot and delicious breakfast sandwiches to choose from.  But don’t let the shiny offices and delicious array of food deceive you.  The minute we got to talking, the meeting sounded pretty much like every faculty meeting I have ever been in: folks concerned first and foremost for the the youth they worked with, exhausted from juggling the demands of all of the stakeholders (students-parents-admin-etc.), and convinced that the best way to help students grow is by providing them with timely and focused feedback. 

(Here I should pause to note: the perceived athletic/academic divide is absurd since so many of our community members teach by day and coach by afternoon/night.  To those folks I send a double dose of respect.)

Of course I’m most certainly not the first (and won’t be the last) to point out the vocation of coaching athletics and teaching academics have a whole lot in common. (For example, check out Hollie Marjanovic’s killer-good 2021 blog: “The Athletics-Academics Connection, and Why Preparing for Finals is a lot like Practicing for the Big Game.” )  But in this month’s blogs focusing on “teaching the students in front of you,” it feels like an exceptionally good time to revisit how much common ground coaches and faculty share.  But since I, Julie Rust band and drama geek, know about nothing about the life of athletics, I thought we better hear it straight from the coaches themselves: from 36 year veteran Burney King to our first year fabulous tennis coach, Jessie Humble.  I have a feeling reading their ideas below will inspire you in your own work with students, whether your main medium is novels, numbers, art canvases, or tennis courts.

How do you work to target individual athletes’ needs during practices or competitions? 

  • I try to build a session that will focus both on the team as a whole and then individual units. In soccer, all players need the fundamentals of being able to control, pass and dribble so we will begin with a full team activity that works on these three basics. I then try to design activities based on position and split the players up accordingly. For example; attackers will work on shooting/finishing with the goalkeeper and defenders will work on defending crosses, long balls etc. Sessions will be regularly updated to focus on any weaknesses that we have noticed in games. I would love to do more 1 on 1 work with players but our season is so short and practice is so limited that we usually don’t have the time.  (Perry Goldsbury, Boys Soccer Coach)
  • With the pre-season and early season being conditioning and fundamentals there is not much room for variations.  However when we “talk” skills it does vary.  We try and make sure we verbally recognize each kid daily by simply saying their name and encourage those who struggle more with certain skills. (Burney King, Girls Basketball Coach)
  • We have a very young sport here in Mississippi so most all of the student athletes are in the toddler phase of the sport. We are on the mat with them correcting techniques in the moment… in real time.  I think it is important to be able to get in there and mix it up with them so they know what a good training partner should do when drilling techniques. (Justin Rust, Assistant Wrestling Coach)
  • I try to ensure an atmosphere where one can be and express themselves without judgment from coaches and their peers. I also make myself available for any student athlete that needs to address me for any reason. (Lee Marshall, Cheer Coach)
  • I would say it is based on what we see in practice. If there is an athlete that needs more instruction or skill work in a certain area, you stop and address it then during practice. Then continue to work on it each practice so you start to see improvement in that area with them. (Jessie Humble, Tennis Coach)
  • The more accomplished you become in the weight room, the greater your self confidence will be on the field or in your sport.  You’ll know, in your heart, that you’re doing everything possible to become a stronger and more skilled athlete, and lose any doubts about your ability to compete.  And all the while you’re strengthening yourself, you can rest assured that you’re also reducing your chance of being injured. (Joe Ray, Strength & Conditioning)
  • Each athlete has different needs. You can’t coach them all the same, some may need more pulling than others, where others you can push. You have to know each player’s strength and put them in the best position to be successful in their role. You can get them out of their comfort zone to embrace what it will take for them to see they have the ability to see the results they want to see. Practice is supposed to be intense so when it is time to compete the tone is already set.  (Sarah Spann, Girls Basketball Coach)
  • One way I do this is to break apart our practice time into different “periods” focusing on individual work, specialty groups, and entire team instruction. (Johnny Nichols, Football Coach)
  • Something I love about softball is every practice can be different because there are so many different skills to work on. My goal is to build well-rounded athletes, which means we have lots of different skills to work on. We may work on some of the same skills daily, but there are tons of different drills and ways to work on them. My “for you” page on TikTok is almost entirely teacher videos and softball drills. I love finding and then trying new drills to keep things new and fresh at practice. (Hannah Doggett, Softball Coach)
  • We definitely have a wide range of skill levels and also many players who play multiple positions. One of the hardest things is to design a practice for our players to get reps at the different positions they play.  (Mark Fanning, Baseball Coach) 

How do you work to challenge all athletes in the course of one practice session with so many different skill levels represented?

  • Each of my activities have different variations attached to them. I’m lucky enough to have a JV and Varsity team which makes it easier to challenge the different skill levels. My varsity team will go through all the variations I have assigned whilst my JV team will only go through 1 or 2. The aim of my sessions are to challenge the top players and set high standards for everyone. I believe it’s important to set high standards but I believe as a coach you have to understand that by doing this you have to be understanding to some of the younger/newer players who may that not be at that level yet. As long as players are trying their best, working hard and being willing to learn I am forgiving on small technical or tactical mistakes that they may make. (Perry Goldsbury, Head Soccer Coach)
  • We challenge each kid to the max each day with the understanding some will need more encouragement than others.  Also the teammates who excel are really good at encouraging those who might have a more difficult time. (Burney King, Girls Basketball Coach)
  • We do ladder drills where we group the wrestlers by weight classes and have one of them “own it” for multiple rotations. We put them in situations and have them wrestle “live” to get real match scenarios. Once they have gone a few rounds with fresh guys coming in then the skill levels start to even due to them getting tired. This is to have them focus on technique when tired and how to push through those moments when in a match. We put them in tougher situations than they will face in a match so it will be easier in those situations. We, the coaches, also jump in to push them when needed.  (Justin Rust, Assistant Wrestling Coach)
  • Open discussion from each team member what they want for the team. Make note of the objective and goals.  Put them in position to hold everyone accountable; expectations on both side, athlete and coach; ongoing UPLIFT and when necessary Tough LOVE. (Lee Marshall)
  • We separate the JV/Varsity into their sections and work with each according to their skill level/ needs. (Jessie Humble, Tennis Coach)
  • Everyone is going to develop at a different rate in the weight room, you cannot compare yourself to others.  There’s something special about going one on one with a barbell and succeeding ant that’s what you build off of. (Joe Ray, Strength & Conditioning)
  • That as a team we all have the same goal we set as one. Different skills level are great, meaning we will not be a limited team, but we have to stick together. The standard of a program where you want sustainability requires discipline, commitment, and eliminating the me, and embracing the team aspects. (Sarah Spann, Girls Basketball)
  • For football, we do daily skill specific drill repetitions that relate to the player’s position. During these individual drills we can challenge each player and push them according to what we know about their skills and abilities. (Johnny Nichols, Football Coach)
  • In softball, there are 9 different positions on the field. While some positions have similarities, each one is unique with distinct differences. I vary the structure of my practices constantly. Sometimes I split the girls into groups based on their skill levels, sometimes I split older girls and younger girls, while other times I just randomly split the team evenly. When I throw front toss at practice, I am able to give one-on-one hitting support to each player. This means I can target specific mechanics for each player during this time, which I really value and try to make the most of. I also try to always set aside a little time with each position and work on skills specific to that position. I am always encouraging my older girls to step up, be leaders, and help the younger girls. With most drills, I can easily vary the level of difficulty or challenge based on the player’s skill level. (Hannah Doggett, Softball Coach)
  • At times, I try to stagger the groups so when our younger players are in the batting cage, the older players are on the field, and then they switch. We are then able to increase the difficulty of the skill practiced based on the skill level and experience of the group. (Mark Fanning, Baseball Coach)

Is coaching a form of teaching? Why or why not?

  • Absolutely! I was a coach before I was a teacher but I became interested in being a teacher through my enjoyment of coaching. You have to design a session (lesson plan), you have to conduct the session and keep people on task (classroom management), you then have to provide feedback and assess players performance (tests/quizzes) and you have to be able to motivate the players to do their best (create and build relationship with students). (Perry Goldsbury, Boys Soccer Coach)
  • Absolutely! Our content must be broken down into its simplest form and taught back to the whole. Any coach worth his “salt” is a great teacher.  We use techniques such as whole-part-whole just as classroom teachers do. (Burney King, Girls Basketball Coach)
  • Absolutely… and I am learning every practice how to do it better from our head coach. It is easy for me to get on the mat and wrestle. It is not as easy to break it down into the small steps to get them to that particular destination. Then there is the challenge of once having broken down a particular technique and then being able to get it out of your head all the way to your mouth and to be able to make it make since to each individual wrestler. Not everyone processes the information the same way… You can’t just teach it one way.  (Justin Rust, Assistant Wrestling Coach)
  • Definitely, Teachers and Coaches are on the same team and share the same goal. I think sometimes that part gets lost between the two.  As a coach I always stress the importance of giving your best during practices, performances; in the classroom and in their community.     We are both equipping these kids with the tools to make it and be a contributing impact in this world.  Foundation is very important. Coaches and Teachers are part of that foundation. It’s a collaborative effort. (Lee Marshall)
  • I would say it is more like a percentage… 30% teaching 70% coaching. Teaching being the correction/instruction you are giving to help the athlete learn to play the sport better. Coaching being skill building and instruction during practice and games.(Jessie Humble, Tennis Coach)
  • Yes, great coaches are the best teachers.  To be successful you must be able to master your sport, and great coaches help you get to that point. (Joe Ray)
  • Coaching is teaching. You are able to teach the fundamentals of a sport and life lessons to athletes that had no awareness or to enhance the tools to continue to grow within their skill set and applying  them on a daily basis. Each year, you should see the development of an athlete. (Sarah Spann, Girls Basketball Coach)
  • Yes! The students who come to play football (or any sport) come with a wide range of abilities, skills, and knowledge so I have to assess their backgrounds and determine how to give them what they need to participate and be successful. (Johnny Nichols, Football Coach)
  • 100% YES! Great teachers are always trying to better their craft, whether that be through research, attending conferences, finding new resources, etc. The same goes for great coaches. Coaches are constantly looking for new drills, new workouts, new ways to challenge their athletes. Teachers work daily to help their students master standards and coaches work daily to help their athletes master their sport’s skills. Also, to be a great coach you need to know and care about your athletes outside of the sport, just like great teachers care about their students’ lives outside of the classroom. Lastly, in a classroom, teachers differentiate instruction to meet the needs of their students. The same goes for coaches who differentiate their practice plans based on their athletes’ skill levels. (Hannah Doggett, Softball Coach)
  • Absolutely, I am able to see the progression of our students/players each day and from year to year. That allows me to adjust practice plans to move more quickly to something new or to go back over something that we did not do well. (Mark Fanning, Baseball Coach)

Do you have a story about a particularly successful coaching move you’ve made or perhaps something that didn’t go well that we could all learn from? 

  • To date the greatest success story involves a young lady in the Class of 99.  When she came out in the 7th grade we cut her.  The same thing happened to her in her 8th grade year.  In the 9th grade we kept her and she happened to grow 6″ between her 9th and 10th grade season and became our first girl off the bench her sophomore season. She would go on to be a two year starter. Her four years in high school we won 100 games which is the most successful four year stretch in school history.  Currently, she has two boys attending St. Andrew’s and is one of our most ardent supporters. (Burney King, Girls Basketball Coach)
  • The many times I helped one realize their potential on and off the floor; self love and respect for not only themselves but their peers; developed leadership skills (Lee Marshall)
  • I have learned over the past 3 to 4 years that you have to meet players where they are and in doing that it allows space for more grace, motivation, and accountability. When players see that you care about their overall well being, you see a difference in how they compete. (Sarah Spann, Girls Basketball Coach)
  • Last year, our varsity team of mostly middle schoolers faced very tough district opponents. Even though we were getting run ruled, it amazed me that my girls stayed positive and continued to encourage each other. Several opposing coaches gave them compliments after the game for the way they never stopped cheering each other on. While I am very competitive and I did not enjoy getting run ruled every game last year, this was a huge win for me as a coach. The takeaway is that while winning is great, it isn’t all about winning. My girls were and are a true team. Our team theme this year is “Trust the Process.”  With 8 of my 12 girls who played last year returning this year despite the rough season, the only way we can go is up. (Hannah Doggett, Softball Coach)
  • In sports you are going to have your ups and downs, the main thing is to keep the perspective on what you are trying to accomplish. Example:  If a golfer hits a bad shot, and he allows his frustrations get to him, it’s going to affect his next several shots, how to handle that!  If you hit a bad shot, you have to have a case of amnesia, forget about it and move on to your next shot.  (Joe Ray)

Anything else you want to share with teachers about your lived experience with coaching?

  • There is no greater profession than being a teacher and no greater moniker than Coach! (Burney King, Girls Basketball Coach)
  • Don’t take your position lightly! We have a unique opportunity to have a huge impact in these students’ stories! (Justin Rust, Assistant Wrestling Coach)
  • It’s a blessing and calling to do what we do as coaches and teachers. #Encourage #instruct #Inspire #Increase and #LeadingwithLOVE (Lee Marshall)
  • Since this is my first year, I would say that it is more of what I have observed in the past from coaches. It takes a lot of dedication to be a coach and commitment. You are spending time away from your family to work with these students/athletes. Especially when teaching and coaching, you are spending the majority of your day with students and that comes from a place of caring and commitment. (Jessie Humble, Tennis Coach)
  • Best advice I can offer coaches when creating a training program, or playbook, is Don’t overthink it.  Coaches often hinder themselves by using training methods that are much too advanced for the level of their athletes. Know the level of your athletes. (Joe Ray, Strength & Conditioning)
  • Coaching has changed my life for the better. It is one of the best jobs in the world. The ability to connect with student athletes is priceless. To see them accomplish goals they have set for themselves where at the time they couldn’t see it is an amazing feeling. To be able to witness it and be a part of it brings me so much joy. Sports help build confidence, character, self-esteem, and etc. Winning is fun, but it is not the most important thing. The most important thing is inspiring these students that they can be whoever they want to be in life. Waking up each day to be better than the day before. For them to say because of you I did not give up. To see these students as people, as a game changer on and off the court. (Sarah Spann, Girls Basketball Coach)
  • In my experience I’ve found that I have to set high expectations for all of my players (even the ones that may not have the prerequisite skills needed) and making them believe that they CAN achieve those expectations is key. Holding them accountable is key as well – there are consequences when players actions are not consistent with our team and individual values and agreed upon expectations. (Johnny Nichols, Football Coach)
  • This will be my 5th year to coach softball at St. Andrew’s. I love coaching because it combines two things I love: building positive relationships and teaching youth. I love “my girls.” The excitement on their faces when they hit a double to the gap or make a terrific defensive play is the best. When I am correcting their hitting mechanics, and the lightbulb dings and they understand what they need to do, it is a great feeling. The smiles on their faces when they see the results from the correction is priceless. The game of softball has brought me so much joy through the years and I am excited that I get to share that joy with girls and be a positive influence in their lives. (Hannah Doggett, Softball Coach)
  • I have learned that it is necessary to be flexible and willing to change from year to year. I am always looking for a better or new way to teach a particular skill. Students have changed throughout the years and it is up to us as teachers to make adjustments also. (Mark Fanning, Baseball Coach)

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