Everyone Needs a Coach (Including the Coach!)


My colleague and fellow assistant principal Chad Stuart has a plastic statuette of coach John Wooden on his desk.  His office is spare – everything visible on walls and surfaces carefully considered thanks to his fastidious nature (my office, by contrast, has that recently-ransacked look…I’d like to say by design…).  Seeing this little figurine with its benevolent, quizzical, somewhat bemused look is always comforting to me; I’ve played basketball since I was 12 and count the autobiography Giant Steps, written by his greatest player and pupil Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as one of my favorite coming-of-age books.

So why has my counterpart chosen this little saintly relic as an office decoration?  Why has he chosen a coach as a symbolic Muse for his work as a school leader?

The basic facts about Coach Wooden are bluntly simple: he was the greatest coach ever, perhaps in any sport.  His UCLA basketball teams won 10 Division I NCAA titles.  Over one three-year stretch, his team won 88 straight games.  In the hyper-competitive world of college sports, these results make him the undisputed king.  Yet his biggest legacy is not as a winner of games, but rather as an inspirational leader who nourished greatness with his wisdom, humility, and emphasis on his player’s capacity for growth and improvement.

There is a good reason why Wooden figures prominently in Carol Dweck’s phenomenal, essential book Mindset.  Coaches that lead with ego, anger, and a focus on themselves may very well garner some good results (Bobby Knight, Dweck’s counterpoint to Wooden, won two Division I basketball titles at Indiana University); sadly, many of his players have shared that they hated playing in his program because of his brutal nature, and one has to wonder how many of his teams with championship potential imploded because of his methods.

My counterpart is a guy who loves sports and competition (ditto); beneath that, however, is someone who primarily cares about seeing people reach for their potential – as students, as teachers, as leaders.  John Wooden is on his desk because leadership for him is about helping others become great.

I was in middle school when I read Giant Steps; in it, Abdul-Jabbar describes Wooden focusing only on his team – not spending time fretting over the competition.  I remember this vividly; I myself was a very good basketball player in high school and played against some of the best players in the country.  Many players’ reputation preceded them; the general feeling generated by this hype was “They can’t be beaten.”  I credit John Wooden’s wisdom – passed down through Kareem – for giving me a notion about how to step onto the court with players who were supposedly superior: don’t focus on them and their abilities; focus on what you do well and, as if it needs saying, always work as hard as you can on every aspect of your game.

How does good coaching pertain to our work in education?  I would argue that education’s next big step forward depends on teachers and leaders continuing to learn, reflect, question, and reach for excellence as a way of being.  Dennis Sparks said it adroitly in a recent post: we must “Do what we’ve never done.”  Two critical pieces to this work will be the creation of opportunities for embedded, ongoing, locally sourced informal professional development (e.g., not the one-conference-a-year model),  and a serious investment in coaching – for teachers and for leaders.

Is it conceivable that anyone involved in a field dedicated to the creation and propagation of knowledge wouldn’t benefit from working with a coach?  No – it is not conceivable!  If we truly belong to “cultures of learning” then we – the adults – need to model what learning looks, sounds, and feels like.

I will dedicate future posts on the topic of coaching in education (initially I thought one post would suffice…nope!).  Coaching and teaching become difficult to distinguish, and of course they share many qualities – by that I mean that teachers (and, by extension, educational leaders) do in fact coach as a part of their work.  That said, I will argue that a third-party coach has a critical role to play in the following ways:

1) Coaches help us see that we can, in fact, do the thing we (individually, institutionally) have reflexively considered to be unthinkable.

2) Coaches hold up the mirror to help us see Who We Are.

3) Coaches dismantle the echo chamber we build (sometimes unconsciously) around ourselves and our team.

Alan Castel, Assistant Professor of Psychology at UCLA, interviewed Wooden about aging and memory during the summer of 2008.  His thoughts below summarize why a great coach might be the most valuable “change agent” for an organization:
“Wooden was a role model, not just as a coach and a wise man, but also for his modesty and character, and on how to age successfully.  He was a legend in ways that go far beyond basketball.  His personality, positivity, wisdom and attitude toward aging played important roles in his cognitive vitality.  He also had a great sense of humor about life, and even death…One of Coach’s famous quotes was, ‘When I am through learning, then I am through.'”

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