Fifteen high school long jumpers formed a single line on the runway. It was Sunday afternoon, and after nearly two full days of warm ups, drills, lectures, and instruction, it would not have been surprising to see a lack of focus. However, they were all paying close attention to one short, balding soft-spoken coach in his mid-fifties who was introducing what appeared to be the simplest of all drills, asking them to hop on one foot.
Although the coach had probably taught it a thousand times to a thousand groups of athletes, he explained the nuances of the drill carefully, asking them to do it in a very particular way. If an athlete didn’t do it properly, the coach quickly and gently corrected that athlete, often by name, often with a slight touch of the arm or shoulder.
And over the next twenty minutes, the coach gradually added elements to the drill, stopping now and then to explain what each new element brought to the table. As the athletes progressed through the stages of the drill, he continued giving individual encouragement, while also subtly encouraging the group to take pride in collectively mastering a skill that was fundamental to their event. His voice never got loud. His attention and theirs never wavered. It was a remarkable demonstration of effective teaching.
The coach’s name was Irving “Boo” Schexnayder, described as “The Godfather of Coaching Education in the United States.” The setting was a two-day Track and Field Clinic held at Harvard University over the weekend. It was my second year attending the clinic, and one of the main reasons I wanted to go this year was to watch Schexnayder and his colleagues teach kids. I had heard him speak at clinics, but I had never seen him working directly with athletes.
Over the two days, I had the chance to observe several other coaches who struck me as being excellent teachers. I was especially interested in the way they were able to break down and present complex skills to large groups of kids with a variety of backgrounds. even more important, they were swift and sure in their corrections for the inevitable mistakes that the kids made. What struck me was how well these coaches were prepared for the mistakes, and how quickly they deployed strategies to deal with them. With the best coaches, there was never any sense of frustration with the kids; in fact, these coaches were able to normalize the process of attempting something, learning from the attempt, and correcting it. The kids loved the attention, and it was obvious they loved the feeling of mastery when they got it right. It was inspiring, and to me more valuable than having my head filled with the kind of technical information that’s typically shared at lecture-style clinics.
My experience over the weekend got me to wondering: what do we mean when we talk about coaching “credentials?”
If you go to the web page for the Track or Cross Country Program at any college or university and click on the link to the Coach’s bio, you’ll find the following information:
- The number of conference titles won
- The number of conference champions coached
- The number of NCAA champions and All-Americans during the coach’s tenure
If the coach has been fortunate to have them, you might even find reference to several Olympians who have been through the program. What you won’t find is anything about teaching. You won’t find anything about the percentage of athletes who improved over their four years, or for that matter, the percentage who stuck with the program after one, two, or three years.
It’s unfortunate that when we talk about “credentials” we almost always talk about the performances of the few most accomplished athletes, and almost never about how effective a coach is with the majority of his or her athletes.
And in case you think I’m exempting myself from this criticism, I assure you that I’m not immune to the temptation of establishing my bona fides by calling attention to my fastest runners and best jumpers. It’s as if as coaches we’re all saying, “When my 800 runner wins the league title, that proves that I know what I’m doing.” This strikes me as dangerous for two reasons: first, it leaves unexamined the many abject failures I had — the kids who failed to thrive under my supervision; second, it motivates me to put all my effort and emphasis into turning out league champions.
But what’s so bad about that? Isn’t the point to win races and titles?
Sure. Winning is good, and wanting to win is good. The problem is that there are many shortcuts to winning that completely bypass actually being a good coach and teacher. For example, at the college coaching ranks you can win by being a champion recruiter. At the high school level, you can convince soccer players to run cross country instead and immediately upgrade your team dramatically. (As an example, the 2013 New England DIII Prep School Champion was a disgruntled soccer player who had never run competitively before her senior year in high school. With little training and no previous experience in competitive running, she won her first race by two minutes against several girls who went on to be All-New England runners. She didn’t lose a race all year. So how much credit should a coach get for that athlete?)
At the end of the day, nothing’s going to change in the way we think about coaching credentials. As long as sports continue to hold championships, the easiest way to judge coaching prowess is to count up individual and team champions and use that as a shorthand for excellence, But I know in my bones — and this weekend provided fresh examples — that championships are not necessarily the best way to measure the effectiveness of a coach.*
* Boo Schexnayder was for many years the coach at LSU. I looked up his bio and found this summary of his achievements:
- 1 World Champion
- 1 Olympic Silver Medalist
- 7 Olympians
- 10 Individual NCAA Champions have won 19 NCAA titles
- 57 All-Americans
- 17 Individual SEC Champions have won 42 SEC titles
- Has coached athletes to 11 current LSU records
No mention of teaching groups of gangly high school kids how to hop down a runway.