Teaching Using What They Love

After reading a great post by George Couros about how we sometimes hold students hostage, withholding what they are passionate about to motivate them to do what they can’t stand, I felt I needed to offer a counterpoint. Well maybe not a counterpoint, but simply a different point of view.

I have coached basketball since I was in university, coaching both boys and girls from grades 8-12, and now I am working as an assistant at a small college in Edmonton. Coaching basketball is a passion of mine, something I spend 9-10 months of the year doing, and through coaching I have connected with hundreds of students and been rewarded with numerous memorable moments. One thing I have never forgotten during my coaching has been that I am a teacher first and a coach second.

My first teaching job was in Drumheller, Alberta and when I got there they did not have much of a basketball program. Out of a completely selfish motivation, I started working hard to change the program in Drumheller because if I was going to live in a town for a few years, I wanted the basketball to be decent. Over the next couple years, two more teachers with a passion for basketball moved to Drumheller, and the three of us worked together to build our program. As we worked hard and improved, we tried to develop an identity for our team. We decided tough defense would be our calling card and became the focus of our coaching, but some other key characteristics were also developed in our players – hard work, teamwork, sportsmanship and accountability. I don’t need to go into the 6 year storyline, but I can tell you that our team ended up winning two provincial medals and spent a great deal of time ranked as the number one team in the province in our class (2A). Those results were great, but the pride I have in the time I spent in Drumheller focuses on much more than wins, trophies, medals and rankings. I was much more proud of the type of player that graduated from our school each year.

As we coached, we taught, and our players picked up more than basketball skills, they acquired life skills. Our players learned that with hard work came results. Our players learned that they had to play as a team to be successful, and that individual statistics were not nearly as important as team results. Our players learned that if they knocked an opposing player down during a play that they help that player back up. They learned to respect the officials, the opposition and the game. They learned that they had responsibilities as part of a team, and that if they didn’t take care of their job, their teammates would suffer. Our boys were committed to what their coaches taught them and because of that, they learned and were very successful.

What I have always said about coaching is that it provides me with an opportunity to teach in a completely different way. I have “students” in an environment they want to be in, learning skills and ideas they want to learn, creating a learning environment where I can place high expectations and demands on them. Within the game of basketball I also have the opportunity to teach completely transferable skills that they can use for the rest of their lives. I can teach empathy, compassion, integrity, accountability, work ethic, responsibility, and team work. For many of these kids, this is the optimal place to introduce these ideas, because it is in a context they can relate to. You take a tough 17 year old kid and try to teach him compassion or empathy using the Diary of Anne Frank and you might not get much in the way of an emotional reaction, but you talk to team of 17 year old players after a 1 point overtime playoff loss and trust me, you will see emotion.

Taking away the thing they love, to motivate them to do the thing they hate is probably not the right thing to do, on that point I agree with George. But when George beats himself up about letting down his player, I believe that his positive impact on that student should also be commended. George modeled responsibility, hard work and commitment to that young man. As coaches, we provide a voice to our players that at times has far more impact than a teacher or even a parent. If we take the time to teach as we coach, we may instill the skills and ideas that we want to see in our students.


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