Kevin Parr

March Madness: What Teachers Can Learn From Great Coaches

The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is underway and millions of people are tuned in to root for their favorite team or more likely, to earn bragging rights via the office betting pool. No matter the reason, the fate of these fans' success rests in the success of the teams they are rooting for.

Conventional wisdom would tell us that the secret to a winning basketball team is simple; they have the best players. Although having skillful players does help, it seems that the skills and attitude of the coach plays an even more significant role in predicting the success of a team. The proof lies in the fact that great coaches turn losing programs into winning programs and they do it wherever they go.

Tim Miles, head coach at Nebraska, is a prime example of this. USA TODAY reported on the positive influence he has on the teams he leads, stating: "Mayville State had won all of four games the two seasons before Miles arrived. When he left two seasons later, Mayville State had won 35 games and two conference titles." Coaches such as Rick Pitino, John Wooden, and Mike Krzyzewski among others have similar sounding resumes. So how do these coaches do it? How do they create success in every circumstance they encounter? They seem to do three things very well.

Three Things Great Coaches Do

  1. Help team to set goals. During post-game interviews, a comment that almost always comes from the winning team's players or coach is about goal setting, and is something like "We set a goal at the beginning of the year that we all thought we could (insert goal)." The specific goal is of less importance than the notion that the whole team sat down with the coach and set an attainable (yet ambitious) goal together, rather than the coach assigning an arbitrary goal for the team. And when that goal is in jeopardy (for example, trailing in a single game) coaches will go so far as helping the team set a short term goal that plays out like this after the game, "We knew if we got within five points by half time, we could win." In short, great coaches help their teams set goals and also help them monitor and adjust their course to achieve them.
  2. Believe and motivate. Another frequent comment in post-game interviews is, "Coach really believes in us." Great coaches don't stop there, however. They also motivate players to believe in themselves. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski uses various strategies to motivate his players including increasing a player's imagination, self-confidence, poise, or enthusiasm. In fact, Charlie Rose referred to Coach K as, "the master of motivation." Great coaches not only believe in their players; they also help their players believe in themselves and each other.
  3. Coach beyond basketball. Louisville coach Rick Pitino dedicates 15 minutes of practice time each day to things other than basketball such as money management, communication skills, or lighthearted conversation. Surely the Louisville basketball team would benefit from using that time to practice basketball, right? Not so fast. In fact, his team won the National Championship last year. While it is important to keep in mind that Coach Pitino does spend the majority of his time with his team on basketball, it is curious that he would devote any time to other topics. For one, Coach Pitino is a firm believer that there is more to life than basketball and his definition of success as a coach is broader than one might think: "You measure yourself by your players' success and not just basketball success."

Lessons for Teachers

In our schools we have our own form of madness, although it doesn't always occur in March. What would our students say in their "post-game" interview? Would they talk about the goals we set together with them? Would they speak to how we believe in them and motivate them? Would they reflect on what they had learned outside of the tested subjects? Or would they talk about other things like being challenged to learn or their personal taste for the subject matter? Would they even have anything to say at all?

The unfortunate truth is that to those on the outside many of our schools appear to be like those failing basketball programs. But just like the coaches who have turned those failing teams around, we as teachers can achieve similar success if we keep in mind what great coaches do.

  1. First, we need to help our students (individually and collectively) set attainable goals.
  2. Next, we need to believe in our students and motivate them so they believe in themselves and each other.
  3. Above all, we need to teach beyond the tested subjects and begin looking at the whole child because at the end of the game, life moves on.

As John Wooden, another college basketball coaching legend, put it, "What you are as a person is far more important than what you are as a basketball player." Let's not forget that that about our students.

Kevin Parr is a 4th grade teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Wenatchee, Washington. A native of Michigan, Parr earned his undergraduate degree in environmental science from Central Michigan University. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, he realized his passion for teaching and working with children. Parr earned his master's degree in elementary education from Johnson State College in Vermont in 2003. Connect with Parr on the ASCD EDge® social network, by e-mail at, through his blog, or on Twitter @mrkevinparr.

Comments (1)

Ben Lombardo

April 2, 2014

Excellent piece.  Very much in tune with humanistic education precepts, and teaching the whole person, regardless of subject, area, etc.  Well done!
Concise, yet potent. An excellent set of guidelines for both beginning coaches and teachers (am envious of the writing style!).

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