I learned more from a single soccer season than I ever learned in school

“There is not a book, a class, a concentration or a degree that can encompass the education you gave each other this season.” 

That’s what Clemson Men’s Soccer Coach Mike Noonan told his players at their post-season banquet. Sitting in the audience as someone who recommends books, teaches classes, and designs degrees, maybe I should have been offended. But I knew Coach Noonan was right.

Glory days
Glory days

What if professors like me could develop students half as well as college coaches do? The trend is to criticize college sports, and obviously it’s ridiculous for coaches to get millions while linebackers get concussions and a scholarship. But many students receive an incomparable education through college athletics. I know because I work with college student-athletes; and I know because my wife, my sister-in-law, my brother, my sister, and I all played sports in college – see picture for proof1.

Those of us trying to develop academic talent could learn a lot from the best college coaches. Here are a couple of specific examples and I plan to share more as I am able to put them into writing.

The best coaches provide constant, unbiased, irrefutable evaluation. Athletes are evaluated against their teammates every day in practice to decide who plays in games. In the games, those selected to play are evaluated some more against new competition. Competition and evaluation move everyone forward and, more often than not, strengthen bonds among teammates. Because the competition is constant, it’s not personal. Everyone is working towards a common goal. I think more competition as part of the educational process could actually help break down the fear of failure. Give a student just one chance to speak in class and they will be afraid. But if that student gets to speak in class every day, even when they stumble, they will be more willing to persist. You can see how this would also carry over to other types of feedback2.

Coaches encourage pursuit of individual excellence, but for the good of the team. Like teachers, coaches help their students develop as individuals. What coaches do better is show students how to contribute to the efforts of a larger whole. Us faculty profess a lot about collaboration and teamwork, but a group project is not the same as being part of a team. When we went 4-12 my sophomore year in college, even the players named to all-league teams felt terrible about the season. The following year we went 16-5 and, based on the smiles in the picture above, I bet everyone considers that season a success. Yet, professors reward the student who earns an A on an exam even when, or especially when, everyone else in the class fails. Team-based education is a tremendous challenge and we could learn a lot from coaches. Their jobs depend on it.

I wish I had more than half-baked suggestions about how to put these coaching examples into action in the type of teaching I do. I’m working on it, so shoot me an e-mail if you’d like to share ideas.   

  1. the guy in the ridiculous teal tracksuit was not our coach, he owned the local pizza & beer place []
  2. Any of my students reading this, yes I recognize that I’m pretty terrible at providing constant evaluation for you – I’m trying to do better []