New Year’s Challenge—Integrated Coaching

For a few years, I was the chair of the Social Studies Advisory Committee for Arlington Public Schools (APS). One of my passion projects as a part of that group was the idea of integrated learning. Education, to my mind, has been developed in far too stovepiped a manner. Understanding Newtonian physics could be far enriched and broadened by understanding the life-and-times of the scientist who developed those concepts. Conversely, understanding the historic value of the industrial revolution could be far enhanced by understanding the machines that ushered in that age—experimenting and understanding the steam engine, for example. Life is an integrated exercise, so why shouldn’t education?

In this effort, I will admit I had little success. I was happy that some individual English and History teachers worked to combine reading lists, that was about as far as it went. Teachers and administrators I spoke with argued, and with some merit, that the established curriculums and testing requirements were too entrenched to permit significant integration, even at the elementary level. Teachers had way too much to learn about their own subject, and too many resources were available to give them deeper expertise on what they were teaching, to have time to work on another subject.

I was thinking of this as some 7,000 baseball coaches descended on Nashville for the four-day American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) national convention starting on January 2. I’ve never been (hoping to go next year as the convention is coming to DC), but all the coaches I know who have been absolutely love not only all the great presentations, but the chance to compare notes and talk shop with so many other passionate, knowledgeable baseball coaches around the country.

One of my go-to podcasts is the ABCA Calls from the Clubhouse, and their great resources only scratch the surface of the endless incredible resources available online, conventional old-school paper books like Heads Up Baseball—not to mention just swapping stories with the great coaches I work with. It’s more than enough information for this lifelong learner to last more than a lifetime.

But as I sift through all of the new signs, drills, and philosophies in the notebook I have to learn for my new gig at Falls Church High School, that quote from Coach Kyle Nelson from Cornerstone Coaching Academy I mentioned in my last post keeps popping in my head:

COACH NELSON: One of the things I am going to do this year at our school…is go to different practices. I’m going to go and watch a volleyball practice. I’m going to watch a football practice. I’m going to go watch a soccer practice. And I’m going to figure out what they’re doing that I like. Is there something they are doing that I can learn from and incorporate into what we’re doing. Because coaching is coaching, right? The sport is just the tool you are using to do it.(my emphasis)

At APS, the Social Studies department adopted a fantastic teachers’ curriculum called History Alive! It really delves into how to use history as a vessel to teach students critical thinking skills by using the key question so many primary school Social Studies classes so assiduously (and unfortunately) ignore—Why? And while most of the teachers who took advantage of the program were, as you’d expect, history teachers, there were a minority that took the course because they saw how those skills could port toward invigorating a love-of-learning beyond just that subject matter.

Coach Nelson’s comments brought me back to a time when my younger son was playing Rec basketball in 5th Grade. Coach Jones sent all the kids home from their first practice of the season with an article from Jay Bilas from of ESPN (pdf) on “Toughness” — a subject he immersed himself in enough that he ended up writing a book on the subject. As a nosy Dad/Coach, I couldn’t help but read it over myself. Indeed, I wrote a bit about this very subject a few years back.

Immediately I saw that while some of the specific instructions were hoops-specific (“Set a good screen” “Jump to the ball” among others), many of the lessons from “Talk on defense” to “Take responsibility for your teammates” were equally instructive for baseball. And, as I thought about it, even the subjects that seemed to be basketball-only really had cross-sport value underneath; from a good screen being about thinking about how making a teammate better makes you better, to preaching an aggressive style of play that encourages “new mistakes.”

I used the Bilas piece to create a “grinder’s guide” for my house and travel players, and even created “Grinder of the Week” t-shirts I gave out to players to wear to practices based on how they embodied the spirit of the guide.

For me as a coach, I think there was real value in that. In some ways, it’s almost too easy to hear from and follow subject-specific instruction. As I’ve inculcated the great mental instruction from Heads Up Baseball into my own coaching, there’s been a lot of “plug-and-play” — using the sport-specific terminology and instruction that the authors came up with. While that’s not a bad thing, it was the Bilas article that inspired me to make my own connections, and bring my own approach and experience into play.

So while I will certainly continue to dive into baseball-specific coaching instruction (indeed, I’m just cracking open The Mental Game of Baseball), I am challenging myself to read, watch, or listen to at least one non-baseball coaching or teaching resource each week. I’d love to hear suggestions from coaches and teachers, or others that work on leadership or other “portable skills” out there about their favorite resources, and I’m happy to continue to share mine, including non-baseball materials like Bilas’ article that really helped me.

So here’s to a new year of Integrated Coaching. Looking forward to getting better with all of you.

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