If you were to ask any group of people who influenced them the most during their formative school years, you would probably hear a common theme among the list of answers: coaches. Although they lack a traditional classroom and traditional textbooks, athletic coaches often have a special way of bringing kids together and bringing out the best in them.

What strategies can teachers borrow from the athletic field and bring to the classroom?

Always remember that students learn by doing.

How would a team perform if they only read about their sport, watched tape, and received lectures? Not very well, right? This is a truth that is very obvious on the playing field and no less true in school: people learn more and advance more when they are actively participating in lessons. While a basketball coach may indeed give a lecture on how to correctly guard a player on the opposing team, you can be assured that he will have his team practice guarding drills immediately afterward. After you teach a new concept, be sure to give students the ball to try it out themselves.

Set clear short- and long-term goals.

In both sports and school, the ultimate goal is to learn. But that can be a somewhat nebulous and vague aim for kids to understand on a day-to-day basis. During an athletic season, coaches have the luxury of breaking their time into short-term goals (the game next week) and long-term goals (the playoffs). Simultaneously, they set both short- and long-term goals for individual players. While it may be difficult to find similar opportunities for goal setting in some academic subjects, it’s absolutely possible. Consider a semester-long project with lots of sub-parts or weekly non-traditional assessments to help students see their advancements and work toward a bigger objective.

Focus on the process, not just results.

In school, kids sometimes get the idea that their final grades are the only thing that matters. But when they play sports, coaches let them know clearly that, win or lose, there are more important things about athletics than points and trophies. Instead of focusing so much on the final outcome, which involves a lot of factors that are out of their control, coaches know to concentrate on the process of learning rather than the scoreboard. Sure, a player may have lost the final game of the season, but she might also have improved her softball pitch significantly in the last few months.

Don’t just teach your subject matter, teach strategies and tactics.

In sports, coaches understand that it doesn’t make sense to teach an athlete how to throw a ball without also teaching them more abstract concepts: how to learn, how to practice, and how to self-evaluate. These are lessons that students utilize for the rest of their lives. Classroom teachers can take the same approach with their students, no matter the subject: are you teaching your students how to study? Are you teaching them how to apply what they know to other situations? Are you teaching them how to be inquisitive? The fundamentals of learning and self-improvement are the foundation for a lifetime of success.

Turn your students into a team.

A coach knows that it is important to see your group of kids in two different and distinct ways: as a team and as a group of individuals. In the classroom, teachers may not immediately see their group as a team – or see the benefits of treating them as one. While healthy competition between individuals has its place, collaboration can have an amazing affect on your kids. Consider setting group goals, encouraging students to help each other, and letting them know that you see them each as a different, vital part of the group.

Harness the power of formative assessment.

Coaches don’t wait until the big game to assess their players and let them know how they can improve – that doesn’t make sense for the team or the athlete! Similarly, teachers shouldn’t wait until exam time to determine when students need help and to offer assistance. A coach will pause practice to help an individual player with her stride, stroke, or strategy. More than that, she will often jump onto the field and show the player how to improve. A teacher is just as able to engage in formative assessment: those little moments in the classroom when you give feedback to students as they learn.

Take advantage of new technology.

Coaches tend to embrace advancements in every aspect of their sport: from how to train, to how to keep their players safer, to how to ultimately improve their game. They understand that their sport is constantly advancing and that advancing technology can give them the edge to win. While it is fine to be reasonably cautious about new technology, teachers should also consider being enthusiastic and eager to integrate technology into their classroom when possible and practical.

A little passion and inspiration goes a long way.

Perhaps it’s because of movies or stereotypes, but coaches seem to have more permission than teachers to get emotional about what they do, make inspiring speeches, or make a personal investment in their team. But teachers shouldn’t shy away from this strategy. While it’s important to be professional, it’s also important to let your students see your emotions and to let your students know you care. Maybe that means giving a pep talk after some poor test results or showing your real disappointment after a disruptive incident in class. Maybe that means openly getting excited when your students grasp a concept, work together, or impress you.

Help your students learn from each other.

Coaches don’t do all of the coaching. A good coach will often pair a senior pitcher with a freshman and ask them to practice together. The freshman learns good fundamentals from the older student, while the senior learns through teaching the basics to another person. On another level, the freshman gains a student mentor, a role model, and an example of how practice leads to improvement over time. The senior learns about responsibility, teaching, and modeling. This simple concept is easy to take into the classroom and it can be extremely valuable especially if you have students of varying ages or of varying skill levels.

Always look for bigger lessons.

Very, very few high school students go on to play team sports professionally. Yet the vast majority of former high school athletes claim that they learned some of the most important life lessons from their coaches. How is this possible? Many coaches have a unique ability to teach big lessons and answer important questions, even when they’re teaching something as simple as kicking a ball or swinging a tennis racket. Learning to throw a football turns into lessons about practice, commitment, and teamwork. Learning to run a faster mile means learning about patience, tenacity, and consistency. Even if you know few of your students will end up choosing a career involving the subject you teach, you can still teach them a lot of lessons that they can use for the rest of their life.


Teaching and coaching have so much in common, yet teachers sometimes don’t think to use some of the most common coaching strategies with their own students. The next time you are at school after hours, watch a really great coach conduct a practice. What does he/she do that you can carry back to the classroom? When does he/she take opportunities to teach that you may overlook? Why do kids look up to him/her, and why will they remember his/her lessons for the rest of their lives?

Even modifying one principle of coaching for your own uses in the classroom can help bring your students together, encourage learning, and motivate students. It may also inspire you to see each of your group of students as a team, ready to learn.