Tuesday, March 09, 2010

As an educator and a college coach, the skills necessary to recruit young minds toward the task at hand overlap nicely between my paying profession and my playing one. I work as HS support staff, and in that capacity get to sit and observe many of the teachers at my school. I see how the good teachers engage their students in the process of learning, and watch as lessons become exercises in fun engagement.

I also, sometimes, am in classrooms that struggle with behavior management,  with a teacher lacking patience, tolerance, or understanding. Someone lacking patience can turn a tiny infraction into a momentous occasion, inviting the entire class to sit and witness control of the situation dissolve in a fury of adult opprobrium. Because of this they don't have the students as allies, and when the teacher's patience frays and they try to regain control all the students hear is this:

"You're trying my patience! I need you to blah blah! I need everyone to blah blah! I want this! I need that! I need I need I need I want I want I want!"

And on and on, a list of demands, that the students give exactly what they want (whether she explained it well or not is irrelevant), as if by virtue of the existing power structure and being the Teacher, all students are obliged and do exactly as  Teacher says or get layered with condemnation. When a teacher can't keep their cool, the entire class knows it.

So where's the Ultimate? I'm getting there. You see, these types think that by virtue of their position they should be obeyed, so their interactions with the students rest on this pillar of their pedagogy. But what if, as the students are more than happy to demonstrate, they don't give a shit about what they say? What is going to motivate the students to want to improve then?

At the beginning of the season I made what is, at face value, a very small semantic request. I asked the captains and officers that, whenever addressing the team, be it practice, huddle, or email, that we never use the singular first person. That we never begin with "I need..." or "I want you to..." The frame for what follows requires that the listener be vested in the speaker and his authority, and that they place their own wants and needs below those of the speaker. And that kinda works, sorta. HS students know they need to do their work, and players know they need to work out and practice, so to the extent that they know it necessary they'll follow along. But what if your goal is not to just have them do what is minimally required, but to inspire and motivate them to do their best, every time?

What I asked is that we frame every address to the team in the team's terms. Some players might not like me personally, and I know some Hodags would love to flick a captain or officer in the nuts, hard, if given the chance. But every one of them wants the team to succeed, to win. So we say:

"You need to..."
"The team needs..."
"We have to..."
"Let's all..."

It's a small quibble, maybe just a little something to make a fuss over; a single word change. But I'm convinced it makes a difference, as we repeat it practice after practice, huddle after huddle, one word change become a thousand word choices over a season's time. If you as a coach make it about you, players are invited to take you or leave you. But they're not on the team because you're the coach, or the captain. You ain't that special. They're on the team because they love playing Ultimate, love being on a team, and want to work hard for the team so that they may personally feel more accomplished. If they hear that you need them to try harder, their inner monologue gives you a parenthesized "fuck you". You work harder, bitch.

But listen to the difference. Say instead, "We're slacking. When we showed up at tryouts and went around the circle after making the team, we all promised each other we wouldn't shy from the hard work. We knew there would be hard work, challenges. Here's one, right now. Right fucking now. So we can go back on our promises to ourselves, to each other, or we can sack up and play with some heart. The team is better than this. We are better than this. Right now, we have to work harder."

At my high school it's never about me. When I enforce rules they're never enforced because I want them to be. We do things in my office because the students are there to learn to be winners. They want to be winners, they want to be great. I remind them of this desire they have, this picture of themselves they hold in their head. You want to be a beast. You said you wanted to go to college. This is what it takes. It takes hard work. I'm here to help you not quit on yourself. You need to put your head down and put in the time, for you, right now. I see that person you want to be, poking out from within you; now sit down, focus, and let the beast loose. You deserve it; you owe it to yourself. Do it for you.

I don't know if it works or not, I'm just convinced it does. At least, I'm pretty popular with the kids these days.


Dan said...

I like this post a lot Hector. If only because during my own brief experience as an educator in middle and high school I saw far too many of these teachers. Power dynamics in the classroom are among the most fascinating things in the world to me, mostly because so many teachers fail to recognize them at all.

Keep fighting the good fight.

BenjamminSpears said...

Very good post and message, buddy.

Stephen Hubbard said...

Very insightful. Thank you.

I noticed in your examples that "You need to..." is different from the other 1st person plural "we"s and "the team"s. I wonder if addressing someone directly implies the "I think" or "I know" even if it is unsaid. Should all criticism start with plurals?

"Rookies can benefit from..." instead of "You should..."

Hh said...

Direct criticism is offered like this: "You'll want to _____ so that you can better_____ successfully."
You present it not as criticism but as advice they can incorporate to improve their _______. It's a subtle sleigh of tongue: a gentle suggestion that the criticism you're offering is actually their idea, and you're merely stating what they obviously already know. Hence, you critique while also reinforcing that you believe they're already successful.

Anonymous said...

I also use this technique in personal relationships where another person and I share a common goal. Shit, I live team oriented.

Let's go,