Sunday, January 24, 2016

What I've Learned from Student-Athletes

Competitive sports were a big part of my upbringing.  Much of my identify and self-confidence came from participating in organized sports.  For that reason, it isn't surprising that I would find my way to coaching middle school and upper school athletes.  Now in my ninth year as varsity swimming coach, I've learned so much about coaching.  What has surprised me most, however, is what I have learned about students.

1.  Students and athletes are very different people.

I will admit to having looked depressingly at the sign-up list for the swim team and feeling a wave of panic at a name on the list.  Rarely, however, has this turned into an issue on the swimming team.  A pool or sports field is a completely different environment than the classroom, and my experience is that students will rarely exhibit the same behaviors in both places.  I have learned to put aside my prejudices and give everyone a chance.  A student who is challenging in the classroom is often a hard-working athlete and fierce competitor.  And surprisingly, sometimes those top-notch students do not know how to push themselves physically and are afraid to take risks.

2.   Students respond differently to coaches than they do teachers.

For many students, being a coach gives you elevated status.  Perhaps it is because you are seen as an expert in something beyond the classroom, and it makes you more human.  That is, students believe you to be more than just a teacher and an actual person.  I get to see students at their best and their worst.  There's nothing like a tough workout or triumphant swim at a meet to reveal their character.  At those times, I take great care to provide the right encouragement or criticism that will help to move them forward.  You have students' full attention in those moments and you don't always get those raw character-building opportunities in the classroom.  It is a huge responsibility, and I take it very seriously.

3.  All students benefit from competitive sports.

I've often heard parents say, "My child just isn't competitive or athletic."  I say you haven't found the right sport.  Intrinsic motivation and being the best you can be is the key to participating successfully in any competitive sport.  In life and sports, someone will always be better than you.  It's important for kids to learn this at young age. What's most important is always trying to be better than you were the day before and putting forth your best effort.  It's the epitome of the growth mindset.  It's easier to achieve this in some sports (like swimming, track or cross country) compared with others, but the lesson is incredibly valuable.  Success isn't measured by wins but by putting yourself out there, doing your best, and finding ways to get better.  It's the reason why I put as much effort into coaching my top athletes as I do my less talented swimmers.  They all can be successful by this measure.