Wednesday, January 16, 2019

An Open Letter to Teachers Who Do Not Coach

All coaches teach. Recently, I have been wondering if all teachers coach. Yes or no? 

There is a difference between academics and athletics. I appreciate and value each realm of the school. I work in both and both roles have a significant impact on my identity. Many of my co-workers, share this identity and in the past 15 years, an increasing number of them do not. Every school in the country shares this report and it's unfortunate. But what bothers me more is a division that is developing among faculty members that teach and coach and those that do not. Therefore, I decided to write an open letter to my colleagues—in particular to those who do not coach. My words are sincere. I often suggestions and ideas, I hope they provide insight and opportunity to build a bridge; I share this missive with the hope that your own communities might benefit from and understand my concern and my plea.
Dear Colleagues,
This Fall, Haley Scott DeMaria the author of "What Though the Odds: My Journey of Faith and Triumph" spoke in person and held a FaceTime session with my Sports and Spirituality class. I feel fortunate to have her as a friend—she is a survivor and an inspiration. All coaches and members of the athletic department were able to hear her story at our Fall Fellowship meeting. What a gift.

In 2012, she was asked to give the address at the 167th Commencement Exercises at our alma mater, the University of Notre Dame. I watched with anticipation, wondering what she might say. To this day, I still think about what she told the graduates. She said,
You will find as you navigate through life, the words "I understand" are very powerful when they are sincere and honest. These words carry the strongest meaning when spoken by someone who has lived through a similar experience. 
I have reflected many times upon the significance of the words: "I understand." Indeed, they do carry weight. As a teacher and a coach, I have taken refuge in sharing my burdens with you, my colleagues. You understand the way teenagers test our limits. We face endless piles of grading, harbor disappointment when a student doesn't give it his or her best and we hold memories that a class creates together. The words "I understand" have assured me that I am not alone and that others "get it." The words "I understand" are free from judgment. They unite and build solidarity. Haley was so right.
Seek to Understand
However, the truth of the matter is we can't...we won't...and we will never be able to say "I understand" to all people or at all times. We have different experiences, joys, and challenges. We won't climb the same mountains—as much as we might like the reach the same peak. We won't be left in our own valley either. But, good, bad or otherwise we forged the path that got us there and need to find one to get out. Some will understand, and others won't.

Yes, experience leads to understanding but I have always believed we can seek to understand another person and their plight. The seeking is echoed in my favorite prayer, the Prayer of St Francis. Imagine a world that sought "to be understood as to understand."

Here at St. Ignatius, many of you my colleagues in the classroom, work as coaches too. Although wearing both hats isn't for everybody, for those that do, the teacher/coach is a wonderful gift to our community!

In the wake of the acute tragedy we faced the past 10 years, we made changes and commitments. We made it a priority for every student to have and name at least one trusted adult on campus. For some kids, that adult is their teacher or counselor. For others, it might be the principal or admin. For many that trusted adult is a coach. 

I LOVED working with this crew! All 4 of us were on-campus coaches
I understand why a lot of teachers do not coach. I took a one-year break from coaching. In many ways—it was a relief! For many teachers, the demands of the classroom and family/personal life are too many. Furthermore, the expertise and skill level required of a head coach, in particular for a varsity program has become increasingly specialized. Such varied and numerous demands make the call to coach, one that many cannot answer.

Common Goals, One Team
We teachers pride ourselves on organization, expertise and seeing that ship sail smoothly. To feel this way leading others on the court track or trail isn't a given. I think most teachers with an open heart and mind can serve as a good assistant coach. Before I grew in my role and identity as a coach, this was an ideal place for me to serve. I learned more from the head coaches I worked beside more than they will ever know. One thing I would like for these head coaches to know is that they were a great teacher—to their athletes and to me!

one of the best parts of coaching is having fun
with your team. I went to pick up the team
#transport only to find them...inside the storage
shed. Good times.

Many teachers do not, however, understand what coaches do. The best coaches will never tell you the hours that they put in—because they are too busy trying to get it all done. (and if anyone should understand that dilemma, it's teachers). In addition to creating the practice plan for the week, coaches must stay on top of paperwork, transportation, communication with the athletic department, oh and run the practice! We take attendance, follow up for kids on uniforms and the injury report. All of this can't get in the way of developing the game strategy, determining who gets what playing time, assuaging parents, and more. It's not common, but I have heard other coaches confess their anxieties or feelings of inadequacy. I know I have felt that way as a teacher from time to time but as a coach, I feel it even after a win: Why did we only win by 1 stroke? and acutely after a loss. During the season self doubt and second-guessing are my bedfellows. Not fun.

I wish that my colleagues—people I love and respect—would seek to understand the joys and the challenges that coaches encounter. I would love it if someone in my department asked me, "What's the best part about coaching girls' golf?" or even "How is your team doing this year? Any surprises?" When I first came to SI, my colleagues in the teacher workroom would say "good luck today, Coach" on the day we had a meet or as I was heading out for the team bus. Even though I wear a golf polo and golf skirt on match day, it's rare that anyone asks me "Who do you have today?" or says "Beat Mitty." That small act of noticing and reaching out means so much.

I understand we must be the change we wish to see in the world. I have extended the efforts I value with coaches to coaches of other sports. I will ask about their captains. If one of my students is on their team, I want to know how they are doing. I genuinely enjoy these exchanges and in them, I have found that I'm not just giving support to a colleague, I'm gaining it in return.  This practice need not stop with just other coaches. Two of my friends at school are pregnant with their second child. I don't understand how they do it all —I don't have children but I always ask how they are feeling. I want them to know I am amazed by their energy and commitment! 

There's No Defense in Education

Just today I was asked if I am taking the head coaching job as the girls' varsity golf coach because that allows me to teach four classes instead of five—a norm that will be set in place at SI next year. Most people have congratulated me. Others have asked how I am feeling about this new role. However, I was so shocked by this presumption, I didn't know how to answer it. If I were asked that same question today, I would tell him a little bit about golf and what it can teach us beyond the fairway. I would refrain from sharing how much more time I spend coaching than I do teaching during season and how exhausted I am....but believe you me—I want to!

There is no defense in golf. It's man or woman versus the hole. Although there is match play and other variations of the game, all professional golfers aim to get the lowest score period.  
My friend Paul brought this to my attention as we watched the 2015 PGA Championship. Jordan Spieth heartily acknowledges a great putt that the leader, Jason Day just hit. And, it cost Spieth absolutely nothing to do that. Great sportsmanship...great karma!?

At that point in the match, Day was leading by three strokes. When he made that shot, I believe Spieth realized that the championship was truly in his opponent's grasp. Rather than get uptight or compete with blinders on until the last hole, Spieth played his game and appreciated his opponent's craft. Folks...that's great golf.

This quality of the game is counterintuitive to most athletes. Defensive minds are at a loss! It is certainly in opposition to our culture and I dare say, our culture at our school. But the truth of the matter is we aren't in competition with one another. We can't be nor should we be. Yes, each one of us should strive to give our best and be our best—so let's support each other in that process. Give a thumbs up where you can. Ask us about our season. Come to our games and matches—not for us but for our athletes...our student-athletes. We really are on the same team—this I think is something we can all appreciate, value and yes, understand.

Thanks for reading and please—share with me your comments, your questions, your frustrations and more. What do you want to know about coaching? What do you see in teachers who coach? What do you admire? What do you wish was different. 

Anne Stricherz
Religious Studies Faculty and Girls' Golf Coach

For a great follow-up resource to have coaches and teachers working together, read Response: How Teachers and Sports Coaches Can Help Ensure That 'Everyone Wins'   

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