Athletics in the Middle School Classroom: Coaching Components and Their Connection to the Middle School Classroom

Middle School Students Performing Soccer Drills

My past year has been spent watching my daughter on the soccer field. As I sat on the sidelines observing their coach work with them on drills and game plays, I was impressed by their patience, the positive feedback they provided, and their ability to pick out what each player’s as well as the overall team needs. On the drive home a few months ago, my daughter made a comment about a new skill she learned, repeating the praise her coach gave. She was thrilled he had recognized her new skill but also that she was able to understand how that skill played a role in making her and her teammates better. I could not help but connect the powerful impact these coaches can have on their players with my role as an educator. As a middle school teacher and teacher educator, I wondered how I could capture these coaching tools to help middle school students thrive in an academic setting.

The Successful Middle School: This We Believe, AMLE’s foundational position paper on best practice in the middle grades, finds that successful middle schools empower and challenge students and are responsive to and supportive of young adolescent developmental needs. This easily aligns with athletic coaching philosophies that many youth and college coaches use in supporting players. As a former college athlete, I have experienced and understand the power of integrating sports (e.g., language, skills, strategies, topic, discussions, etc.) into the classroom. Seeing it in action benefiting my daughter, I believe the middle school classroom might actually even be the easiest fit for this philosophy.

In this article, I’ll discuss the close connection between coaching and teaching and how aspects of coaching are applicable to the middle school classroom, supported by insights from Branden McDonald, a current Division I men’s basketball coach.

Practice vs. Games

During practice, athletic coaches work with players on drills, game plays, and scaffolding new knowledge in order to be successful in a game. Coaching revolves around the idea that practice (e.g., skills, strategies, plays, etc.) will translate into knowing what to do and how to read the court on game day.

We work on what they are doing correctly and wrong and what they need to learn. You want to give them the confidence to try different things and that’s the main thing in practice. And then games you have to kind of let them be, because that’s their time to create. You give them the free range to express themselves.  – Branden

The classroom is a similar environment. Teachers work with young adolescents to practice skills, access prior knowledge, and scaffold new learning. Students learn, practice, and apply the new skills and knowledge to formative assessments and build toward a summative assessment. As teachers, we can remind ourselves to give our students the confidence and the skills they need to succeed so when they move on or are given an assessment, they can “create”’ and have “free range.” Just like athletes, young adolescents need to be empowered and challenged.

Constructive Environment

Many coaches subscribe to the philosophy that giving constructive feedback is essential to player growth. In addition, they make sure that players know that they must be willing to be wrong to improve. This can be a challenge, since individuals often fear being wrong and do not want to be seen as not knowing. But giving players the chance to be wrong and learn from mistakes is a part of coaching. Coaches want their players tackle adversity, take on challenges, and learn and grow from these experiences.  Hence, creating an environment where moving out of one’s comfort zone, trying new things, and being wrong are not seen as a weakness but instead as essential keys to growth.

Nobody wants to get an answer wrong, or anything like that. You just don’t raise your hand because you don’t want to be wrong. But I think if a teacher or a coach encourages that, like being wrong, isn’t a bad thing, it’s an opportunity to learn more and I think that’s very helpful, for participation, and really checking for understanding. – Branden

Teachers of young adolescents know the importance of creating a classroom environment that supports students but also allows them the chance to grow and learn. In school, that classroom needs to be seen as a “safe space,” where a student can share, be wrong, and make mistakes all while gaining confidence and learning what it means to be empowered by productive struggle.

Game of Mistakes

Sporting contests are often decided by mistakes, and the individual and/ or the team that makes the least wins. Good coaches understand mistakes happen, giving athletes the opportunity to work to improve despite the mistakes rather than dwelling on it. A key part of their job, actually is to prepare players for the inevitability of mistakes. They help players understand that challenges are an essential part of sport, yet they can be overcome and worked on and in the end teach a lesson.

Yeah, with basketball to a certain extent it’s a game of mistakes. It’s about whoever makes the least amount of mistakes. But mistakes are going to happen like everything isn’t going to go right. And I think in the classroom some individuals feel like everything should go right and they struggle when it does not. But mistakes are going to happen. -Branden

Life is a game of mistakes. How we react to and learn from them is how we learn to grow.  With the knowledge we impart to them, we expect our students to make the least number of mistakes possible. Yet, how we react to and what we teach our students about those mistakes is what matters. Thinking of it from a coaching perspective, the mistakes made in the classroom are opportunities to ensure our students learn from them and, ultimately, learn to be resilient.

Pamela Segal, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Secondary and Middle School Education at Towson University. Branden McDonald is Assistant Men’s Basketball Coach at Bucknell University.