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Why my Mom would have been a GREAT Volleyball Coach

March 01, 2014, 2:33 p.m. (ET)

For more than 30 years, my mom taught first grade. I would visit her many times at school while she taught over the decades, starting from about the same height as the kids in her class, to being over six feet tall and towering over the kids, my mom, and their little chairs. What I remember from her teaching has colored my coaching, in the principles I learned from her, which would apply to coaching any sport well.

She made sure every student knew how artistic and creative they were.

There is something about the observation of asking a group of kindergarteners, “How many of you are artists?” and seeing every hand shoot up, and then asking the same question to a class in junior high, and seeing just a couple of students respond. I don’t know when this loss of belief occurs in elementary school, but I know it never happened in my mom’s class. She was so darn good at instilling a desire to learn, a curiosity about life and knowing more. Those same traits also impacted my sister, brother and me on a daily basis.  On the court, she would have pushed players to develop not just their volleyball technique, but their volleyball skill and to do things they have never done. She also empowered each kid to take charge of their own learning, something all coaches can likely do better, starting with me.

She taught to 25 individuals, not making them be the same, but discovered quickly how each student learned best.

Mom taught at a school that had a lot of military kids, who even at this young age, were experienced at moving into new situations. It was she who first told me that “Kids don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care…”  She worked hard to teach herself how each of the kids learned best, and made sure she taught to that focus. She knew the military kids in her class were immersed in a culture with certain values and expectations at home, and the rest of the class was not likely getting the same sort of message.  She just was so good at knowing the complexities of even a seven year old, from what might be going on at home, to these individual strengths and weakness to help improve – working her mastery to help 25 different kids, and not simply cram them into “her system…”

Too many coaches miss this – and teach them in drills.  We have changed the IMPACT manual now for 27 editions to bring new coaches the newest research.  In the manual we started to call them “Grills” – to get coaches to focus on the activity being more realistic and gamelike – using the regulatory stimuli of teammates to decide between, the net/court/antenna/ball to be as much like that game and more.  However, from now on I think I am going return to motor learning science principles and increase the opportunities to respond… and give thanks to New Zealand’s Lynn Kidman for even better anchoring this principle by calling all drills “Learning Opportunities.”  If you start looking at practice that way, you will be an even better teacher of any sport – so thanks Lynn. 

She kept EVERY kid active/hands on.

Her classroom was a hub of activity and were all reality based. There were reading, writing, art, music, math and other experiences for the kids and the time on task for each young child was almost constant. Yet, she didn’t just teach what 1 + 1 was, she taught why we need to know how to do math. At the same time, a wonderful silence would fall over her class, when she read them a story – each one teaching a lesson in life beyond the classroom. Her story-telling skills were amazing, both in vocal and facial/body expression, and every time (even as an adult), I would be captivated by the lesson being delivered.

She knew that grades had to be issued twice a year, plus “progress reports” but she never looked at it from that outcome side, and focused strongly on the process side in her reports. Too often it seems that coaches look primarily at winning – making learning a race – rather than focusing on this all important process. This process includes learning in the reality of the game -not in drills, to develop the player’s game IQ. As a team sport, this complexity also includes the interpersonal dynamics of the team members in “Coopetition” - as the USA National teams have coined the phrase combining Cooperation & Competition.

In this week’s trip back east, I was lucky enough to be able to work with several clubs coaches and their players. If there was one thing that surprised me, it was how many of the teams are still having their teachers doing most of the training, throwing/setting/serving the balls to a line of waiting athletes. Every time an adult/coach throws or plays a ball a child/athlete could do, the coach is stealing opportunities to respond from the players – as well as creating a non-reality based level of reading.  From IMPACT to many of my blogs, the importance to empowering the players to run practice, and get more touches, has been covered. I again make the request in this blog…

She had high expectations of her class and kids.

It was so neat to see her relationship with the kids, and hear her various ways of setting high expectations, and her belief in the kids to achieve them.  She would always first say the child’s name, then things like…“You are doing so well”…“That is wonderful work”…” “I love the effort you put into that…”   If you have not seen another great teacher in action, check out this clip from “Math, Who Needs It?” It is from a documentary on Jamie Escalante (which became the movie “Stand and Deliver”)-  showing him in action teaching using pattern interruption, fun, and so much more. In the opening scene, he writes on his chalkboard (Where is yours in the gym remember?) “Ganas=Desire” then says to the class, “Ganas, that’s what I need, the desire to learn, the ability to sacrifice to improve, the wish to get ahead. And ganas also means hard work, and hard work means the future, you’re the best, you know people are watching you, looking at you, learning from you. You’re going to do it, you are the best hope of the future.” 

Dan Coyle noted late last year in his blog “A Simple Phrase” similar research in which this statement “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them” help reach 40% more effective learning.

She focused on leadership skills, not just the “three Rs…”

She wouldn’t break up fights, but she would guide the discovery of the kids to how to resolve their differences.  It was first with her that I learned the phrase “Well we will just have to agree to disagree on this, but we sure do agree on a lot.” As I reflect on her teaching, I realize how often she said “WE…” and not “I” or “YOU.”  That subtle but important difference in talking with her kids helped form them as a “class team” as it were.

Recently one of her lessons on the importance of building rather than tearing down came into double focus – I was playing a game of “Chairs” at my old friend Doug Levin’s home in NYC one evening with three kids seven and under. The youngest who could not build a very tall tower of chairs (these are little 3 inch high plastic “chairs,” not full sized ones…lol), would just kick down other peoples towers. It took some time to get him on board with the fun of building – together even – rather than the individuality of tearing down other’s work. 

This was another life lesson that I learned from my mom, who would talk about what it takes to put up a school – with people who got to decide and draw what the school would look like, and engineers who also planned in advance, to those who got to bulldoze and trench the site. Then came the people who had years of learning skills who could build the walls and roofs, the others who would install all the pipes and plumbing fixtures as well as those putting in all the wiring and lighting. Next, the interior designers who along with others, put down the flooring, painted the place and picked or brought in the furniture. In total, building something takes years of hard work and hundreds, if not thousands of combined years of education and experience. Now, what would it take to tear a place down?  You could do it in a few days with a single person, who had no formal education, but who had just a bulldozer.  So work hard to be a builder of people and places even though the effort may be hard and very time consuming.  Anyone can criticize or tear something down. You don’t even need an “Easy button” to do that, it’s too easy.

I also noted this leadership side when she would prepare for Parent Teacher conferences. She kept the focus on the kid, and their efforts and growth in social interactions, as much as in the three R’s. She also worked hard to get the parents, even with these younger students, to allow the kid to solve things, teaching the parents the importance of helping guide their own kid’s discovery, and not just give the answers away.  It was not just the discovery she focused on, but on helping the parents better empower their child’s decision making skills – by almost always giving the kids choices, and asking them to create games and the rules, or often decide the topic to be focused on.

She ALWAYS had a smile on and made class fun.

Before becoming a teacher, she was a Rose Bowl Parade princess, smiling and waving at millions. Even today, in her late 80s, her smile radiates where she lives. With that smile came fun, pervading the class as she encouraged and exhorted these little ones to become the best that they could be at whatever task, using that tried and true “slanty rope principle” to fit the challenge to the individuals she taught.

I was lucky to be born a Kessel, for both my mom and dad followed Confucious’s advice to allow me to choose work that I love, so I would never have to work a day in my life. My mom knew the importance of learning, and as I study the science of motor learning I see how my mom was also principle driven to teach skill learning even better and broader than I did at the start. She focused on her kids’ hearts, minds, bodies and souls, not just how well they could play kickball, jump rope, or dodge someone in tag.  Thanks to her, I am better at teaching the whole athlete, and following my personal coaching philosophy of “Develop Amazing Leaders.” In the end, you will have a great amount of Nachas….a Yiddish word that we all should take to heart that means the pride and satisfaction that is derived from someone else's accomplishment.

We would love to hear why your mom or dad would have been a great coach...and thanks for your help in growing the game together….someone else’s accomplishment.  We would love to hear why your mom or dad would have been a great coach...and thanks for your help in growing the game together….

P.S. Highly recommend Lynn Kidman and Stephanie Hanrahan’s book The Coaching Process, now in its third edition and Lynn’s book Developing Decision Makers.

P.P.S. – My mom fed me right but chocolate is our shared weakness, thus her good lessons on nutrition go out the window for moments like this, chocolate donut, hersey bars and twix included, but hey, in small portions!  This was taken just last year…Thanks mom!

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