Lessons From the Basketball Court

I’m totally fired up today and I can’t calm myself down.  See, the JV girls basketball team that I’m coaching got their first win of the year this morning!!  We played a team we’ve lost to 3 times already (most recently, last night!) and we played an outstanding game.  However, the biggest reason I’m so excited and pumped up isn’t even the win, it’s the amazing amount of growth these girls have shown since the beginning of the season (only 2 months ago).  With very limited practice time (we only had 8 practices of about 35-40 minutes each) these girls have gone from clueless to starting to understand some serious basketball concepts, it’s been awesome to watch!

As I’ve watched their growth I’ve thought a lot about all the connections to the classroom and teaching and learning.  I want to share a few of the things that I’ve slowly come to understand in more depth as I’ve grown as a coach and educator.  

  1. Rule Number One:  Ask any of my JV girls to tell you about “Rule Number One” for our team and there will be no hesitation, “Have fun!”  Even though they are choosing to participate on the basketball team, I have to make sure that the experience is positive for them.  As a measure of whether I’ve achieved that or not, I consider the fact that I started the year with 15 girls and finished the year with 15.  No one has quit, for any reason and despite being 0-8 before today (it’s not easy losing all the time!).  Applying the concept of “Rule Number One” to a classroom, imagine that your kids aren’t always choosing your class and therefore may not be super excited about showing up every day.  Essentially the opposite situation I faced this season AND they may not be very good at your subject.  So, what do you do?  How do you ensure that those students who may not want to be there and/or aren’t very “good” at your subject still have a positive experience in your class?  In my mind, which might be obvious based on “Rule Number One”, creating a positive experience for your students is easily the most important thing you can do as an educator.  
  2. You might have to “change the message”:  Many years ago, when I was just starting to help my father coach my sister’s basketball team I had my very first coaching epiphany.  My dad was yelling some direction or another at the girls but it wasn’t getting through, they weren’t doing what he wanted.  He turned to me and said, “Why don’t they do to what I’m telling them to do?”  Immediately, and completely out of nowhere, I answered, “Maybe you have to change your message.”  I remember it like it was yesterday, he stopped and looked at me considering what I had said.  The light when on in his head and I realized I might have hit on something.  See, the problem wasn’t that the girls weren’t listening, they just didn’t understand what he was asking them to do.  From that day on, both my father and I began to simplify our basketball vocabulary/jargon to better fit our audience.  The same thing happens in all of our classes, especially with the vast ELL population we face each day.  Are your students struggling with a task, directions, or other verbal feedback?  Perhaps you need to step back and “change the message”.  My basketball vocabulary this year was very, very basic BUT my girls learned a ton because they could understand it and I didn’t have to keep repeating things.  What about in your classroom?
  3. Focus on the growth, not the result:  Look, up until this morning we were (as we say) “oh-for”…meaning we hadn’t won, we were 0-8.  However, as I touched on above, my girls were engaged and came ready to work hard every time they could.  Why?  I believe that the answer is in the growth, they could see it and who isn’t excited when they can see themselves improving?!?  Demonstrating growth isn’t always easy, I totally get that, and some of my girls didn’t grow nearly as quickly as the others, but that’s okay.  What is important is that they can see growth and feel success, even if the scoreboard (or test) doesn’t show it at the end.  After each game I make sure to bring the team together and highlight our growth and success, celebrating even after a loss 🙂  Maybe we played better defense today, or we scored more than our average.  Perhaps we executed (even once) on a play we had learned the day before.  Even today, after we won, I brought them together to celebrate the positive things we accomplished (other than the obvious one point victory!)  How do your students see, feel, or demonstrate growth in your classroom?  And how do you (and them) stop and celebrate that growth?  When we feel like we’re accomplishing something (growth) we are more likely to engage even deeper.  Growing is fun, it helps Rule Number One!  
  4. Baby steps work, perfection doesn’t:  My practices this year were very limited, as I mentioned earlier.  There was no way in the world that I was going to “fix” every “problem” that I saw on the court.  In fact, there wasn’t even a realistic chance that I would get to many of these “problems” at all.  For this group, it was about basics…and I mean basics!  One of the best parts about having so many beginner basketball players was that we had a lot to work on, never a dull moment.  However, I had to be careful, I couldn’t over do it with the coaching.  Our minds (especially those of our students) can’t handle too much input at once.  If I tried to coach every aspect of basketball that these girls needed to improve they would’ve overloaded and shut down in minutes.  So, we needed to grow with baby steps and couldn’t worry about perfection.  Mistakes were okay, they were celebrated and learned from.  If we aimed for perfection the perspective of growth would’ve been lost and frustration would’ve quickly set in.  The same is true in your classroom as well.  Perhaps you have one or two students who can realistically strive toward perfection but for the vast majority, growth and even slow growth, should be the focus and celebration.  This is a mindset though, the teacher needs to live this mindset and make sure the kids buy in.  
  5. Passion is essential, positive passion changes the game:  This one is simple.  If you asked my girls if I was living Rule Number One or if I was passionate about basketball, I think (actually I know) that there would be no doubt about the answer.  I tell the girls all the time how much fun I’m having and I’m not lying.  They can see it in my face, they can hear it in my voice but most importantly I tell them.  Sometimes we assume too much, we think our kids are getting a message when we aren’t explicitly stating it.  Tell them.  Say it out loud and let them know how much you care about your subject or why it’s important.  Passion is contagious and when you have a positive classroom (discussed above) your students will feed off the energy and buy-in to your passion.  

So, we’re 1-8 now.  We got a win.  It feels great and we’ll ride that emotion into the next game and the last two after that.  We may not win any of these last three games but it won’t matter.  If we end up 1-11 these girls won’t care and neither will I.  It’s not the final result, it’s the journey.  We’ve celebrated growth, we’ve focused on improving our skills (but not too many at a time), and, most importantly, we’ve had fun!  I’m confident that these girls will all be excited to play basketball next season, some of them on the varsity.  They’ll have a positive attitude about working hard and growing.  Best of all, I’m confident that they’ll do all of this without me there to coach/encourage them.  After all, it’s not about me, it’s about the lasting memories and positive attitude that these girls will walk away from this season cherishing.

Note:  As I was writing this, one of my players came in and said “I’m going to draw, I need to get my creative energy out” and I realized how writing this post had calmed and focused me too.  I’m ready for game two of the tournament and a great long weekend when we’re finished, I hope you all have/had a fantastic weekend yourselves…only a few more weeks left, enjoy it while it lasts 🙂

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90% Awesome, 10% Room to Grow

I read an interview recently with author Ken Tencer, he’s co-authored a book about innovating for small business owners. I took some of the ideas that he had for business and tried to apply some of the thinking to our school.

Tencer introduces what he calls the “90% Rule” which he explains as really more of a philosophy than a rule.  Basically it works like this:  You celebrate the amazing stuff you’re doing in your company (or school in our case) which he says is about 90% of what a successful company does.  Then you look at the other 10%, the room for growth, and think about opportunities for the next big thing – the idea that will allow your company to excel further.

We do a pretty good job of celebrating our awesomeness around here, we are at least 90% awesome!!  I also believe that many of us do a good job of thinking about our 10%, the room to grow.  Through the conversations I regularly have with teachers in mini-observation follow ups, in the courtyard at break, or even around the lunch table, I know that many of us are focused on growing and becoming better teachers.  I want to encourage each and everyone of you to continue to grow and pursue excellence.

What about that big idea, that home run, the discovery or growth that can excel you to the next level?  You all set a goal at the beginning of the year.  I want you to think back to that goal.  It should’ve been something that you saw as a game-changing area for growth.  Meaning, if you could grow in that target area then your students would greatly benefit from your growth.

Now think…when was the last time you stopped and thought about that goal?  When was the last time you intentionally altered your instruction with that goal in mind?  When was the last time you sat down and read some professional writing about your specific target area?

My hope today, as we round the corner into March and the upcoming 4th quarter, is that you revisit your goal(s).  Think about why you chose that goal in the beginning of the year.  Once you’ve done that, set a short-term target for growth.  Perhaps that means reading something professionally (just one article a week would be a great start).  Maybe it means trying one new strategy every unit or lesson.  Whatever you decide, make it realistic and manageable.  Give yourself a real chance to finish the year strong and perhaps discover that game-changing idea that can launch you to the next level.

Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves and each other!!   Hang in there…the warm weather is coming soon 🙂