Well, for one thing in high school lots of teachers are coaches. But I’m going to focus on coaches of big famous sports teams. There are some illuminating similarities, and the differences have a laboratory feel to them for thinking about how both teaching and coaching work and don’t work. I’ve been intrigued by John Doyle’s series of posts at Ktismatics questioning whether teachers actually cause students to learn, based on an extensive survey of studies that pretty consistently show they don’t. We could ask the same questions of coaches and winning.
To set the scene, John finds the data pointing strongly toward genetic (or at least early-childhood) hardwired dispositions to educational performance. In contrast, study after study has failed to find much impact on student outcomes from different teaching or learning styles, experience levels, specialized training, or any other teacher variable. Generously, John’s conclusion in the most recent post, “The Students Make the Teacher,” is that “kids would spool out their genetic intellectual potentials within the constraints imposed by their culture regardless of who their teachers are, but that’s not to say that they need no teaching. Rather, as long as they’re not abusive or neglectful, teachers are probably pretty much interchangeable over the long run. So my bet is that regardless of what sorts of educational outcomes are measured, differences between teachers will prove minimal.” In short, students are going to learn what they’re going to learn almost no matter what.
Of course like most teachers I’d like to take credit for all those Aha! moments that happen in and around my classroom, and I’d like to blame the kids who don’t get it for being recalcitrant. But I’ve long suspected that neither position is well-warranted, not to mention that they’re transparently ideological, so I’m open to John’s suggestion to “be a good enough teacher, rather than one who’s too caught up in performance anxiety and delusions of massive impact on kids’ lives. Enjoy the job, recognizing that ultimately it’s the kids’ job to develop and to learn. Then relax, have some fun, honor the kids’ autonomy, let your own personal style shine forward, and the teacher and the kids might actually enjoy the ride together.”
So what about coaching? John says students bring scholastic performance with them and teaching has little to do with it. A parallel argument would be that athletes bring competitive performance with them and coaching has little to do with it. If this were true, a coach with good players would look brilliant, while the same coach with bad players would look like a dog. And in fact this seems to be the case. In the NBA, for example, Doc Rivers had moderate success with a moderately-talented lineup in Orlando before being fired for stagnant performance. Subsequently the Magic drafted Dwight Howard, signed Rashard Lewis and traded for Vince Carter, becoming one of the dominant teams in the East under journeyman coach Stan Van Gundy. Meanwhile, Rivers won an NBA championship coaching the Boston Celtics, who added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to an already-strong roster of role players led by star Paul Pierce.
The acknowledged superstar of NBA coaching is Phil Jackson, who won multiple championships with the Chicago Bulls following the maturation of Michael Jordan and acquisition of Scottie Pippen. He then went to the Lakers where he won with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, did not win following the departure of O’Neal, then won again with the arrival of Pau Gasol. Clearly his success is player-dependent, but it should be said that his chief merit is that he puts his players in position to succeed; he is a shrewd evaluator of talent and disposition, as witness his ability to get full value out of brilliant but mercurial prima donnas Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest, not to mention Jordan, Pippen, Bryant and O’Neal themselves. I think this is characteristic of both good coaches and good teachers, and it’s not a small thing; teams of superstars without this sort of enabling coordination regularly implode, as witness France in this year’s soccer World Cup.
In NFL football, Bill Belichick is an excellent example of the hypothesis. He was a total dog with the talent-poor Cleveland Browns, then became a genius with the talent-rich Patriots. His excellence as a game-planner did not change, but it was not enough without Tom Brady and Randy Moss in their primes running the plays. Again, Belichick is a shrewd talent evaluator who identifies his players’ strengths and puts them in position to succeed, but without those strengths, as more recently with the injury and decline of Brady, Moss, Wes Welker and other core players, he is helpless to be the difference that makes the difference. Similarly, Paul Holmgren understood the connection of personnel to coaching well enough to insist on controlling both in Seattle. Unfortunately he turned out to be a mediocre judge of talent (see: Branch, Burleson) and was not able to repeat the Super Bowl success he enjoyed in Green Bay with a team assembled by general manager Paul Wolf.
In college sports it is widely known that the best coaches are first and foremost the best recruiters. All else being equal, which it usually is, the best players win. Coaches who can both obtain those players and put them in positions to succeed are of course at a premium, and coordinated teams of good players regularly beat packs of feral superstars, but even here the coach’s merit is in identifying and channeling the existing talents and dispositions of her players. And given the rapid turnover of rosters in college sports, coaches who were geniuses with great players a few years ago are regularly has-beens looking for work when the talent level drops off.
It is also generally understood that over time players will begin to tune out even the most successful coaches. A great recent example of this is the NHL’s Peter Laviolette, a coach who specializes in increasing the intensity of underperforming or undertalented teams. After beginning his career by improving the talent-poor New York Islanders marginally he wore out his welcome and moved to the Carolina Hurricanes. There he lit a fire and got maximum effort out of a moderately-talented team, pushing them to a Stanley Cup. Within a couple of years his approach had burnt the players out, he went from genius to dog, and after a dreadful half-season he was fired. Whereupon he was hired this year by the talented but drifting Flyers and promptly became a genius again, driving them to a Finals appearance. If history holds true (many other coaches fit his description, for example Mike Keenan) he has maybe one more year before the players tune him out or rebel against the constant pressure. The teaching equivalent of Laviolette is Jaime Escalante, the “Stand and Deliver” guy. He was undeniably successful in activating the latent talents of his students, but the pressurized environment he created proved unsustainable.
In this year’s World Cup the Italian coach, Marcello Lippi, was clearly a dog as his talented team, the defending champions, failed to win even one game against lesser opposition and were eliminated in the first round. Yet Lippi had been the coach for the World Cup win four years earlier, just as clearly a genius with an unparalleled record of success. “He was named the world’s best football manager by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) both in 1996 and 1998, and world’s best National coach in 2006. He is the only coach in the world to have ever won the most prestigious competitions both for clubs and for National teams. In 2007 the Times put his name on the list of top 50 managers of all time.” He will shortly be replaced as coach and it’s likely the team will perform better, but will that be because the old guy was bad and the new guy is good?
If the coaching/teaching analogy holds, all of this ought to be quite humbling for all of us would-be Svengalis. Our upside is limited by that of our Trilbys, and our downside is as far down as they care to take us. When the chemistry comes together we can sometimes be catalytic, but this can’t be counted on as the normal situation and often enough a good chemistry requires our removal. Under these circumstances I can certainly understand why we’re paid so little, as we often complain, despite performing what is magically thought of as socially necessary labor. Fortunately the learning that really needs to happen will happen anyway, and maybe along the way we can “relax, have some fun, honor the kids’ autonomy, let [our] own personal style shine forward, and … enjoy the ride together.”