Are teachers like coaches?

by Carl Dyke

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.”


23 Responses to “Are teachers like coaches?”

  1. Another example in your coach’s corner is Larry Bowa: he apparently wears out his players (this from someone who was more inside-baseball, literally and figuratively, than I am), and you’ll notice that he hasn’t had a head-coaching gig in awhile.

    But more to your point, I don’t think coaches or teachers ARE interchangeable. I think that most of them don’t have all that much impact on their students except as deliverers of information. But, as you note at the end, sometimes there’s a particular synergy between a student and a teacher, and the student learns something that s/he would not have learned if someone else were presenting (roughly) the same material, or a teacher presents material that a student would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else (e.g., a certain Temple professor’s philosophy class on Monty Python), or presents material in a way that makes it accessible or even exciting to more students than another teacher might be able to do. It’s why some teachers get cult followings, perhaps.

  2. On the success of Phil Jackson’s “triangle offense,” which practically no other team uses despite the Bulls’ and Lakers’ success:

    “I think a lot of general managers think that what we run won’t be a good for the personnel that they have and they think that’s all the basketball we know,” said Jim Cleamons, whose 15-plus-year tenure as a Jackson assistant yielded a single two-year stint as the Mavs’ head coach. “You have to look at upper management. They have to be open-minded to see what we run can produce and does produce winning basketball. But it takes time to learn if your personnel is amenable, and by amenable I mean they have somewhat of a basketball IQ.”

    “The offense itself isn’t difficult,” Jackson said. “What’s difficult is that the players have to do it themselves in my system; it’s not me calling the plays on the sideline, it’s on them to read and to become playmakers on their own. There are keys in it, and the players have to understand those keys to make it work and there’s a rhythm to it. So that makes it a little more difficult to teach because what you have to instill is confidence in the players and it takes a while. I always talk about it as a musical group: It’s a five-man band and you get in rhythm to play together and get in sync, and once you’ve learned how to harmonize, then you can play.”

  3. Yeah. I like the part about the players doing it themselves. Players running the system is routine in hockey (although they’re on the bench every minute or so). Contrast this with football, in which every play has been called in from the sideline for years now. In tennis in-match coaching is illegal.

    I also like the part about having to get buy-in from both the players and upper management. I actually think success is to a large degree system-independent. Basketball games are won with the triangle, the motion offense, the Princeton offense. All of them work, but they require that everyone be on board and committed to make them work. When that commitment breaks down (or is never established, as with Eddie Jordan and the Princeton in Philadelphia this year) the system is blamed, but it’s never the system’s fault. The players haven’t bought into it, or management has not committed to getting the best mix of players for the system, or the situation is volatile enough that tolerance for the learning curve isn’t there.

    How that buy-in happens or doesn’t is interesting, and has something to do with the synergy Narya is talking about, but may also be a matter of authority and discipline as in effective military organizations or salesmanship as in sports and the academy.

  4. Incidentally, an interesting current example of how systems work in sport is the shift that’s happening in NFL defenses from the 4-3 to the 3-4. Both systems work; neither is in some absolute sense ‘better’ than the other. So why switch? Well, for one thing offenses get used to seeing a 4-3 and develop accordingly, so there’s some advantage in showing them a different look. Also, if everyone’s running the same system everyone is competing for the players who best fit that system, so playing a less common system in principle should improve access to ideal players.

    What often happens though is that teams fubar themselves for a couple years while they turn over a roster optimized for one system to the other. Can they get the new system up and running before the opposition can adapt? It’s my impression that the real competition at the top is between teams that have absolutely committed to excellence in one system, whatever it is, optimize their personnel and run it with ruthless efficiency (the Steelers might be an example); and teams that run flexible, hybrid systems in which they read and react to take advantage of opponents’ weaknesses (Patriots). The latter strategy requires players with very high football IQ, which is in short supply.

  5. I just came from a college-teaching job, which I quit gladly after a year, and was under the impression that Doyle takes a far too libertarian view. The age group 16-22 wants you to hurt them as well as be a bitch, if you don’t, they fucking BURY you. It’s an endless SM session where you interchangeably punish and praise them, and you spend much more time replacing their parents’ lack of upbringing than anything else. I don’t see what’s fun about that, but I do see a lot of frustrated types in the business who never get heard at home.

  6. Yeah Dejan, I think that’s accurate, especially in Europe where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a masochist. And they do get very angry and confused if you don’t play the familiar dominance games with them. Plus, if your teaching agenda (as mine is, irritated as I am by pathos) is to show them their power, their first impulse is to act out irresponsibly. Nietzsche knew all about this, and Paulo Freire covers it nicely in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

    It’s easiest just to go with the flow of their resentful projective abjection, and many teachers do, either by wallowing in the illusion of power or by abjectly resenting the students back. (These options tend to be but are not necessarily gendered.) The trick, as with any parenting or coaching, is to use authority to wean the students from authority. Any given classroom is far short of the total environment it would take to change the underlying psychological dispositions, but it is possible to show them a different model and give them a little laboratory to experiment with it.

  7. The trick, as with any parenting or coaching, is to use authority to wean the students from authority.

    Or to put it in other words, you could of course use Lacanian lingo and recognize in this situation the illusion of the Phallic Law, I mean the fact that the kids WANT TO see the Phallus even when he´s clearly not there (here I have to remark that I find complaints against psychoanalysis ridiculous because life keeps on comfirming these basic premises)

    One of the teachers interestingly had an anti-authoritarian vision whereby he thought exactly what you just said, i.e. that by providing this temporary illusion and then dissolving it you could sort of perform what Lacan would call ´´subjective destitution´´ (the student realizes that there is no Phallic Law, after all) The other was authoritarian, and I think he drew a lot of pathologically narcissistic jouissance out of his class´s adoration. Sadly he is much more influential and popular at the school, but that may be simply because the school isn´t very good.

    Of other interesting things I saw is I could identify very much with K-punk´s writing about the internet as an input-output vortex which puts the kids into a feedback loop, blocking away independent or creative thinking. HOWEVER I have to stress that I do not see the origin and the horizon of the problem in capitalism per se, rather in the fact that the internet´s navigation and filtering systems aren´t developed yet to a point where they would allow the kids to understand it as merely a tool and not an end in itself (though the smart ones do figure out in the end).

  8. I think this is a great point. But don’t most people ritualize tools and procedures into ends? Isn’t that normal? It’s always the few who figure out how to turn the available resources to their purposes. How might that work out differently in the case of the internet?

  9. I think this is a great point. But don’t most people ritualize tools and procedures into ends? Isn’t that normal? It’s always the few who figure out how to turn the available resources to their purposes. How might that work out differently in the case of the internet?

    I think it’s primarily a question of filtering. For example, there are countless animation tutorials on the internet, coming from diverse sources – official to amateur. You waste more time finding a good resource, which means one that teaches animation techniques as a language, with a grammar, instead of random movement, than on actual learning. And the older teachers seem petrified of their own redundancy in this context, while they should be looking for a way to redefine their position as navigators/gatekeepers, the ones that can provide navigation through the chaotic internet.

    I also got into conflicts with them because for example I feel that it’s not at all bad so many kids are staring at Lady Gaga, who remediates art history eg Andy Warhol with her images. I see no reason why I wouldn’t use Gaga’s videos, which they like to stare at, as a lesson in pop art, instead of (as per older colleague’s suggestion) a classic ”lesson in art history”.

    Overall I have the impression that we’re entering a phase where we push through the technology, which up to now was more of a burden than it was helpful. Sort of paradoxically going back to the basics we’ve forgotten, enchanted by all the various possibilities that the digital offered.

  10. And I was even more perplexed than I already am by the arcane art of object-oriented pathology when this whole experience simply showed me what I’ve known for thirty years already: semiotics! Namely, the single most important thing to teach the media designers is that you have these iconic images (say, Andy Warhol’s Monroe-commodification portrait) that get regurgitated over and over again in various formats. Of course endless variations are possible on the same theme, and the skill is in finding an original angle, but this basic dictionary remains constant, and if you don’t know it, you can’t really produce good media. No it DOESN’T depend on the ”object”, it depends much more on the story being told.

  11. Overall I have the impression that we’re entering a phase where we push through the technology, which up to now was more of a burden than it was helpful. Sort of paradoxically going back to the basics we’ve forgotten, enchanted by all the various possibilities that the digital offered.

    That’s because of my book, which is all about how I was doing this years before you were. You are only doing it now because you come to fashions very late. Part of it was the election of Obama. If he hadn’t been elected, the Bushies would have definitely got the software for totally controlling elections in place. And if I hadn’t defeated warszawa at leninino about 9/11 truthie-ism, Arpege wouldn’t have gotten a new lease on life.

    You owe it all to me, and that’s why you don’t get a free copy of the book. YOU have to pay!

  12. How for Hell’s sake did you FIND ME here? Mind you, your reputation with the Dyke isn’t nearly as good as with the Qlipoth toilets, which per se isn’t going to seal your foul mouth in any significant way, but may cause you to feel uncomfortable, due to your operatic narcis-sissism.

  13. “it’s primarily a question of filtering… it depends on the story being told” – oh yes.

    “You owe it all to me” – good to know.

  14. I obviously didn’t mean you personally, rather Dejan, but seriously, this is what I’ve been mostly concerned with, and Dejan’s talking about how ‘it was a burden’ really was a kind of period we went through. It was a burden in many way, you can enumerate some, I can enumerate others. During that period, there was much propaganda that tended to make many think that we wouldn’t go ‘through the technology’ at all, but rather only into it further. And some do like that idea(l). My own interest in this going back to 00 before I even started writing about it much in 2006 is because these oppressivenesses weren’t being talked about as such, even though they were. They were described as only being beneficial. Dejan described it pretty well, in that we can ‘go back to the basics’ not because of nostalgia or luddite-ism, but because the technology is not enough in itself. That sounds obvious enough, but there was a lot of stuff coming out from a million sources that gave the impression that the internet was not like other advances in technology, it was much more transformational. This may be true in some ways, but the speed at which it was being shoved was often a means to some kind of childish visceral thing that quickly evaporated and didn’t deliver what it promised. That has interested me, and I think that even when many people were not ‘living that way’, as Kurzweil, for example, tries to, they weren’t really arguing against the bad effects that do come from it if we are ONLY ‘enchanted by all the various possibilities that the digital offered’. For some, the whole trip wasn’t there unless it was this paradigm shift sort of thing, whether dallying with Baudrillard’s hyperreal, Zizek’s ‘virtual superseding the physical’ (he promptly forgot that like everything else he brings up), of Kurzweil’s Singularity, which is supposed to ‘mature’ and allow the 5000 year lifespans by 2029. The problem was running into actual individual nerds who were cheering this on wildly and they needed to be stopped. I know it sounds a bit far-fetched, but the firing of the Bushies was very important. Even in 2006, there was much talk that the midterm elections could be manipulated by voting machine fraud. The fact that they couldn’t, then followed by Obama’s victory, did show that they had not arrived at such a point as many suspected, but it surely still being worked on all the time by those with the money and insane passion to do it. What one may say of Obama’s neoliberalism and/or centrism is beside the point, and some of the hardest leftists have conveniently forgotten that they were themselves talking about voting machine fraud in 2006, and the day before the dems did get a majority, would talk about ‘if they’re allowed to’, meaning if the Republicans allowed the Democrats to be elected lawfully. After the Dems prevailed, it was back to business-as-normal and more 9/11 truth, etc., and all its variants, and gradually morphing Obama into ‘something infinitely worse than what any Republican could have ever done’. A commenter wrote that on Jodi Dean’s bleug a few months ago, after having championed Obama primarily because he needed the health care program for his aging parents, etc. These types are little more convincing than the Tea Party-ers, although they’re not as potent, it seems, as the latter seem to be quite threatening.

  15. This may be true in some ways, but the speed at which it was being shoved was often a means to some kind of childish visceral thing that quickly evaporated and didn’t deliver what it promised.

    To be honest, I never believed a word of that ”bubble”, because from the early start internet worked as a giant flipper machine, just like any other market contraption. But the movement back that I am describing has to do for example with the possibility that the new 3D image (which will be introduced into homes quite soon) will move you away from the screen. So we will be able to sit in the bistro again and talk like we did in the 1960s, because the database of youtube movies will be available by pushing a virtual 3D button on the table surface, for example. So technology won’t be removed, I think going back in this sense is impossible, but people will increasingly realize that it’s ALWAYS BEEN ABOUT HUMAN BEINKS – no matter what that fat cat and her Egyptian pimp are trying to sell.

    Of course, for this to take place we first need to avoid the numerous other disaster that have become possible BECAUSE OF the 1990s bubble, such as oil spills, climate change and a war with Russia over natural resources. I don’t have a crystal ball, but in my Frank Capraesque moments I like to remember what John Carpenter’s Starman said to NASA about human beinks:

    ”You are at your very best when things are worst.”

    Speaking of all that, you could drag your bony old ass to the cinemas in October to see Sylvain Chomet’s L’ILLUSIONISTE, which addresses this issue in a way so poetic that I cried in the cinema for the first time in almost twenty years. (My first weeping was to Spielberg’s Extraterrestrial, but hey, I was only 12 years old) The film is based on an unpublished script by Jacques Tati:

    (the recommendation is also for you, Dyke)

  16. for example with the possibility that the new 3D image (which will be introduced into homes quite soon) will move you away from the screen

    Honey, Jack and I sat at a pizzeria with ghetto lovers like us today and talked about June Fucking Havoc, Gypsy Rose Lee’s sister. That lack of 3D in our homes had not made this movement to the ‘bistro’ again possible. Now that is fine if all you can imagine is a technologically enhanced bistro. You write it as if we couldn’t even go back to the bistro because the 3D wasn’t ready yet. As you well know.

    Sayyy-ay-ay-ad Moovees….always make me cry…

    No, we’re ‘wearing the technology’ a bit better now, not letting it wear us. Lord, that piercing kvond is sure a trip. I looked at her site, she claims to be a novelist and a POET! Well, I don’t know whether it shows, but I suppose modernism may have not given us enough shrill, piercing poets. John Kinsella somehow does not come to mind, though. Sort of high-priestlike.

  17. Like which fucking planet are you coming from? I’m sure in New York, which is a huge hectic city, people still go out, but Western Europe is fucking DEAD. The only places open in Amsterdam after closing time are the leather fuckbars and the prostitution district. People don’t go out, they sit and BLEUG, or masturbate to cameras. This has become a cancerous mainstream culture. So of course you need goddamn 3D to get them out, this is my whole point.

    Your so-called ”gesture of refusal”, like see folks two older faggits still do it like it was done in the 1950s, so we can all do it, is not going to work. It’s just nostalgia, it’s not effective.
    You can sell it to that pseudo-mummified Diva in Paris, but I don’t believe in it, you can’t go to a private island anymore.

    Why don’t you look up to Chomsky, who is older than you but still following trends, instead of this boring miserabilism.

  18. Or Joan Rivers for that matter.

  19. You’re just being boring, I am following trends, I just don’t have to do all of them. That’s the whole point, I’m not some Luddite about the techno, but you DO sound DRUNK. No, it was NOT about nostalgia, we had serious business to work out about June Havoc, and it has to do with the book. That’s not like drunk queens listening to Judy Garland records and crying like YOU do.

    Joan Rivers is so passe, it’s unbelievable you cite her. I’m just not interested in the awful movies you review. Yes, I prefer Arpege’s opinions on many things to yours, you are very ignorant.

    otoh, you have become funnier recently, it might be the change of jobs, or you were forced to work harder without me at the sewer. your thing to lafayetc ‘to demonstrate that you are not a part of the Nick Land conspiracy against her operatic persona’ was good, and so are your remarks to that tedious kvond.

  20. The job hasn’t started yet, still have 2.5 weeks to FART ABOUT with you, instead of doing Ibiza blow jobs with the other Kylie fans, but yes I think it’s more ME than teaching, though I do have a teacher thing in me or I wouldn’t have ended up in that school. The new company some locally famous educational publishing multinational which also probably won’t be running out of business any time soon. I think the Dyke is a very good teacher ,possessing that bear quality between authority and buddy bonding which they require in these kindza places.

  21. Yes, I drove the little eunuch finally into proclaiming his essential tin-type one-dimensionality. Lawd jeedoth chrahst, he’s proud of his loathsomeness. He seems to follow Mikhail literally every single thought he has, nagging and nagging and naggging, never saw the likes of it.

  22. I’m just not interested in the awful movies you review.

    The Illusionist was made for you, and I don’t mean that in the same demeaning tone that you adopt when discussing ”my movies”. Take a closer look on the website, and pay attention to the music (incredinly, also written by the animator).


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