An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Chris Hartley, Director of Athletics

This blog was originally written for the Washington Secondary School Athletic Administrators Association newsletter.

Like many kids who grew up in an athletic family, I was drawn to the sports that my older brother played. I listened intently at the dinner table when he shared stories of what had happened during practices, games or in the locker room. I remember him talking about a chalk talk session during football season. The coaches were writing up a few offensive plays on the board when a teammate raised his hand and said, “Coach, don’t give me all of these Xs and Os. Just tell me who to hit!” As you can imagine, there was a lot of laughter (and a few frustrated coaches).

My brother’s teammate and the rest of the team were always being told what to do with little explanation. There was never any discussion of the WHY behind practice plans or plays. My experience was the same. One of my football coaches, the offensive line coach, had played for Bear Bryant at Alabama. He was short in stature, always had a knob of a cigar in his mouth, used the lanyard of his whistle as a whip to remind us to keep our feet wide when blocking, and called everyone by their last name. I can still hear “HAAATLAY (his pronunciation of Hartley), are you gonna hit someone today or just lean on them?” There was never a time that I felt comfortable asking this coach a question. In fact, my role on the team was to simply do exactly what my coaches asked. I never asked questions like, “Why are we doing this drill?”

After 25 years of coaching and now five years as an athletic director, my philosophy on what good coaching looks like has nothing to do with the way that I was coached in high school or college. I was reminded of this when I watched a TEDTalk last week. Brian Fretwell’s talk “What a 15-year-old meth addict taught me about leadership,” speaks to a different form of leadership than that used by my coaches 35 years ago. Fretwell refers to the Latin word educo (pronounced ah-do-ko) and shares that this is the word the Romans used to describe strong leadership. That word means “to draw out” or “to bring out.” Fretwell posits that great leaders draw out the best from their followers. Great coaches – the coaches we want to lead our students – are those who draw the best out of our student-athletes. They help them fulfill their potential; they help them see the value of putting the team’s goals first; they help them understand what it means to be respectful, inclusive, and empathetic.

When I first began coaching, I coached as I had been coached. I was the unquestionable; I controlled everything. And, my response to “why?” was often “because I said so.” Thanks to a few incredible mentors and a good deal of self-reflection, that approach changed significantly. As soon as I began to see that my role as coach was to inspire my athletes to push themselves, to question the process, to build a relationship with me, and to bond with their teammates, the work with my teams became educational, not simply results-based. And, it was far more rewarding to coach those teams, and I am confident that my athletes learned a great deal more about themselves and how hard work and team work lead to better success.

Every year, I see brand new faces at our pre-season coaches meetings who need additional support as they launch their coaching careers. Though there is hardly enough time to cover all of the policies and procedures required, I make it a point to spend some time talking about what great leadership looks like. We talk about the importance of building a level of trust so that athletes are comfortable asking questions, seeking further explanations, and contributing to the ethos of the team. I offer resources for the coaches to refer to, like the TEDx talk mentioned above. We want all of our coaches to lead by drawing out the best from athletes.

One of the best opportunities I offer our coaches so that they became better leaders is to shadow another coach. In fact, I require this of our head coaches. The shadowing coach contacts a peer coach in a different sport and sets up a good time to watch. Rather than being on the edges of practices or competitions, the shadowing coach is next to the coach and observes everything from start to finish. If this occurs on a competition day, then the shadowing coach is at all team meetings as well as being alongside the coach throughout the competition. We find that this simple process does a number of positive things:

  • A relationship is formed between the two coaches. Now, there is an avenue to connect when one has a question or needs to talk through an idea;
  • The coaches realize that many concerns or issues are shared;
  • The shadowing coach learns some new approaches or methods;
  • Coaches are pulled out of the silo of their sport and see connections and similarities;
  • Often times, because of the relationship between the coaches, players from the two teams start support each other in meaningful ways.

I have extended the shadowing project to our classroom teachers. Several teachers have shadowed a varsity coach for a practice and a competition. The teachers have been impressed with how our coaches teach. They are also excited to be on the sidelines or bench with the team; some even are nervous because it seems like a sacred place. The athletes are delighted to see their classroom teachers take an interest in athletics. And, there are now better relationships between coaches and teachers.

We all want our coaches to offer the best possible experience for our students. And, we want our students to leave high school with the ability to be successful. As coaches and athletic directors, we all know that the skills we teach, beyond those that are sports-specific, are the ones that they will use for their lifetimes. Making sure our coaches, especially the new ones, are prepared to meet their athletes where they are and work with them so they flourish is exciting and critical work.


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