The start of Ravens’ training camp always takes me a little by surprise, coming as it does in what feels like the height of summer. So it’s even a little more surprising to realize that less than a week after the highly paid professional athletes of the NFL began their preseason, practice started today for the high school football players of the Maryland Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA). Other MIAA sports, as well as Baltimore City and County teams, begin their practices next week.
During the coming month of practices, followed by a full season of more practices, long rides to games, and the intensely contested sporting events themselves, Maryland high school student athletes will spend hundreds and hundreds of hours with their coaches. In many cases, they will spend more time with their coach in the course of one athletic season than they will spend with any single teacher during the entire academic year.
I don’t think that’s a problem. Throughout the decades I spent as a teacher, long before I ever became a headmaster, I was also a coach. I saw firsthand that students, particularly adolescents, can often learn important lessons more effectively on the athletic field than in a classroom: discipline, responsibility, and sportsmanship among them. But I also saw the damage that can be inflicted when winning at all costs becomes more important than the overall development of young men and women. As the high school sports season gets underway, it is vitally important for parents to make sure that their children’s teams are coached by adults who understand that they are first and foremost educators. As Ravens coach John Harbaugh has said: “Being a great coach is about being a great teacher.”
For generations, public and private school athletic programs alike thrived by using the traditional teacher-coach model, employing individuals who exceled in both roles and knew their students in the classroom and on the field. They understood that the kid fighting for a starting position was struggling in math, or might have been in the midst of a difficult family situation. They knew that there was more to their players’ lives than what happened between the lines of the playing field.
Once the standard for schools across the country, the teacher-coach model is now in sharp decline. One reason is that as more and more high school athletes specialize in one particular sport, schools feel pressure to hire outside coaches that will emphasize winning and placing students in Division I athletic programs. Another reason is the tremendous difficulty of finding individuals with the unique skill sets required to be teacher-coaches. Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel has attracted widespread recognition for his ability to combine top level athleticism with outstanding mathematical scholarship. Imagine having to field an entire lineup of such players! And yet that’s what schools go through every year in hiring teacher-coaches, trying to find an environmental scientist adept in conveying the mechanics of a rowing stroke, or a highly technical swim coach also experienced in teaching trigonometry.
Why, then, if there are so many challenges to the teacher-coach model, do so many schools work so hard to try to preserve it? Because, when it’s done right, I believe there is no more powerful or mutually beneficial relationship between a student and teacher. Bonds of trust and respect built on the playing field are brought into the classroom. Students learn that homework, like athletic drills, is intended to help them gain mastery of a new skill. Teachers are reminded that just as students’ bodies lend them particular advantages or challenges, so do their brains.
At our most recent reunion in May, a large contingent from the Class of 1965 retuned to mark the 50th anniversary of their graduation from St. Paul’s. Midway through the evening, they were surprised by the arrival of Mitch Tullai, who came to the school as athletic director in 1953 and spent the next 41 years as a football coach and history teacher. Suddenly men in their late sixties, successful leaders in their own right, were like schoolboys again. They gathered around Mitch, eager to swap stories of the old days and also to let him know what they’d achieved in the decades since graduating.
More than one later told me how important he’d been in their lives. “I’d run through a wall for him,” one of them said. My hope for today’s student athletes is that they, too, find a coach inspiring enough that they would run through a wall for him, and wise enough that he never asks them to.