The Teacher-Coach


Education is Motivation

The Observatory Rules

A conversation with a parent last week made me think about re-publishing a piece I wrote for the parents’ newsletter a few years back. Here it is… hope you like it:

My son will never play professional basketball.

He’s got sweet shooting form for a 4-year-old, though.  He dribbles with both hands, can pass that heavy ball across the living room on the fly, understands how to “back me down,” and absolutely loves playing defense, too.

But heck, he’ll be lucky to even crack his high school roster.  I know the odds against him – know them better than most, since I played and coached both high school and college basketball.  The stats are eye-opening:  of all the boys in the United States today who play middle school basketball, fewer than 10% will end up playing for their high school teams;  of all who play high school ball, fewer than 5% will play for a Division I, II, or III college team;  of all those who play college basketball, less than 1% will ever suit up for an NBA game.

Maybe, though… maybe, if I find him the right coach…


I know better than that.  No one coach, or even a series of coaches, can alter the arc of my son’s life in such dramatic fashion.  Or can they?

I may be lucky enough to find coaches for my son and my daughter who will teach them how to win.  Winning is such an important skill to learn, but winning so often gets misconstrued.  When I coached the St. Luke’s varsity girls’ basketball team, I taught my players to win by what I called the “Observatory Rules.”  I compiled these rules from years spent watching and playing with my father and his friends on the Observatory Playground in Upper Darby, PA where I grew up.  They’re actually rules for losing:

  1. Play tough, or lose.
  2. Play smart, or lose.
  3. Play as a team, or lose.
  4. Respect the game, or lose.

My St. Luke’s teams occasionally played games where the scoreboard said at the end that we had scored more points than our opponent, yet I and my players both knew that we had not won.  If we had failed to play tough, play smart, play as a team, or respect the game, then we had failed to win in the most important sense of the word.

I’m certain I can find millions of coaches that will teach my son to properly crouch in a defensive stance;  I need to find one who will teach him how to discover his own limitations, then discover what it feels like to work beyond them in pursuit of a specific goal.  We win when we strive, we refuse to back down from a challenge, we compete against our own expectations, and meet or surpass them.  We play tough, or we lose.

Tens of thousands of coaches can teach my son to recognize a man defense from a zone;  I need to find one who will demonstrate in practice each day and on the sidelines every game that he can get fired up with excitement while keeping his cool under pressure.  We win when we harness our emotions, the good ones as well as the bad, rather than letting them control us.  We play smart, or we lose.

Hundreds of coaches can teach my son the value of making the assist rather than the score;  I need to find one who will congratulate him for helping a teammate weather a difficult stretch.  We win when we recognize and value the contributions others have made to our success, and when we in turn contribute selflessly to the success of others.  We play as a team, or we lose.

Perhaps only a handful of coaches can guide my son to a championship, but that doesn’t make them special in my book.   We win when we are humble in victory, gracious in defeat – when we can look our opponents, the referees, the opposing fans, our family, friends, teammates, and coaches in the eye at the end of the game and appreciate that they brought out the best in us, no matter what the score.  If a coach can teach my son to do that, I will consider myself fortunate.  We respect the game, or we lose.

My son may never make headlines for feats of athleticism.  But hopefully, with the right coaching, my son can become a winner….

…perhaps as a member of the 2021 St. Luke’s Varsity Basketball Team.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Anybody can coach a superstar!

I have news for you. Erik Spoelstra can flat-out coach.

I’ve heard lots of comparisons of Spoelstra to Phil Jackson in the last few days, as the Miami Heat and their trio of super-duperstars begin the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. The point most commentators make is that Spoelstra, like Jackson, has it easy because he’s coaching the best of the best.  Jackson, of course, had simply the best player ever in Michael Jordan on his teams, and Spoelstra has the single best player today in LeBron, along with arguably two of the remaining top-5, top-10, etc. (depending on where you rank Chris Bosh).  The argument being, with talent like that, anybody could guide their teams to the Finals and a ring.

Cut me a break.  Ever had an incandescently brilliant student in your class?  If so, remember how much they made you work every day to be a better teacher?  if not, can you imagine what it’s like to teach a student who pushes you beyond the boundaries of your current abilities every moment?

Heck, forget the teaching analogy, let’s talk pure coaching.  How many moments are there in a game when you can screw things up as a coach because you DIDN’T do anything?!  Failure to act… the wrong words at the wrong time… a timeout called too soon, or too late… a button you pushed, or didn’t… a player-coach relationship you built, or destroyed… there are SO MANY opportunities for a bad coach to wreck a good team’s performance in just a single game.  Can you imagine how many more of them exist over the course of an entire season, not to mention one as long as an NBA season?  Give Erik Spoelstra his due – maybe there are other coaches who could have gotten this Heat team to the finals, but he’s the one who did it.  And it wasn’t easy, I guarantee you.

Filed under: Basketball



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