Hey Coaches and Teachers: Quit Being Calm, and Start Getting Messy


If you’re like most people, you grow up instinctively believing that the best learning takes place in an orderly, calm environment. We want well-groomed sports fields, tidy classrooms, and customized high-tech equipment. We want our teachers and coaches to be wise authorities, standing in front of the group and smoothly delivering all the answers.

The problem, as master coach George Whitfield Jr. so vividly shows us here, is that our instincts are exactly wrong. Click the video to see why.

  • Instead of a clean, orderly field, he heads for the soft, tricky sands of the beach. (Or, in some cases, into the water.)
  • Instead of lecturing, he uses a series of short, informative, vivid soundbites: “GPS,” “Sandwich,” “Battery,” “Pull the reins,” and so on.
  • Instead of fancy equipment, he uses rakes, shovels, and beanbags, seeking out ways to replicate the chaotic, everchanging environment they’ll face in a game.
  • Instead of having an established system, he constantly innovates, creating new games and drills that are both useful and fun. (Check out how the players describe — and show — how much fun they’re having with him.)

One reason George succeeds, I think, is that he understands a basic truth: calm, orderly, authoritarian environments create passive learners. So he approaches learning as an active collaboration — a messy, stressful, individualized construction process.

In short, he approaches his job like a hacker, ignoring conventional wisdom and instead asking the simple question: what do I need to do right now, with the stuff I’ve got on hand, to make this person perform better?

Which makes me wonder: do you have any other similar examples of teacher/coach hacking that might be worth sharing?

(Big thanks to reader Trevor Parent for the heads-up)

Rate This

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (8 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

Share This

Bookmark and Share

9 Responses to “Hey Coaches and Teachers: Quit Being Calm, and Start Getting Messy”

  1. Great clip Dan, there’s so much in it.

    I like the comment from the 5.23 min mark.

    “The guys who stay on the cutting edge are the guys who stay employed”

  2. Rich Kent says:

    An idea-provoking video for all coaches… The QBs’ comments are thoughtful and reflective; they exude trust.

    I’m brought back to a writing activity that I introduced here in January called the Quick Write Snap Shot (pasted below). Why might this be considered a so-called “hacking activity”? Because it creates disorder in the sports arena as an athlete’s writing (i.e., written thought) takes center stage. Asking coaches to respond through follow-up discussions, or their own writing, creates a kind of dissonance, or chaos. The sports arena is physical and often dominated by the spoken-word… This activity is cerebral and based in the written word.

    Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with chaos: “The law of chaos is the law of ideas, of improvisations and seasons of belief.” —Wallace Stevens

    From (http://thetalentcode.com/2013/01/07/how-to-get-better-feedback/)
    January 7, 2013 at 8:44 pm:
    A former US Ski Team Coach, Adam Chadbourne carries a notebook and pencil with him to the ski slopes. He uses a “Quick Write Snap Shot” to help his Burke Mountain Academy athletes capture a moment in time. “Whenever there was a breakthrough moment––a great run, one super turn, or what have you––I would immediately hand the notebook and pencil to the athlete, have her put down in her own words what she had just been thinking about in that moment… what she was feeling, seeing, what she had done differently….” The page was then torn out of the coach’s notebook and returned to the athlete to be transcribed into their personal journals later that day. Chadbourne keeps copies of his athletes’ notes for follow-up conversations.

    Snap Shots provide Chadbourne’s ski racers with opportunities for deeper thinking and work on visualization. Having studied neuroscience in college, the coach explained that “with time, our memory of events will often change dramatically, even within 10-15 minutes. More time equals opportunity for more change.”
    He goes on to say, “The benefit I see is that this immediate writing in its most raw form is the most true representation of what has occurred. Even [a few minutes later] one’s recollection may change. I even ask the student-athlete to pull his or her note out and re-read it before the next run even if we discussed [the note] five minutes earlier.”

    A favorite activity among the Burkies, Snap Shots add to the ways these athletes think and learn about their competitive performances and training. Those ways can include video review, athlete-to-coach discussions, athlete-to-athlete discussions, journal writing, and group journal writing sessions followed-up with discussions. Naturally, the final component of the activity is the athlete’s continual reflection on experience.

  3. djcoyle says:

    (This comment from Alejandro Regueiro, via facebook): The best golf instructor I know has a run-down facility (reminded my of your description of Spartak). One man operation in a small town. Uses a lot of very similar techniques. Brooms, sponges, float tubes, sticks, heavy clubs, hockey sticks, etc. He consistently produces D1 college players from beginners out of this small town. Always stresses the fundamentals. He’s also a big fan of your book.

  4. Rich Stoner says:

    As a trainer, I got my start training young athletes outdoors using whatever I had available to me: sandbags, kettlebells, park benches, jungle gyms etc. To this day, when the weather gets warmer out here in NJ I still enjoy getting back to my roots and training my athletes outdoors. It is a change of pace to the structure of the indoor arena with the fancy equipment and air conditioning. It is bare bones and it works great.

  5. James says:

    There is something juicy about ‘in progress’ imperfection vs the dead polish of an ultra refined environment.

  6. Tony Hodson says:

    Great insights Dan. Highly relevant coaching and development concepts for the dynamic world in which we all live. Already bookmarked and shared with several current clients who need to expand their view on the coach’s role – thanks for sharing!

  7. djcoyle says:

    Thanks, Tony – much appreciated! I like that idea of expanding the coach’s role — seems like that’s going to be the plotline for a lot of people and groups in the coming years. If you ever run across anything you want to share, please feel free.

  8. Andy Elleray says:

    Fantastic piece Dan am a huge fan of your books. As a goalkeeper trainer in England when I started I had a very small space to coach with large groups of players – with an age span of about 6 years.

    This meant I had to create a new way of coaching for football goalkeepers and explore what I could do to improve skills – the traditional model of goalkeeper training involves ‘drills’ where there are lots of lines present and a variety of cones, poles etc to maneuver their way around.

    My coaching theory called ‘Games Based Goalkeeper Training’ involves innovative practices and specially designed games. I see a lot of coaches in a variety of sports in England have the attitude that if it doesn’t look like the sport then why are you doing it – these coaches usually have very tidy looking easy to coach drills rather than environments that take the athletes out their comfort zone.

    Since I started I have produced very skillful goalkeepers that can think for themselves and be very adaptable. And have written a book based around the concept amongst other new approaches in football goalkeepers.



  9. djcoyle says:

    Thanks for sharing that, Andy — I like the idea of “game based training” a lot.

    It reminds me of a story I heard recently from a former top goalie, who said that when he was 14 he was routinely asked to goaltend for adult games. He was in far over his head — at first. But after a few games, he caught on and raised his game, slowly but surely, and now he looks back on those games as the keystone for all the learning that came later. Gotta love the discomfort zone.

Comment On This