Drew Allen, Ken Whisenhunt
What do a fourth grade teacher and an NFL offensive coordinator have in common? This question isn’t the beginning of a joke, but stems from a conversation I had on a recent flight to Mexico. Sitting next to me on the plane was a relaxed and engaging guy who just happened to be an NFL offensive coordinator. I’ll call him “Jim”, out of respect for his privacy. (He was on a trip with his wife for a much-deserved vacation, after all.) As we shared, asked questions, and listened about each other’s work, we were both struck with the number of similarities about the teaching practices we each use—Jim with multimillionaire 250 pound athletes, and me with elementary school students. Here are a few of Jim’s key teaching practices and strategies that will likely resonate with many teachers.

Teaching through Multiple Modalities

When teaching players a new offensive play, Jim said that he knows he’ll have to teach it in several different ways. Depending on the individuals in the group or the complexity of the play, he uses a variety of strategies so all learners can succeed:

  • Visual models: The classic X’s and O’s on the board helps players who need to conceptualize something visually.
  • Explicit modeling: Many players need to watch the play in action with coaches and/or players demonstrating the sequence.
  • Practicing and being coached in the moment: Most players also need to get out on the field and practice the play, trying it out and getting immediate feedback.
  • Talking/listening: Jim said that he always explains plays verbally but stressed that he doesn’t talk for more than 20 minutes before moving on to something else, knowing that there are diminishing returns on long lectures.

Explicit Language

As I shared about working with teachers on using clear and specific language, Jim perked up. “That’s true,” he began. “I can’t just say, ‘Don’t fumble.’ I have to be really specific about how and where to place the ball in your arm. I can’t just say ‘Catch the ball.’ I have to pinpoint the position of fingers, the shape of the hand, and where your eyes should be.”

Power of Repetition

Jim was adamant about the importance of repetition as a vehicle for good learning. You can’t just do something once and have it learned, he explained. He tells his players that in order to form a new habit—to really master a skill—they have to perform the skill correctly at least three times (though most players need more). To undo a bad habit, three weeks of good practice is needed.

Each Year is Different

At one point during the plane ride, Jim was sketching diagrams of possible plays in a notebook. He explained several to me, pointing out a few new ones he was hoping to try in the coming season. I asked if the plays he uses each year vary according to the players, and he quickly nodded. “I plan all kinds of possible plays before the year starts, but then I have to work with the strengths and talents of the guys I have. Some years I can run some plays and not others. It’s different every year.”

Looking Beyond Talent

“Of course, some players have more talent than others,” Jim stated, “but sometimes, the ones with the most talent aren’t the ones who make it. They’re so used to success, they don’t know how to learn or deal with failure.” I pushed at this: “What are some of the attributes beyond physical talent you look for in a player?” His answers came quickly—clearly something he has thought a lot about.

  • A Team View: Jim’s scouting department specifically targets players who place the success of the team above individual accomplishments and ones who are confident but not self-absorbed.
  • Grit: “Everyone fails at this level. We look for players who persevere when the going gets tough and learns from mistakes.”
  • Creativity: This one surprised me. I think of football as a game of following directions and doing what you’re told, but Jim said that they look for players who can think differently—ones who can add ideas to planning sessions or adapt to situations during a game and make plays happen.

He finished by saying that it was his job to help all of his players learn and develop some of these skills, regardless of their talent level. Focusing primarily on the most talented players won’t lead to team-wide success.

“The Guys Have to Know You Care”

Toward the end of the flight there was a lull in the conversation when suddenly Jim turned to me. “You know,” he began, “in the end, none of that other stuff matters if the guys think you don’t care. You have to know them beyond the football field, and they have to know that you’re really on their side. NFL players can quickly tell if you’re someone who’s going to help them learn, and if you’re not, they’re not going to listen to anything you say.”

There are people out there, teachers and non-teachers alike, who are quick to dismiss supportive teaching techniques—ones that work at ensuring that all learners can be successful—as overly kind or too soft. “Kids have to learn that the world is a tough place,” they state with conviction, seemingly relishing the idea of a school where students failing is a necessary part of the process. It’s hard to imagine a tougher work environment that the offensive line of an NFL football team, and gratifying to see that good teachers know that even in the toughest of environments all learners want to learn and are capable of learning, and it’s good teachers who figure out how to make that happen.


1 Comment
  1. oh… so much to learn from those football coaches… they seek skill development, community, and success!