4 Lessons for School Leaders from Sports Coaches

Head coaches of our national professional and collegiate sports teams are responsible for bringing some of the best and brightest together in order to make it to the championship. While each athlete is a star in their own right, these coaches are tasked with setting the tone and unifying the team around a singular mission. The same can be attributed to the work of an impactful school leader when they take on a “head coach” mindset. School leaders receive some of the best and brightest teachers, each bringing their own skill set to a building. However, with so much talent and diversity, getting everyone to value the collective mission over individual progress can sometimes seem challenging, given the fact that traditionally our system is set up for teachers to plan, execute and reflect on their practices independently instead of as a team.

A Gates Foundation study discovered that only 3% of a teacher’s day is spent in meaningful collaboration even though research and effective school models show that a school’s success depends on aligning their staff around a collective mission and shared vision that they work to execute together (Donohoo, 2017). To do so, principals, like sports coaches, must create meaningful relationship building opportunities that propel the mission to the forefront. This establishes a common goal that all stakeholders can support.

Below are lessons from professional sports coaches who have experienced some of the greatest triumphs and greatest losses in their field. Through their experiences, school leaders can learn how to build a culture in which individuals calibrate their practices in order to work collectively to accomplish a goal in service of students.

Draft your team wisely.

High-quality teaching is beneficial for all students, but this impact is even greater for struggling students. During the 2017 NFL Draft, Dan Quinn conducted a thorough assessment of his team and recruited players that fortified their strengths and built upon their weakness. In fact, his draft picks were split equally amongst defensive and offensive players. As a leader, Quinn understood that if the scale is tipped in one direction or the other, the mission is compromised. To be successful in the task of educating students, a school leader must draft their team wisely and create a collaborative environment where the diverse knowledge and skills of individual team members is valued throughout the school. Principals can intentionally build structures that directly influence productivity and student achievement by strategically activating or deactivating the leadership capacity of key players. In sports and schools, every position matters and drafting their teams well allows principals to call the right play in the right moment.

How to do this:

The most successful coaches will tell you that they don’t hire for skill alone. Dan Quinn points out that when considering a player, he needs to know what a guy stands for as a ballplayer, as a man and as a teammate. In the same way, when hiring, principals should evaluate potential candidates for more than just their pedagogical knowledge. Consider how they will contribute to your organizational culture and ask yourself if they are mission aligned. Evaluate potential candidates for their content knowledge or skill and their willingness to accept feedback – and seek out talent based on your school or organization’s specific needs. Click here to read further thoughts on recruiting the right teachers.

Create a culture of interdependency.

Some of the best coaches understand the difference between cooperation and interdependency. Cooperation occurs when we share the same vision and agree to work towards the same outcome, but cooperation alone won’t create an effective team. When teams value interdependency, the members depend on each others’ strengths and weaknesses in order to accomplish their goals. This concept, also known as Collective Teacher Efficacy (Donohoo, 2017) invests teachers in the idea that their individual actions negatively or positively impact their colleagues. Bill Belichick knows what it is like to be in the team-building business. For him and the New England Patriots, it isn’t about a player’s individual talents, but about how that player fits in with the team. In fact, there is a sign in their locker room that says ‘Do the right thing for the team when it may not be the right thing for you.” Teamwork always seems like a noble aspiration but is often viewed as a means to an end.

Similarly, when organizations have an interdependent culture, team members can hold each other accountable without fear of rejection. When I work with schools across the country, I coach principals to create a culture of feedback where all members feel empowered to provide constructive and actionable feedback that brings the team closer to their goal. School leaders spend considerable time investing teachers in the school’s vision, but the best sports coaches invest all stakeholders: owners, players and fans. If leaders want to shift their school culture, then they must distribute resources, tasks and leadership opportunities amongst all stakeholders. The students, parents, teachers, community partners and district officials must view collaboration and feedback as essential fuel for change. It’s through interdependency that members of a team are made aware of their impact on others.

How to do this:

As a principal, I spent considerable time making sure that my teachers built life-altering relationships with our students. My biggest challenge, however, was making sure that all stakeholders including parents, teachers, and scholars placed our mission above their own individual interest. Doing so allowed us to approach conflict knowing that the resolution would get us closer to achieving our mission. Here are some practical ways to build collective efficacy around a shared mission.

  1. Begin every meeting with the school’s mission statement. Leaders, think: do you have a particularly meaningful quote from a student or parent that you can share? Do you have an aha! moment from a teacher?
  2. Allow your team time to grapple with the mission. Create multiple opportunities for parents, teachers, and scholars to identify and share which part of the mission resonates the most with them and what part presents a challenge.
  3. Collaborate with your stakeholders to set a yearly academic theme or vision, and enlist their support to make that theme come to life.
  4. Involve your stakeholders in high impact operational decisions like hiring & budgeting. These two areas impact everyone. Doing so allows for others to connect how even some of the tough decisions are still mission aligned.

Make the tough calls.

During the recent College Football National Championship, the University of Alabama beat the University of Georgia after being down 13-0 in the first half of the game. It’s clear that during the game, Alabama’s Head Coach Nick Saban was continuously assessing the needs of his team.

Entering the second half, Coach Saban made a bold, game-changing decision. He benched his starting quarterback, Jaylen Hurts, and replaced him with freshman. As a result, Alabama quickly rebounded and won the game. When asked about his decision to bench his starting quarterback, Saban said “Well, I just thought we had to throw the ball in the game, and I thought he (Tagovailoa) could do it better.” In this case, Saban knew that his second string quarterback had immense talent and the prescription to get his team back in the game. While unconventional to some, this type of bold leadership wins games.

Making tough decisions can either build or erode trust if the organization doesn’t have a strong culture of mutual respect and transparency. During the post-game conference, most reporters were expecting Hurt to express disdain for being benched, but instead he indicated that the two quarterbacks have a strong relationship and mutual respect for one another. When asked about his reaction, Hurts explained, “Tagovailoa is destined for stuff like this…He has the ‘it’ factor. I’m so happy for him and for this team.” This gracious and supportive response is representative of what happens when leaders create a mission-driven culture of trust and mutual respect. Coach Saban’s intentional focus on building a culture of mutual respect and trust helped his players to accept his unconventional decision. In the same way, principals that intentionally create spaces and opportunities for building trust can foster transformation and staff buy-in on difficult decisions.

How to do this:

A strong culture of trust and mutual respect allows stakeholders to calibrate their beliefs and actions in order to sustain change. Principals can create this by working on common goals with teachers, providing opportunities for recognition, and embodying a culture of coaching. Once established, school leaders should embrace changing things up – if something isn’t working in your school, don’t be afraid to shift teachers, adjust roles, create new expectations, or abandon ideas – and explain why whenever possible. If you have built a strong organizational culture then students, teachers and parents will trust that even the toughest decisions are mission-driven. 

Grow yourself as a leader/Build your network.

Effective team leaders continue to develop their own strong technical skills, increasing their credibility while also allowing them to directly participate when necessary. Steve Kerr, head coach for the Golden State Warriors, often talks about his mentors. Early in his career, he connected himself with championed coaches who all shared key habits of success as well as mistakes. It’s also no coincidence that both the NFL and NBA hold numerous coaching clinics and conferences to provide coaches the opportunity to exchange ideas, build their skills and learn from one another. Regardless of the sport, it is clear that the best sports coaches never stop learning. Most of us would agree that it would be difficult for any coach to lead their team if they had never coached or played a game of football.

Similarly, principals must work hard to continuously refine their skills both inside and outside of the classroom. Effective leaders value the relational and technical skills to move their organization. When coaching principals with CT3, I’m able to serve as a thought-partner that provides the school’s leadership team with powerful insights and actionable recommendations in support of the leader’s personal and organizational goals. This level of leadership mentoring is transforming professional development for school leaders across the country and helping to reshape the narrative for schools in underserved communities.

How to do this:

Like teaching, the principalship can be lonely work. Don’t be afraid to share some of your challenges with other trusted school leaders. There is a wealth of knowledge that can be garnered from your colleagues. Continue to invest in your own professional development, attend leadership conferences and find other forms of continuing education that will push your practice. Be sure to also seek and accept feedback from all members of your school staff to develop and model a growth mindset.

School leaders, like most athletes, can’t afford to live in the past. As educators, we must focus on the now and approach the year in the same way most professional athletes approach the season. Despite the intense preparation in the offseason, every professional team experiences its share of wins and losses. But even with losing a few games, you and your team can still make it to the championship! Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the team, and creating an interdependent culture is essential so that every player can effectively play their part. The stakes are high, but a winning season in your school has the potential to change lives and transform communities.

By Joy Treadwell, CT3 Associate


Donohoo, J. (2017, January 9). Collective Teacher Efficacy: The Effect Size Research and Six Enabling Conditions. Retrieved January 30, 2018, from https://thelearningexchange.ca/collective-teacher-efficacy/

Click here to read about Joy’s background as an educator. Also, check out CT3 Education programs such as No-Nonsense Nurturer, Real Time Teacher Coaching, and Real Time Leadership Coaching to find out more about Professional Development for Teachers and Leaders, classroom management strategies, and building relationships with students and their families.
Category: Leadership