Why Students Should Train like Football Teams

Why Students Should Train like Football Teams

It can’t really be a coincidence that the start of school and football season coincide. Maybe we educators should take it as a sign and pay more attention to football, its players and coaches.

No, I don’t mean we need to huddle in PD, though sometimes we do just that. Or that we all should turn to football as a distraction from the stress and heart wrenching work that it is to educate our children. To each her own. I also don’t advocate for our play space to be filled with the helmet-crushing action and hard hits that leave crowds of onlookers breathless.

It is football’s deep understanding of the nature of teamwork and the art of training that we should turn to and emulate.

You don’t have to understand much about football to see that players have differing roles and varying skills. Think about a kicker whose gift lies in his leg strength, a quarterback whose power to throw is invaluable, or a defensive player whose fortitude is in his ability to stand his ground, and have his opponent stand with him. Fans and reporters see these various talents, and it’s widely recognized that each position, though unique in its role, contributes to the team’s success.

In schools however, we often fail to see value in varying skills. We exalt the high reader, the skillful mathematician. In doing so, sometimes we miss the empathetic collaborator or the insightful artist. We may validate the non-traditional talents of our students with off-handed praise, but the skills we teach toward, evaluate and demand are narrow, leaving some students to think their talents, efforts and successes are second rate.

I am not recommending we stop teaching math to our history buffs, or graduate compassionate students who are not literate. All strong football players understand the roles their teammates play, and can take on those roles in practice. If they grow up to coach football, they can coach positions other than the one they played. Good players are equipped to step out of their comfort zone. But when it’s crunch time, when it’s time to shine, they play to their strengths. And they train to their strengths as well.

We, too, need to celebrate our students’ multitude of talents and nurture them as individuals. At Thrive Public Schools, we are doing just this. Project Based Learning (PBL) offers a unique opportunity to value students of varying strengths and abilities in working towards and end goal. PBL asks students to work collaboratively in teams toward a common outcome; this outcome is arrived at by the synthesis of diverse parts and presented, live, much like a football game. Students have opportunities to lead, follow, design, refine and contribute in ways that are authentic to themselves, their gifts and their readiness.

And like football players, students need differentiated training. Sure, there are scrimmages, warm-ups and drills that are done together; this build team spirit, interpersonal skills and contextual awareness. Everyone participates. They are a team after all. But their entire training is not dependent on everyone moving at the same pace. It’s clear that a lean runner will run a faster sprint than the bulked up defensive player. And a coach that demanded two such players run identical splits would be doing a disservice to both players and the team as a whole.

Football players have drills for building speed, endurance, and strength. In fact, all athletes have targeted workout regimens to train specific muscle groups. This is an idea we should adopt in our schools.

We need to move away from the idea that all students must learn the same thing at the same time, and that only students who reach pre-determined benchmarks in the traditional curriculum should have access to the arts, sciences and other exploratory fields. And there’s no reason to hold back a fast reader because the class isn’t on pace with her.

Blended Learning, another of Thrive’s core instructional practices offers teachers a way to have students move at varying paces while collecting real time data. That data is in turn used to design small group instruction and measure student growth. Blended Learning stations are used to reinforce lessons already taught by the teacher, and to allow students to practice and extend their learning. No two students are expected to be working on the exact same math problem, or reading the same line of text at any given moment. And in the thirty minutes half of the class is practicing independently, the other half can receive direct, targeted instruction from their teacher.

As much as football teams show us how to build our students up as individuals, they equally remind us to stay unified. In football, there is a strong sense that the collective matters. The quarterback relies on his defensive line to keep him safe and provide an unobstructed space for him to throw the ball. He also knows he can count on someone else to catch the ball he throws. He expects his teammates to finish what he starts, and he expects them to do their job well – as well as he does his own. He sees his success in the success of his team.

In stark opposition, many classrooms pit students against each other, teaching them that another person’s failure is their opportunity for success. While grading on a curve is probably the biggest offender in fostering student antagonism, any classroom where students don’t build communal trust and interdependence robs our students of the ability to work as a unified whole toward a common goal.

Socio-Emotional Learning and Community Building are at the heart of every successful classroom. Only when we can solve problems, work together effectively and trust in each other, can students reach their full potential. Students must feel safe, supported and accepted, not just by their teachers, but by their peers. They must feel safe to make mistakes and to try again. They must feel known, seen and valued, both for their individual talents (quarterback, reader, lineman, and mathematician) and for their contribution to the team.

As the football and school seasons both kick off, prepare to integrate what you know about each. Huddle up with your students, design a game plan and then support each learner to move at his or her own pace to make your team shine. Fight on!

Written by Nicole Assisi

Nicole Assisi

Dr. Assisi is an accomplished school developer and leader in 21st century learning innovations, who launched Thrive Public Schools, a new breakthrough model for project-based, blended learning K-12 schools.

One comment

  1. Nick Bowen

    Dr. Assisi,
    I applaud your skillful use of football to force someone like me to read your article. For the most part, your analogies focus on solid pedagogical theory. You may want to consult with someone who knows more about football, however, if you undertake future projects along this line. For example,quarterbacks rely upon their offensive, not defensive, lines for protection.

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