Fielding A Winning Team

What teacher leaders can learn from football.

I love the movie Remember The Titans.  This film is based on the true story of Coach Herman Boone and his experience at T.C. Williams High School in Alexadria, Virginia in the 1970’s. So many messages and so much inspiration in this Hollywood version of a team facing, and overcoming, challenge and adversity.  I think we can learn a lot from football.

One of my favorite coaches of all time is Tony Dungee. Not only a Superbowl-winning coach and accomplished author, but a successful man. His wisdom and morale stance is something I have admired for a long time. During the past five ice days I’ve had plenty of time to watch a little football and listen to Coach Dungee as he comments on the games being played.  I’ve also had a chance to catch up on our local Texas high school football season as we edge closer and closer to the greatest feat of all time in these parts…the Texas State Championship game.  And it got me to thinking about the lessons of football, and how we might apply those in our leadership roles.

Coaching Teams To Victory

bearcatsTalent abounds on many teams. One local high school team in particular is fielding 70 and 80 points per game as they drive on toward another state championship appearance. Week in and week out this team travels to playoff games, and begins emptying the bench towards the end of the second quarter. Yet the talent is just as strong on the second and third rotations. This team has depth. Playmakers and game-changers are found in every position at every level. How does this staff continue fielding the best of the best?  

Building A Team 


Building relationships and a team mindset is the first order of business for coaches developing successful programs and continues throughout the season. They seek to develop trust, to support each other, to play to each other’s strengths and have an “all for one and one for all” mindset. These relationships are developed on and off the field and are tended to day in and day out.

“There are certain bridges that are not worth crossing, no matter what others think. Loyalty and relationships are important.”  – Tony Dungee

Just as coaches develop teams among players, they also develop cohesiveness on their staff.  The contributions of team members are valued and individual talents are recognized and used to better the program. Loyalty is important on a staff and imperative to healthy team dynamics. Thoughts and ideas are shared and “locker room talk” is just that. All members know, and appreciate, the freedom to engage in honest discourse as they seek to improve their program collectively. There is an awareness that breaking trust and confidences has a detrimental affect on morale, which leads to a negative impact on the larger team.  Players don’t have confidence in coaches who don’t demonstrate confidence in each other. This leads to program break-downs and contributes to a less-than-cohesive team. You can put this team on the field, but you won’t win many ballgames.  

Teacher leaders must have this same relationship-minded approach when leading teams. You cannot impact a teacher without first having a strong relationship in place; one of mutual trust, respect, and appreciation. Why should your team follow you? What makes a team want to buy-in to the core values of the program? It starts with the relationships that have been built. Honor your team by developing strong, authentic bonds which will be able to withstand the winds of change and struggle that are sure to arise as you go through your own season.

Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman, in an open letter to Texas High School coaches, wrote “Be who you say you are.  Where there is no truth, there is no trust. If there is no trust, there is no relationship. If there is no relationship, there is no value or substance to what you are doing.”

Reading The Field 


Ever notice how some players seem to have a knack for anticipating the movement on the field as the play develops?  They can read the field. They’ve studied tape. They know when X player does Y motion, it means Z. But it also seems as if some players can just anticipate- in split second reaction time- and adjust accordingly. They see the gaps, they “feel” that secondary player’s next move. If the route is blocked ahead, they quickly recover and seem to create another equally successful one. Successful teacher leaders have this same knack. They can anticipate staff reactions, and make decisions on how to put team members in the best position to move the ball down the field. Are you aware of the unique gifts and struggles on your team? Do you anticipate where clarity might be needed and adjust accordingly? Do you delegate according to strengths, gifts, and motivations on your team?

Having A Game Plan 

The best coaches are the ones who have studied the game, considered their own team strengths and weaknesses, and have a play book that allows for multiple ways to score. Their overall philosophy is intact – “We run the spread”….”We run a veer”… “We use a nickel defense”… and is built around the talent present on their team, but they do have a variety of plays that can be used depending on the situation they are facing. Talented teacher leaders recognize strengths, stay aware of opposition, and see challenges as opportunities to develop creative ways of scoring buy-in. They are aware of district initiatives and beliefs and build their programs around this common vision.

Breaking Down Film

Teams all over the state arrive at the field house on Saturday mornings to break down game film. Why do they do this? To reflect, learn, celebrate andfilm grow. Why did this occur in the first quarter? Where was our tight end during that play? The coaching staff will gather this information, identify trends and patterns, reflect on their play, and share this information with players. Adjustments are made as they go throughout the season. Successful leaders study student achievement data.  They analyze performance. They break down plays and look for areas of strength and opportunities for growth, they collaborate with others to identify causes and make adjustments. Staff leaders guide teachers in developing authentic ways to share this information with their players (students) and set goals. They celebrate successes and work with others to strengthen the team. Above all, they remain learners of the game.

Sticking To Fundamentals

“If you want to win, do the ordinary things better than anyone else does them day in and day out.” Coach Chuck Noll

What are the fundamentals for a sound football program? In that same letter Coach Sherman advised, “Sometimes coaches get too tied up in the scheme and they sacrifice fundamentals in the process. There has to be a consistent commitment to this from beginning to end of season. It’s still a game of blocking and tackling, throwing and catching. That will never change. If you do those things well, you will win regardless of what scheme you run.”  What are the fundamentals of your program? How much of a priority does your staff place on team planning, looking at student work, lesson development, vertical alignment, or crafting rigorous and authentic assessments? These and other fundamentals must be practiced and protected. Without them, we’re fielding a team that can get a few first downs, but lacks the consistency needed to develop and grow as the year goes on.

Identify Leaders That Emerge

One thing that always happens on a team is that at some point, those natural leaders begin to emerge. The team seems to gravitate toward them. They are respected, trusted, and listened to. They can raise morale and motivation. They can have a huge impact on the team collectively. We are wise to effectively engage them; put them into positions of leadership and let them spearhead programs that are important to our program. Good leaders area always on the lookout for ways to grow other leaders.

Motivation and Inspiration

Just as Denzel Washington portrays a coach with an uncanny ability to motivate those around him, we must also be skilled in the art of inspiration. What drives your team? Where you can find, and build, motivation? Sometimes, as we see in the movie, out of struggle comes greatness because the coaches took the opportunity to turn a negative into a positive. They used a struggle to build motivation. How do you find ways to motivate- not just the playmakers, but the team as a whole? How do you find ways to unite your team around a common goal and break down resistance to change? These skills should be developed, polished, and ever present as you learn and grow with your teams. Do not underestimate the power and far-reaching effect of a motivated (or unmotivated) teacher.

It’s important to remember that it’s the journey that matters more than the scoreboard. I encourage you to consider how your role in education relates to football, and what steps you can take as a team to achieve a great season. If we practice, train, reflect, and keep working to get better the winning will take care of itself.

I’ll leave you with some thoughts from Tony Dungee on being a mentor leader:

Image Credits: Image of sport/pr/photos; topnews.com; lehighvalleylive.com; andthevalleyshook.com


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