“Talking isn’t teaching.” It’s a well-known maxim among educators for a reason: it’s absolutely true. And you’ve witnessed this first-hand if you’ve ever had a professor who was highly respected in her field yet nevertheless couldn’t communicate the material in which she was an expert. Or a teacher published time and again, whose name was well known among his colleagues, yet could hardly establish any semblance of a discourse with his own students. It certainly happens in the classroom. And it can happen on the football field, too.
An assistant coach can have all the experience in the world. Rings as a former player, accolades as a coach, be they high school, collegiate, or professional. Yet if that coach cannot effectively impart the nuances of the position he’s coaching, if he cannot forge real relationships with his players, the depths of his knowledge may never be fathomed by those in his charge.
We caught up with a couple of Florida State assistant coaches to see how they approached their roles as teachers. Running backs and special teams coach Jay Graham weighed in on customizing his approach to each player:
I think every kid has to be coached on an individual basis. Just depends on what you have to do to help them understand the process. I think that’s my coaching style. I like to teach them, I like to teach them about life and how it relates to football, how it relates to effort and how to carry that over on both sides on and off the field. I’m not a big yeller, but I talk loud. I think it’s important that they know I’m going to be consistent everyday.
There are a few things to really like about Graham’s statement. First, his recognition of different players’ respective learning styles is key, especially given his profession’s typical stereotype of being one populated by hard-nosed, old-school, and downright stubborn men. Just because something has always been done one way does not mean that that method is the best— that’s a logical fallacy known as appealing to antiquity. Graham’s response shows that he’s accepted newer pedagogical studies about varied learning styles.
I ask a lot of questions. In the meeting rooms, some guys need to have questions fired at them. All of them do, but some guys need more. Some guys need help on an individual basis, some guys need more reps in practice. It’s a lot of evaluating guys and figuring out exactly what they need to do to go and be successful.
Graham is evidently a big fan of the Socratic method— continually probing not just for the what and how, but the why. This is of particular importance within the confines of JImbo Fisher’s complex offense, and it’s at the heart of why you’ll hear Fisher discuss conceptual learning quite frequently.
You can also see some specifics as to how Graham caters to different learning styles. Some need the interrogative back-and-forth. Others require hands-on, tactile learning via more reps. We all process information somewhat differently, whether it’s picking up blitzes or Bukowski.
Defensive tackles coach Odell Haggins picked up on a theme mentioned by Graham— that of going big-picture, making this about more then just what happens between the lines. This is an effective strategy because it can foster important trust between a teacher and student, while also providing context and the feeling that a drill one is running, an extra lap he’s taking, is not just about football, but much, much, more. Said Haggins:
My coaching style, as a man, is like real life. What I mean by that is that there are certain things in football that can teach about life, certain things in life can teach about football. Life is not easy. You have to work for what you want. If you want to live a certain style of life, you have to work, you have to be disciplined, you have to create great habits. Football and life are very compatible to each other, very compatible to each other. That’s how I coach. Now, you see me off the field, smiling and stuff, I’m no nonsense, work hard, but my players know that every once in awhile I’m going to crack a joke and have fun. I’m not a coach that’s going to be [yelling], no, and there’s a reason why. I have a method and like I say, football and life are very compatible to each other.
Haggins’ mention of a little well-placed light-heartedness is important, too. Before the student-teacher relationship can ever get off the ground, the human-to-human dynamic must be established. This is why so many of your teachers have conducted laid-back icebreakers during the first week of class: to show that we’re all just people.
And did you notice how both Graham and Haggins downplayed yelling? I think this is a critical reflection of authenticity. That is, some coaches are, intrinsically, yellers, and that’s fine. But if it’s just artifice, if it’s all a show, then that’s just disingenuous— and students can smell fake a mile away.
Oh, and before you assume that that natural-born yellers allusion was to one FSU offensive line coach, think again. Because when asked how his approach has changed since coming to Florida State, OL coach Rick Trickett replied “I’m probably a little more mellow,” with a wry smile. Hey look— Trick can be funny, too!
But all kidding aside, while talking may not necessarily be teaching, talking with one’s peers can very much improve instructional methods, as colleagues tend to share their favorite techniques with their cohorts. To that end, Graham responded thusly regarding coaches he sees as mentors, and how he emulates them:
I look at a lot of guys. Coach Sanders coaches me. I learned from a lot of guys. Coach Fisher. I watch guys and their different styles. They don’t necessarily coach my position, I watch their coaching style and exactly how they do things. Obviously, I have my own style, but there’s certain things I can look at and I can pick things out of there that can actually help me.
Do you see what Graham is effectively saying here? To continue excelling as a teacher, you can never truly relinquish your role as a student; learning never stops.