What do great sports coaches and teachers have in common?

Delanie Walker, a tight-end in the NFL, recently responded to a question regarding his former San Francisco 49ers coach, Jim Harbaugh: “Why is Jim Harbaugh such a great football coach?

He’s a player. He’s just like one of us. Jim Harbaugh is always in the locker room. He’s in the locker room playing basketball with us, he’s in there joking around. He eats with us. He doesn’t sit with the other coaches, he sits with the players. He just wants to be a player, he goes to practice and sometimes puts on the full gear, throws the ball, he conditions with us.

I think that’s what makes everybody buy into his philosophy: he believes in it so much that he does it.

On TV, you see him yelling, jumping around, going crazy. I think that’s his gametime self, but in general he’s always joking around, laughing, playing. You don’t see him at practice yelling and going crazy, he’s always kind, asks you how your day was.

Having played basketball growing up (in fact, I still play regularly even though my recovery times are now weeks instead of days), my coach’s impact has been a lasting one and is undoubtedly weaved deeply into who I am. Sure, we learned basketball fundamentals, set plays, and ran a lot in practice (seriously, a lot). But, like Delanie with respect to his 49ers coach, that’s not what I remember — and certainly not what made my coach a great mentor for me and my teammates.

Breaking down Delanie’s points a bit, three traits seem to be prominent in his response:

  • Values relationships
  • Leads by example
  • Encourages with positivity

These are fantastic traits to find in a football coach, a basketball coach, a manager, a friend, a significant other, a CEO, or a teacher. The parallels between team athletics and the classroom environment are fascinating, and I look forward to diving into this space more deeply in future posts, hopefully with the help of teachers and coaches (if interested, email me: Manoj@ClassDojo.com).

The ultimate goal for an NFL coach is to win games. There is no ambiguity in terms of results, as it all comes down to your season record, playoff record, and who takes home the Vince Lombardi Trophy. But the path to get there for an NFL coach is not just a well-conceived playbook and carefully crafted strategy for each game. It’s cultivating players like Delanie Walker to be constantly motivated, inspired, and always contributing to the system.

Photo: Harbaugh surrounded by his players after NFC Championshp win in 2013, Credit: Reuters