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Dr. Coach: A Metaphor to Teach By

Steven M. Graves

Department of Geography
CSU Northridge


You win with people.

Woody Hayes, Head Coach
Ohio State Buckeyes, 1951-1978

Every term, students ask, “Why did you give me a C?” or “Is this going to be on the test?” I think these questions indicate something more fundamental than laziness or stunted intellectual curiosity: a misperception of the teacher-student relationship. Faculty members think of themselves as enablers of student performance, advocates for students who guide them through the learning process. Students, on the other hand, frequently think of “the teacher” as the opponent in the learning process and the primary obstacle to an A+. Of course, not all students see us this way, but a disturbing number of freshmen and poor students consider us competitive adversaries.

This unfortunate notion develops early in students and represents a discourse reinforced daily in our culture. Media and political interests have contributed mightily to less-than-desirable images of teachers. Students may be internalizing some media-driven stereotypes of the adversarial teacher. Though a significant number of positive media images of individual teachers exist, these characters stand out precisely because they are cast as heroic figures, laboring in a sea of mediocre, apathetic pedagogy. Many teachers are portrayed as contemptuous and embittered.

On the other hand, coaches are often portrayed as tough and demanding but deeply concerned about helping players to realize their potential. Teachers who are similarly demanding tend instead to be characterized as unfair and unsympathetic to student needs. Students frequently avoid demanding teachers, but athletes search out coaches with high expectations. My point is not to complain about the unfairness of the media representations, but rather to encourage teachers to claim some of the cultural capital earned by coaches. The mythology of “the coach” is both common enough to make it usable as a metaphor for teaching and powerful enough to help supplant student notions of the teacher-as-adversary.

Observing a Colleague as a Coach

The value of the coaching metaphor first became apparent to me during my second year of full-time college teaching. I began to realize that I was becoming stigmatized as a “hard teacher.” I thought of myself as having high expectations of my students. I thought they should want their money’s worth from a class. I also realized that most students treated my courses as games where their grades were a metaphorical final score.

I noticed that one of my colleagues consistently seemed to elicit better classroom effort and performance from a common pool of students, especially from our student-athletes. Initially, I thought his success was a by-product of his friendships within the athletic department, and that the athletes worked harder for him because he knew their coaches. I came to doubt this hypothesis, for it explained neither his success with non-athletes nor my continuing failure to get athletes to perform, even after I made contact with coaches myself.

Eventually I suspected that my colleague’s love of sport and his ties to the athletes permitted him to employ psychological transference among students, who worked harder because they saw him not merely as the teacher but also, at least partially, as coach. It was a simple distinction, but it made a lot of difference and I came to envy it. Though I can never completely transform myself, I have for several years encouraged students to think of me as their “geography coach,” and it has been a successful strategy.

The Power of Metaphor

The power of metaphor has been widely championed in recent years among theorists working in cultural studies (Hebdige 1993) and in my own discipline of geography (Cresswell 1997; Gurney 1999). Many of these authors have found that successful metaphor manipulation by media and political interests has wide-ranging effects on our perception of the world. Effective use of metaphor also figures heavily in recent research on student learning (Wilson et al. 1987; Wineburg 2001).

The most valuable component of having students think of a teacher as a coach is how they are forced to rethink their role in their performance. Sports is an arena still relatively unburdened by society’s pervasive culture of blame. In defeat, coaches often take the blame, but players rarely permit them, repeating sports clichés like “Coach put us in a position to make plays, but we didn’t make the plays and we lost.” After a win, the players repeat, “We needed to step up and make plays, and we did that this time.” Moreover, coaches are never blamed for the difficulty of the opposing team, and indeed players relish playing tough opponents. The sports attitude discourages the unexamined assignment of credit and blame often overheard in hallways after an exam.

The coach metaphor reconstitutes teaching and learning as a team effort, with the instructor as a hard-working advocate of student success. Thinking of themselves as academic athletes encourages students to take greater ownership of their performance. Acting as coach also permits a fairer assessment of the teacher's part in student success and failure.

Practical Applications of the Coach Metaphor

On the first day of each term, I make it explicit that I consider myself the “course coach” and that students had better get used to thinking of themselves as “players.” I also point out that the schedule of “opponents” that we will be facing during the term will be challenging. By putting myself on the sidelines with the students, the evaluation instruments (tests, quizzes, writing assignments, etc.) become the opposing team. I admit to manufacturing the opposition, but most will agree that a quality education requires challenge in much the same way as championship sports.

Once the metaphor is successfully implanted in the class psyche, many academic-term routines easily snap into place. For example, sporting metaphors make clear the value of regular attendance and conscientious preparation. While I don't ask students why they “missed practice,” I do label my assessment-oriented assignments “Practice Quiz Five” or “Practice Essay Two” to reinforce the metaphor.

Frequent Practice Assignments

Not only students benefit from this metaphor. I have become more aware of the value of regular feedback when I’m thinking like a coach. For example, I have increased the number of quizzes and short writing assignments. These assignments give students multiple low-risk practice opportunities before a test, chances to make and correct mistakes. Students experience less test anxiety because they’ve seen mini-versions throughout the term. These “scrimmages” also allow me to assess student progress and fix problems before they get too big. Assessment activities of this kind are manufactured, structured teachable moments that allow both student and instructor to focus on improvement rather than on evaluation. It is exactly the process used by coaches as they prepare teams for games.

Cumulatively, practice assignments are worth a small percentage of the students’ course grades, but those who develop good practice habits on these short assessments regularly score higher on exams and longer writing assignments. Students seem to accept that this process is similar to the way football teams “scout” upcoming opponents as they search for tendencies sure to be seen in upcoming games. The metaphor also permits me to justify why students cannot practice for “opponents” the class has already “played,” and I see fewer late assignments than I used to.

Twice, several weeks before the first midterm and again shortly after the midterm, I review the practice habits of a few anonymous students with the class. By first projecting my grade spreadsheet onto a screen and making predictions regarding the success of students based on their practice habits, I can later point out the strong correlation between practice habits and midterm scores.

A Winning Mindset

By the time “rivalry week” (finals week) arrives, most students are in a mindset conducive to success. Since I’ve been urging students to think of the term as geography season, performance on test questions from a standardized test bank has improved by 5 to 8%. I cannot say for certain that the coach metaphor is the operant variable in the improvement, but I can report a significant drop in post-term complaints. Fewer students blame me for poor grades, and seeing them take responsibility for their education is the best incentive for using this metaphor. To me it signals that in becoming self-educating, my students have taken the indispensable first step to lifelong learning.

The structural nature of the relationship between player and coach, so deeply encoded in our culture, permits and even encourages players to give in to the manipulative tactics and strategies of effective coaching. I try to work those structures into my courses. Many professors, some of whom openly disparage “dumb jocks,” may resist trading the hard-won cultural capital that comes with a Ph.D. for the mantle of “coach.” I don’t like it myself, but this role-playing game has produced enough positive results that I don’t mind occasionally being called “Dr. Coach,” especially if coaching prompts students to give the metaphorical 110 percent.


Gurney Craig, M. 1999. Lowering the drawbridge: A case study of analogy and metaphor in the social construction of home-ownership. Urban Studies 36 (10): 1705-22.

Cresswell, Tim. 1997. Weeds, plagues, and bodily secretions: A geographical interpretation of metaphors of displacement. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 87 (2): 330-45.

Hebdige, Dick. 1993. Training some thoughts on the future. In Mapping the futures: Local cultures, global change, ed. J. Bird et al. New York: Routledge.

Wilson, Suzanne M., Lee S. Schulman and Anna E. Richert. 1987. 150 different ways of knowing: Representations of knowledge in teaching. In Exploring teachers’ thinking, ed. J. Calderhead. Sussex: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Wineburg, Sam. 2001. Historical thinking and other unnatural acts. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Posted October 3, 2006.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2006 by Steven M. Graves.

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