"Coach, when are we ever going to play someone holding a tennis racket?"

This is the first in a short series of posts about Coach Morgan Wootten’s influence in the classroom for me. It includes thoughts on his coaching lessons but mainly contains reflections on my experience as a student in his classroom where he remains one of the best classroom teachers I ever had.

In a recent documentary about DeMatha’s longtime Hall of Fame basketball coach Morgan Wootten, Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski says that Morgan Wootten’s blueprint is all over basketball. Wootten was seen as an innovator in the X’s and O’s of basketball and on the people he coached. Looking back on my experiences in his classroom, I think his (along with a few others) blueprint is all over my classroom at DeMatha as well.

DeMatha vs. Power Memorial game preparation

A great coach must be a great teacher and one of Wootten’s signature moments in coaching shows this to be true.  In preparing for DeMatha’s second Power Memorial game back in the 60’s, Wootten had a player use a tennis racket in practice in order to help prepare for Lew Alcindor, a 7-foot player on the opposing team.  I am pretty certain not one of his players asked, “When are we ever going to play someone holding a tennis racket?”

Why not?

Because he had effective learning practices behind him. First, there was prior knowledge. The players knew who they were up against having played against Lew Alcindor the year before. Second, relevance. They saw how it connected to their lives. In this case, the upcoming game. Third, deliberate practice. They didn’t have anyone nearly that tall to prepare against, so this would be a good substitute and would be close enough to help them prepare.

Using these three effective learning strategies, prior knowledge, relevance, and deliberate practice, his players saw how what they were doing connected to the goal - winning the game - and pulled off one of the great victories in program history.

But his incorporation of learning techniques is not the only lesson to be learned from this example. He also showed another characteristic great teachers have - the willingness to learn/borrow from others. The idea for the tennis racket came from the Principal, John Moylan. I am pretty certain Wootten did not go to the school’s principal looking for ideas but when Moylan came to him, he considered it. We are lucky that we not only have great colleagues to learn from in our building but also have the power of social media, which allows us to do the same from teachers all over the world.

Admittedly, it is sometimes easier as a coach to make a connection between what you do in practice and the upcoming game and get player buy-in. Telling students, “Because it’s going to be on the test” doesn’t motivate most of them to engage like the players do for a game. But if we can show students some success on a topic by using effective teaching strategies like Wootten did, that becomes their relevance in and of itself.

Next up: How an informal conversation with another teacher showed us (his students) what it means to be a colleague and build relationships with students.

To read more about the DeMatha vs. Power Memorial games -> The Greatest Game Ever Played


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