Ah, March Madness! It’s a fun extended family tradition in our house, connecting siblings and cousins across generations and across the US as we share our best guesses (and a lot of random selections) in our personal brackets. All for bragging rights, and maybe some free ice cream.
We got our boys in on the action this year, with our ten year-old checking out the ranking system (coupled with some of his personal team loyalties), our eight year-old comparing team colors, our five year-old showing we may need to brush up on our Geographic awareness as he selected “Virgeorgia” as one of his teams, and our two year-old showing a clear penchant for the underdog, selecting a #10 team to take it all home. (I guess that’s what happens when you fill out the bracket with a series of “this or that” questions.)
Filling out the brackets as a family made for some questionable life lessons, such as my husband’s comment that, “You don’t have to make a good choice, you just have to make a choice.” But one of the lessons March Madness always brings to my mind is the importance of a good coach and what time outs should really look like.
Trust me. It really does have something to do with child development. (Incidentally, this basketball analogy may be the post most frequently referred from wives to husbands. Go figure.)
(Adapted from the archives.)
I know it’s unbecoming to be a braggart, but there is one thing, about which I must boast. I won the March Madness bracket competition in my husband’s family this year. Now, I’m no bracketologist. I tend to make my picks based on which state the team is from, or who has the cooler sounding name, and I like to pick the underdog as much as reason will allow. I missed a lot of picks in my bracket, but the one pick that put me over was when I chose Duke. That pick I made based on the fact that I knew who their coach was.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski (that’s not a spelling error) or Coach K as he’s referred to (for obvious reasons) is one remarkable man. He’s the “winningest” active coach in the NCAA. He’s coached Duke to 4 national championships and multiple final fours. The team has become a fixture in the tournament. He also coached a struggling United States basketball team to gold in 2008. I knew Coach K was a transformative coach.
Great coaches can make all the difference. We as parents and teachers act as coaches ourselves as we help children prepare for, and navigate, the social world. And as coaches, there are a few lessons we can learn from some of history’s best.
Practice Makes Perfect Permanent
Coaches don’t just show up at game time. They must prepare their players. They run their athletes through hours of drills and training so that the skills they need in those critical minutes of play will be a natural response.
Likewise, we as parents and teachers can help children practice social skills so that they can become habit. Practice might come in the form of role-playing, practicing scripts for challenging situations, even talking about the social conflicts in storybooks and movies or playing games. We can prepare children for situations before they arise by clearly explaining expectations. (“We’re going to go to the library. In the library you need to use a soft voice, and make sure your feet are walking.“)
Whether it’s a sport or social skills, a big part of coaching takes place before the critical moments. All great coaches know that preparation leads to success.
A great coach could hope to do such a wonderful job preparing his players that he could just sit back and enjoy the game. However, coaches know that the actual game often presents challenges that are different from those they had prepared for, or that the players may get caught up in the intensity and forget their basic skills. They need their coach for support and guidance — not because they’re bad players, but because they’re all part of the same team.
Sometimes players need reminders from the sideline. Sometimes, the team gets so off-course, the coach has to pause the game, and have a serious discussion. So he calls a time-out.
Parents and teachers coach in much the same way. Sometimes we simply give reminders from the sideline (“Remember to ask politely if you can have a turn when he’s done.“). Sometimes we have to “call time-out” and have a more serious discussion.
Imagine a coach like Coach K calling a time-out and saying, “You guys aren’t playing very well.” Then he just sits all his players down on the bench while he leaves to make a phone call or clean up some spilled popcorn a few rows up.
Then, when the 30 seconds allotted for that time-out have expired, he walks back to the team and says, “OK, you can go back out now. I want you to play better, OK?” Any spectator would say, “He’s not doing his job!”
Too often, the traditional time-out looks much like the ridiculous scenario I just described. We sit a child in “Time-Out” and somehow expect that the child’s behavior will change when she returns to play. Without coaching, the child is returning to play with the exact same set of skills she had when she went into time-out.
When Coach K calls a time-out, he gives his players a chance to catch their breath and refocus. He gives clear and concise directions and expectations. Then he sends his players back out with a plan.
When we call for a coaching time-out with children, we do much the same. We first give them a chance to step out of a charged situation, calm down, and refocus. Then we need to teach.
We have to be specific and clear as we socially coach children. If we don’t say what we need to see, children will have a difficult time making that conceptual leap on their own. In general, I encourage people to verbalize the thought process they would hope the child would follow. It sounds like a long process, and you will often feel like you are stating the obvious. But obvious to an adult is not always obvious to a child. Just like running basic drills, this coaching helps that internal process to become natural.
The skeleton of the social coaching process might look like this:
Help the child to find calm. For some children this simply means physically stepping away from the situation. Some respond to physical touch — an arm gently around the shoulder, holding a child on your lap — and some benefit from being coached through deep breathing or relaxation techniques. Brains are more likely to learn when they’re calm rather than stressed, so getting calm and getting connected are always the first step.
Describe what happened, and label feelings involved. “Karen, I noticed you’re throwing that playdough. I know you’re excited, but we can’t throw the playdough.”
Ask/Describe what would be a better choice. “When we throw the playdough, it gets smashed into the carpet and ruins the floor and the playdough. Where do you think we should play with the playdough? Yeah, the table is the best place to play with the playdough.”
If necessary, help the child make amends. “Ok Karen, let’s get this playdough picked up and back onto the table where it belongs.”
Remind again about that better choice. “Remember to keep the playdough on the table this time.”
Return the child to play. Believe she can succeed. Be there to support.
Basketball coaches are given more than one time-out per game. Similarly, when a child stumbles again socially you might need to call another time-out again and repeat the process. Very young children usually need multiple learning opportunities to create independent skills. However, just as a coach will eventually make adjustments to help his team run more smoothly, if problems continue you may need to redirect. (“Karen, we’ve talked twice about keeping the playdough on the table and you are still choosing to throw it. It looks like you’re going to need to find another area to play for a while. Let’s go build something with the blocks.”)
Coach K says, “Discipline is doing what you are supposed to do in the best possible manner at the time you are supposed to do it.” With time, coaching, and practice, we can hope to be transformative coaches as well, and instill that same discipline in the children that we love and teach.
(*Incidentally, I didn’t make Duke my final pick this year. I spent about 2 minutes filling out my bracket and ended up going with Gonzaga. Maybe the Washington air is getting to me.)
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