Coaching is as much about engaging kids as it is about the sport itself.
| 5 min read
Most kindergarten teachers don’t have a DJ booth in their classroom. But most teachers aren’t Eric Hale — the 2021 Texas Teacher of the Year (the first Black man to ever earn the award) and last year’s National Urban School Teacher of the Year.
Hale’s seemingly unconventional methods are one thing. It’s his unique ability to connect with, motivate and lift up his kindergarten and 1st grade students at Dallas’s David G. Burnet Elementary School — where 98 percent of the student population lives below the national poverty line — that has earned him such acclaim.
Hale is warm and generous when you speak to him, and his enthusiastic tone projects energy, confidence and heart.
In other words, he has a lot of wisdom to offer coaches — especially those working with the youngest athletes.
1. Be authentic.
Throw out your preconceived notion of what a coach should be – especially if that notion makes you think you have to have all the answers. Be you, says Hale.
“The main thing is children can read somebody right off the bat,” he says. “You have to be authentic with them. If you don’t know something, you admit you don’t know – tell them, ‘Hey I don’t know right now, but by tomorrow, I will know.’”
Being authentic establishes trust. And being real is essential because “there can be no expectation without relation,” Hale says.
2. Get on their level.
When you’re working with little kids, according to Hale, it’s essential you get their input.
“Making sure they get a say on all the little things that go into your team makes them feel invested,” Hale says. “Relax a little bit, give them some freedom of choice, give them a vote. At the end of the day, I don’t care if you want a pink and green uniform or for the team to be named after a cartoon if it makes you feel like it’s your team and you put in effort.”
3. Tune in.
This plays — pun intended — into the above: Hale has a DJ booth in his classroom and he’s not just spinning tracks that he enjoys.
“I use [my DJ booth] to manipulate sound to change the energy in my classroom,” he says. But it’s about more than just energy. “I find out what the kids like, what are they listening to,” he adds. “You have to put your mind on the kids you serve.”
Hale’s tip is about more than just music. He gets to know all his students’ latest obsessions: TikTok dances, Fortnite strategies and the like. Kids are more likely to respond to your leadership if you take some cues from them, too.
4. Make them sad that practice is over.
You don’t actually want your team in tears when their parents pick them up. But if they can’t wait to come back? That’s a good thing.
“My kids know I create a fun, safe, engaging environment,” Hale says. “Thirty percent of the battle is having kids want to be there. I make it so there’s no place they want to be more.”
5. Brevity is the soul of coaching success.
“Anything they need to know, I tell them in three steps, and make it about foundation first,” Hale says.
6. Don’t build authority, build a culture.
Hale doesn’t dole out punishments in his classroom. And for those moments when kids are acting out in a way that does require discipline, Hale makes it about expectations. “You’re all in it together,” he says. “So it’s, You know how we roll. These are the expectations, and you owe me 15 minutes of recess time. It’s not punitive, it’s just what we do.”
In other words, you’ll get a lot farther with a team of kids who are not collectively afraid of you — and with players who know what’s expected of them.
7. See the person, not the label.
Before schools shut down in 2020, Hale’s school took part in the Ron Clark Academy’s Amazing Shake Challenge, basically a mini debate competition.
Did Hale recruit only kids who were academically at the top of their classes? No way. He plucked a kid who was known as a troublemaker because, as Hale says, “He had IT.” That student went on to win the top prize in the district.
The lesson? Don’t assume a quiet kid won’t be assertive on the field or that the team clown won’t be focused when tending goal. Work hard to get to know your players, through practices and games, so you aren’t coaching based on first impressions.
8. Create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“I like to tell the kids in my class, ‘We believe we’re the best, work the hardest to be the best, therefore we become the best,’” Hale says.
It’s a prophecy rooted in Hale’s own life. As he explains in his March 2020 TED Talk, which details his path from a traumatic childhood to acclaimed teacher, Hale’s whole life was transformed by one 7th grade social studies teacher who saw past his problems and helped Hale recognize his own potential.
“Every child I come in contact with is going to be the best, because somebody believed in me and said I was going to be the best,” Hale says in the TED Talk. “It’s my moral obligation to give it back to them — tenfold.”