Thoughts on Gawande and Personal Coaches: Coach, Teacher, or Babysitter? (from orgtheory.net)

If you missed Atul Gawande’s recent New Yorker piece on personal coaching, you should check it out (“Personal Best”). I think writers/academics have understood some of these ideas for some time (even tenured profs get regular feedback on their work from colleagues and in seminars, for example), but he presents a lot of interesting insights drawing on a range of examples including teacher training, Olympic-level and professional athletes, professional musicians, and physicians.

Gawande discusses a book that I have long-admired—Barbara Sand’s Teaching Geniusabout legendary Juilliard strings teacher Dorothy DeLay (who knew a thing or two about Tiger Moms long before Amy Chua ever came along).  DeLay made a living teaching young children and adolescents how to play the violin—but was she a teacher or a coach?  This question has interested me ever since I started studying children’s competitive afterschool activities. During fieldwork I witnessed a lot of role confusion between parents and the adults they pay to instruct their children in a range of activities during the afterschool hours. Are people like DeLay teachers, coaches, or babysitters?

CLICK HERE TO KEEP READING– ESPECIALLY FOR MY THOUGHTS ON THE RELATED GYMNASTICS COACHING SCANDAL– ON ORGTHEORY, OR KEEP READING BELOW!

As Gawande writes, the idea of coaching, especially in sports, is a “distinctly American development.” If you know anything about organized leisure activities and the competitive impulse in our society, this shouldn’t surprise you.  As the number of opportunities for athletic coaching has increased, so too has professionalization. But it often has not gone far enough, especially when it comes to children.

Most teachers and coaches (of children) I met think of themselves as educators. But in almost all cases they are not formally credentialed or certified as such because such programs simply don’t exist. Parents often think of these teachers/coaches as educators… when it’s convenient for them. If not, it’s easy to slip into a “babysitter” mindset, where a parent is paying someone to care for their child—hence they “work for them.”

Gawande recognizes that the coach role is tricky, explaining that: “The concept of coach is slippery. Coaches are not teachers, but they teach. They’re not your boss—in professional tennis, golf, and skating, the athlete hires and fires the coach—but they can be bossy. They don’t even have to be good at the sport. The famous Olympic gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi couldn’t do a split if his life depended on it.”

His choice of Bela Karolyi to illustrate his point is a very timely one.  First of all, the World Championships in gymnastics start this week in Tokyo.  But, more importantly, the USAG (the governing body for gymnastics in the US) is in the midst of a coaching scandal.  Several high profile male coaches (many of whom, like Karolyi, could not do a split if their life depended on it) have been accused of sexual abuse.  The Orange County Register has written extensively on this scandal and you can read some of their coverage here and here.

The most disturbing part of the story is that while one of the male coaches has been “banned” from coaching by USAG, he is still coaching young, female gymnasts. How? Well you don’t have to be certified by the USAG to open a gym. Any of you could decide to go open a gym next week in your hometown.  There is no law or governing body to prevent you from doing so.  Sure, it may be harder to get insurance (and I believe that insurance companies are the unsung heroes in protecting kids and families from predatory afterschool activities coaches/teachers), but you could still do it.

Similarly, you could open a dance studio, start a music school, or call yourself a chess coach.  And you could charge a lot for your services and parents would come.  In addition, you could hire anyone you wanted to—even if they have been convicted of sexual abuse of minors.

Despite such serious concerns when it comes to coaching young kids, many resist introducing regulations.  They say that the government should stay out (which is why, I argue insurance companies have stepped in), or they worry that imposing a credentialing process will increase fees. The latter is likely true. But we don’t send our kids to unaccredited schools (or most of us don’t). Why send your child to an unaccredited teacher/coach who can charge any price he or she desires? As coaching opportunities continue to increase I think this will become more of an issue, particularly when it comes to children.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for reading! And for interesting/thoughtful comments: http://mogadalai.wordpress.com/2011/10/04/teach-or-coach/

  2. My guess is that formal accreditation will add paperwork and costs but do little to improve things. Informal means of evaluating people work better, but no method is perfect so there will always be sensational news stories and well-intentioned people going from: “we have to do something,” to “let’s do this,” far too quickly.

    Michael Bishop

    October 3, 2011 at 11:31 pm Edit

    […] Hilary at Orgtheory has a post — discussing some thoughts on Gawande’s latest piece on teaching versus coaching, which is the must-read post of the day: Gawande discusses a book that I have long-admired—Barbara Sand’s Teaching Genius—about legendary Juilliard strings teacher Dorothy DeLay (who knew a thing or two about Tiger Moms long before Amy Chua ever came along). DeLay made a living teaching young children and adolescents how to play the violin—but was she a teacher or a coach? This question has interested me ever since I started studying children’s competitive afterschool activities. During fieldwork I witnessed a lot of role confusion between parents and the adults they pay to instruct their children in a range of activities during the afterschool hours. Are people like DeLay teachers, coaches, or babysitters? […]

    Teach or coach? « Entertaining Research

    October 4, 2011 at 6:26 am Edit

    It is hard to take this seriously. On my PC, the homepage is CNN.com and on my Mac, the homepage is Reuters.com. That way, I do not lose track of the wider world. I know that Amanda Knox’s conviction has been overturned and I am happy for her. I also see headlines far less interesting about singers and television people and sports figures. This coaching of children for the Olympics and Little League is like poker tournaments in Las Vegas: people take them seriously and a lot of money is at stake; but they are not really important.

    I routinely listen to a classical radio station. I recently heard a violinist gushing about a Schubert work, what a genius Schubert was and all. And he was. But how many recordings of his works do we need? Is playing the fiddle so important that you must dedicate not just your own life to it – fair enough, if you wish – but your child’s? I can see learning to compose music. That is the creation of new things. But “coaching” child fiddlers is one step removed from being the Mom on the Babies in Tiaras Show.

    Michael E, Marotta

    October 4, 2011 at 5:48 pm Edit

    I’m a longtime reader, but very infrequent commenter. However, I feel the urge to address one of the comments here. I think there’s a large error in claiming that these issues are not really important, and that they are hard to take seriously. I know plenty of people who take the sexual abuse of children seriously and find these issues to be “important.” Insofar as coaches apparently do not need credentials, a discussion of regulation is probably imminent (as the author of the post suggests). Maybe these issues aren’t high on the priority list of people who are interested in other things (like coin collecting or poetry in Michael’s case), but I think that many people appreciate thinking about these topics. I know that I appreciate Dr. Friedman’s posts, and I’m sure that many others do as well.

    coqui

    October 5, 2011 at 11:36 am Edit

    I really liked the article myself, and sent a copy to our newly-opened Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning. We faculty ought to be just the audience for this discussion, given our lack of training in teaching, the fact that we rarely see each others’ work product, and our reluctance to open ourselves up to this kind of help.

    Mikaila

    October 6, 2011 at 12:20 am Edit

    For those of you interested in the gymnastics story, the coach who had been banned for sexual abuse has now been fired, and there is talk of ways to prevent such situations in the future. It’s a good first step, caused mainly by the backlash from The OC Register’s stories. For more, you can read here: http://articles.ocregister.com/2011-10-04/news/30248138_1_usag-usa-gymnastics-coaching-young-athletes

    hilaryleveyfriedman

    October 8, 2011 at 7:47 pm Edit

Trackbacks

  1. […] I first wrote about this story in early October, long before the Sandusky news broke.  But beyond the excellent work of The Orange County Register, which continues to follow developments in the case (for instance, in the past week they reported that a convicted sex offender has regained control of a Colorado gym where he is still around young girls), other major print outlets have virtually ignored this case of abuse.  Sure, it warranted a sentences in the Times’ coverage on Saturday. But that is not even close to commensurate to the coverage of male abuse victims. […]

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