Thoughts on Gawande and Personal Coaches: Coach, Teacher, or Babysitter? (from

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?


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.