By Katrina Schwartz

Driving kids home from practice, taking them to visit colleges, running and lifting weights with them out of season, answering the phone in the middle of the night when something has gone wrong — these are just a few of the many roles sports coaches take on for their players. The player/coach relationship can be special, as seen in the film Wrestle, it can be a chance for young people to connect with a mentor who knows them individually and pushes them through their struggles.

“It’s a different relationship,” said Stuart Kohn, a teacher and rugby coach at Inner City Education Foundation (ICEF), one of the first charter school networks in Los Angeles. “[Students are] willing to give more of themselves. So then you see the kids in a more vulnerable state. They open up more.”

Kohn played professional rugby internationally for 13 years before he started teaching English in South Central Los Angeles. As an educator, he wanted to share his passion for the sport with his students. He knew many of them wouldn’t be familiar with rugby, but in some ways that makes playing it all the more powerful because it’s just another new, scary thing they’re being asked to push through.

“To break that cycle they have to do something they never thought they would do,” Kohn said. He sees rugby as a novel challenge that doesn’t fit into the world students see around them. They probably don’t know many other rugby players, just like they may not know many people who have gone to college. When they start taking on seemingly impossible tasks it opens up their worlds, Kohn said. Kohn’s focus is on creating a second family for the kids he coaches. No one gets cut and everyone gets to play.

“It takes a lot of courage to do what they’re doing, like it takes a lot of courage to go away to college or interview for something you’re not sure you’re going to get,” Kohn said. While his rugby program is competitive, sending some players to play pro both in the U.S and internationally, Kohn’s focus is on creating a second family for the kids he coaches. No one gets cut and everyone gets to play.

According to the Aspen Institute’s State of Play report, more than half of kids between six and 12-years-old participated in at least one sport in 2017. And the percentage of inactive children has been decreasing over the past three years, now at 17 percent. While it’s a good thing that inactivity overall is down, the increased activity is largely among kids from more affluent families. Children whose families make less than $49,000 per year are playing fewer sports. This may be because of higher fees associated with youth sports.

That means that the poorest kids in the U.S. are getting the least access to sometimes life-changing relationships with mentors and teammates. And, as Linda Flanagan points out in her MindShift article “How Effective Sports Coaches Help Students Feel Understood at School,” sports involve a lot of emotion. And where there is emotion, indelible memories are formed:

“Unlike in the high school classroom, where learning is often abstract, students playing sports are carrying out physical activity in physical space, often in the company of others. The learning is direct and clear. And the interactions with teammates often elicit powerful emotional responses at a time when the adolescent brain is highly susceptible to social cues and hierarchies.”

Great coaches acknowledge this privileged position, and many are committed to using their power to help players build character. That’s why organizations like Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative (BAWSI) get young kids involved early. The elementary school girls they work with start in second grade and finish the program in fifth grade. Over the course of two 8-week sessions, they learn foundational athletic skills, get used to physical activity, and focus on healthy competition, goal setting, body awareness, teamwork, and leadership development.

“For our girls, this could be the first team they’ve ever been on,” said Courtney Good, athlete leadership director at BAWSI. “They don’t have the skills to just start playing a sport.” In some cases, these girls live in neighborhoods where it isn’t safe to play outside. Some believe their bodies aren’t made for sports or that girls shouldn’t be athletic. “Really what we’re trying to do is help them build up the confidence and ability to participate in sports,” Good said.

Good’s coaching strategy focuses on building girls’ confidence and helping them see the value sports can offer if they choose to keep competing. She’s heard from some of her players’ teachers that they’re participating in class more and are making fewer trips to the principal’s office. The program also gives them the chance to run around and work out the stress, anxiety, and negative feelings they might have about other areas of life.

“The team you create is like a family structure within the team,” ICEF’s Stuart Kohn said. “We treat each other with respect, we resolve disputes. Because there are disputes, always within a team or a family.” Kohn says part of his job is to model how to resolve conflicts, showing students a new way. And since rugby is played internationally, Kohn takes players who have demonstrated excellence in academics and leadership on trips to play peers in countries like New Zealand, China, Brazil, and Fiji. Students learn about other cultures and share their own, all with rugby at the center.

Many coaches are also classroom teachers, but they say the connections they forge with players is possible because it’s a smaller number of kids. And the students are opting in to playing a sport, not forced to sit in classes they dislike.“I think teachers make good coaches because they understand student development and behavioral development.”

“I’m not the teacher on stage,” said Mt Eden High School wrestling coach Todd Rose in Hayward, California. “I’m more myself and carefree. It’s something I grew up doing and I’m getting to share it with them.”

Rose says many schools are shuttering their wrestling programs because they can’t find qualified coaches. He himself coaches both the girls and boys wrestling teams and he has a few kids from nearby Hayward High School practice with them as well. 64.5% of students at Mt. Eden High are considered economically disadvantaged (as per the California Dept. of Education).

“Working with adolescents, I want them to learn discipline and sacrifice and responsibility for themselves and so you have to hold them accountable at times,” Rose said. “But then you can lighten up at other times as well to really get the best out of them.”

He likes that on the mat or in the weight room he gets to see a different side of kids. He can relate to them in a more human way, not as the authority figure at the head of the classroom. And because he typically only has 15-20 wrestlers at a time he knows them well.

“I think teachers make good coaches because they understand student development and behavioral development,” Rose said. A ninth-grader is a different person by the time they’re in twelfth grade. He gets to see and shepherd that growth, which is a rewarding feeling. 

Goals setting is a big part of sports and is often more tangible in the physical sphere of sports than on more abstract academic skills. In a relatively short period of time, students can see themselves improving. They go from barely being able to run a mile, to competing in half marathons. That’s what Jeremy Spry finds so fun about coaching running.

“I love Students Run Philly Style because it’s a team,” Spry said. “I wasn’t someone who came from a history of running. It was that I liked being a part of a team and I want to help build a team for kids who may not feel like they are athletic.”

The program he coaches for, Students Run Philly Style, works with students at schools all over Philadelphia as they learn to run and gradually build up to competing in longer and longer races, even marathons. Spry says running is an equalizer; it’s hard for everyone. But students also see themselves being able to run further and further. They learn to chunk their goals and tackle them systematically.

“It has made me such a better educator,  to run next to a kid and say: yes, I’m in pain too, just like you’re in pain. And share that human moment,” Spry said. He works at Science Leadership Academy, a public high school. Over many hours, Spry spends running with his students he gets to know their life stories deeply. That makes him more empathetic to other students he doesn’t know as well.

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on-air and online for KQED since 2010. Katrina is the Online Editor of KQED’s MindShift, a blog about how to improve teaching and learning. She also co-hosts the MindShift podcast.