Coach class

There's a wonderful scene in the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire. It's where English sprinter Harold Abrahams (who believed he was the best in the UK) has been unexpectedly and soundly defeated by former Scottish international rugby player Eric Liddell in the 400 m.

After the race, Abrahams is sat despondently in the deserted stands, holding his head in his hands. Suddenly, a voice from below interrupts his misery. Down on the track, gazing up at him is the famous athletics coach Sam Massabini. He says: 'Mr Abrahams, I know why you lost, and I can give you another 10 yards!' He goes on to explain to Abrahams that he lost the race because he was overstriding. It took an expert coach to observe this flaw in technique and point it out to the sprinter. Harold Abrahams improved his technique and went on to win gold in the 100 m at the Paris Olympic Games.

At the gym this morning I noticed several young people who have the potential to be great athletes - even world class - if they can get their techniques correct. They are at a very high level of fitness and stamina, but what are their throwing, running, jumping, or catching techniques like? One of the most important things that separates world class athletes from the rest is technique.

When I'm reading my students' work I often see technique errors. All of my undergraduates are there on their own merits. They have passed interviews and taken exams that indicate they have the potential to be great scholars. And yet quite a few fail to reach their potential as students of their subjects because they cannot apply their knowledge directly to the assessment. Some errors are trivial, such as spelling, punctuation and grammar mistakes. Others are more serious, such as not supporting statements, or making inaccurate claims. Other common errors are inconsistency, repetition, changing verb tenses, bad referencing, or simply failing to answer the question. Even exceeding the word count and running out of space can be addressed with some small lessons on how to reduce words whilst maintaining the meaning of a sentence.

All teachers have the potential to be great coaches. You need to know two things: Firstly, what does the assessment require? Secondly, what are the most effective ways to respond to the assessment task? My students often get hung up on the trivial aspects of their assignments, when in fact what they really need to do is convince their reader that they know what they are writing about and can articulate themselves confidently and critically. Sometimes all it takes is a little encouragement, of five minutes spent talking about how they can improve their techniques.

So, next time, when you see your students struggling with their grades, step in and show them how to gain that extra 10 yards!

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Creative Commons License
Coach class by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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